Fancy Pigeon Portraits
“Pigeons are rats with wings” is a common sentiment in the US but they are an art form for the pigeon fanciers of Cairo. There are a variety of fancy pigeon breeders in Cairo. I talked my way up to one of the ubiquitous wood slat roosts that are visible across the city and have learned that their obsession reaches across the region, lasts for generations, and has created some amazing birds. I see the narrative of the story following these eccentric hobbyists that pour hours each day into feeding, breeding, raising, and loving these amazing birds.
These photos are from Egypt but I often hear about the hobby across the Middle East. Historically each country or region would have its local pigeon breed and most enthusiasts would focus on improving their birds against their local neighbor’s birds.
In the pre-internet age the elders of the community would pass their knowledge and finest specimens directly on to their younger neighbors, pigeon markets were the place to browse and socialize, but in the last 10 years, major shifts have come with the internet.
Pigeons are now traded across borders and competitions are now international. One enthusiast described how he bought a couple of pigeons in Jordan and had them smuggled under the seat of a long-haul truck into Egypt. Another enthusiast entered a competition in Saudi Arabia by first flying to Riyadh, finding the perfect specimen there, and entering it into the Saudi competition.
Pigeon fancier knowledge is shared on internet forums, images of their finest birds are posted on facebook. The birds are no longer geographically restricted as the finest specimens of Birmingham Rollers, Baghdadis, Turkish Tumblers, Iranian High Flyers, and Egyptian Swifts can be found in Australia, US, Europe, Saudi, and Kuwait.
The ability to talk about pigeons is the ability to make an immediate relationship in the working class neighborhoods of Cairo. Many times when I want to photograph from a high vantage point or simply talk with a local person in private I’ll point at a pigeon coop and ask who the owner is. It is the key that has opened many doors.
When I had an assignment to photograph el-Seed’s multi-building mural in Manshayet Naser for the New York Times I first photographed from the monastery on the side of the mountain. But I found the best view to be from a pigeon coop hanging out with a few young men.