Desert living inspires photographer

By Joanne Cunningham

A photo exhibition about flowers is the result of a life-changing experience for Joanne Cunningham.

As a New Zealander Joanne Cunningham had a unique perspective of Cairo through her lens. Photo / Joanne Cunningham
As a New Zealander Joanne Cunningham had a unique perspective of Cairo through her lens. Photo / Joanne Cunningham

I knew a cactus when I fell over it, that beautiful roses had ugly thorns, and that sunflowers felt compelled to track the sun, but anything more advanced than a rudimentary knowledge of plants was a mystery to me. Lilies were lilies. Who cared if they had fancy names? Not I. All I knew was that they should look good at all times and when they didn't, they curled up and died.

I love plants and gardens but I was more into exploring the prehistoric and pharaonic sites in Egypt.

I lived in Cairo for 12 years. Eight years ago I moved into a small pink terracotta villa across the road from the great pyramids of Giza.

In the garden there were pomegranate and fig trees, and beneath, according to a report from the Ministry of Antiquities, there was a 4000 to 5000-year-old temple. If I dug deep enough, I would most probably find ancient artefacts, priceless treasures and mummies wearing golden jewellery. If I became an antiquities smuggler, I could live well. But instead I let the garden grow as best it could and took up photography instead.

It was not plants that interested me, however, it was people. It was the nomadic Bedouin, farmers from far away oases, street children, an old woman sitting in a doorway or walking down the street with a tray of geese balanced on her head ... Flowers? To give them credit they were pretty, but so was the sunset.

The pitiful plants in my garden were constantly coated with fine layer of sand. When a sand storm arrived, it was often brutal and the devastation could be compared to scouring your favourite shrubs with sandpaper. The plants were tossed about, whipped and ravaged.

To keep the garden looking good, the best solution was to buy fresh plants at the end of the sandstorm season and then more every few months to create and maintain the illusion of a lush and well-cared-for garden. Donkey-drawn carts would frequently pass by laden with plants for sale while small nurseries dotted the banks of nearby canals.

It rarely rained in Cairo. Once or twice a year at the most, as the petrified forests near the city testify. As there is more to Egyptian gardens than the occasional cactus, date palm or acacia tree, watering and constant care is a must. That's partly why people employ gardeners if they can. Some create roof gardens where sunflowers and hollyhocks bloom. These gardens are slices of paradise in amongst a sprawling city of millions.

Princes and khedives, the British and French, built palaces and grand villas and all had a passion and a flair for creating exquisitely landscaped gardens. By the 1920s Cairo was well on its way to becoming a glamorous and sophisticated city. Some of these gardens with their spectacular trees still remain. Others are not so fortunate. The Fish Garden was built in Cairo in 1867 on 3.8ha of private land. Grottos and lakes were filled with ducks and geese, and aquariums teemed with rare fish. Today it's neglected and forlorn.

What did surprise me about Cairo were the weather-beaten, moustached men wearing long traditional robes selling scents and essential oils. These men can differentiate between hundreds of scents, and mix Poison, Chanel No. 5, or Estee Lauder matches in minutes using Secret of the Desert, Queen Nefertiti, King Ramses or myriad other oils. Various types of flowers and plants, amounting to well over 600 tonnes per year, are exported, particularly to Europe.

There is an ancient and magnificent banyan tree in the city. Its thick canopy of leaves and many aerial roots that descend from the branches and develop into additional trunks is a welcome sight when the temperatures soar into the 40s. It is outside the Anglo-American Hospital where I was told I had breast cancer. On that same memorable day, I decided to return home to Auckland for treatment. It was May 26, 2009. I didn't know what I could or would photograph in New Zealand but surely there was something as fascinating as the 5000-year-old history and diverse and culturally interesting people that Egypt had to offer.

Over the following months, surgery was followed by chemotherapy and continuous rounds of tests and doctors' appointments. When I felt well enough, I went for walks and took my camera with me as I had always done. It was during these walks, with a renewed sense of how precious life is, and a determination to make each moment count, that I began to notice the beauty of New Zealand nature more ever before. I noticed the many shades of green, the intricate details of flowers and the texture of leaves. Sunlight on a petal. Dew drops on a leaf. A solitary iris growing on the side of a road. Colours seemed more vivid. Scents seemed stronger. Maybe it was the pure New Zealand air. So I set about photographing nature in all seasons. Capturing the essence of the world in bloom was a nice antidote to illness and probably a reaction to living in Cairo.

The more I visited hospitals in an endless battle to control the cancer, the more I craved to be in among nature, photographing its living beauty.

I photograph flowers, plants and trees. Sometimes I lie on the grass and twist my body and the camera to get the angle just right. I squint into the sun while photographing a hillside of buttercups or a single rose, sometimes squinting until I am blinded, simply to capture the sun filtering through a silken petal, rich in colour, exquisite in detail, and sensual in form.

None of this is as challenging as crawling into a pyramid shaft, holding my long hair back in a pony tail in case bats get caught up in my hair, but I have come to realise there is joy in photographing flowers. Even when the wind blows and they bob about, the effects captured can be lovely.

I lean over fences and hedges into people's properties when I see a gorgeous flower growing in a stranger's garden. I visit garden centres to ask if I can take photos. I am becoming far more aware of when flowers bloom, more aware of their sensitivity to the change of seasons. In Egypt, there were only three seasons - summer, winter and the sandstorm season.

I now understand how it is possible for people to have entire conversations about plants - but how people remember all those names will always remain a mystery. I delight in listening to someone talk passionately about gardening as I recently experienced at the Winter Garden.

I am still being treated for cancer. Maybe things will look up. But no matter what happens I will continue to take photos for as long as I can - blending intense observation of form and colour to capture fragility and beauty.

* Joanne Cunningham's Colours of Eden photographic exhibition takes place on February 19-20, 9am-4pm, Eden Gardens, 24 Omana Ave, Epsom. Adults $8, senior citizens and students $6, children under 12 free. Phone: (09) 638 8395.

- NZ Herald

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