Fancy Pigeon Portraits
“Pigeons are rats with wings” is a common sentiment in the US but, to the pigeon fanciers of Cairo, they are an art form. I visited many of the ubiquitous wood slatted roosts that are visible across the city and learned that their obsession reaches across the region, lasts for generations–and has created some amazing birds.
These pigeon portraits 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.
Traditionally, the elders of the community would pass their knowledge and finest specimens directly on to their younger neighbors, and pigeon markets were the place to browse and socialize. With the spread of the internet, pigeon practices–and culture–are changing.
Pigeons are now traded across borders and competitions are 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 in the Saudi competition.
Pigeon fancier knowledge is shared on internet forums, and images of the 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.