Tamer El Anna has spent half his life underwater. After 26 years documenting the Red Sea, winning the coveted Palm d’Or at the Antibes Underwater Film Festival, making Sharm El Sheikh one of the world’s top hot spots…now his stunning book of photos, Sinai From the Heart, graces coffee tables around the world. What more could he want? (Besides gills.) Enigma’s Yashreeka Huq speaks to the underwater dreamer…
What took you to Sharm El Sheikh in the first place?
When I was 26, my parents felt I was a little too wild, so they sent me to a military academy. I stayed in the military for six years until 1982 when I was assigned to Sharm El Sheikh (which was only a harbour back then), to handle its relinquishment from Israel. I fell in love and immediately resigned from the military. I bought a van and moved to Sharm. It was incredible. My mother was pretty shocked. One day she saw me dressed in my military uniform driving round in a jeep and the next day I was wearing a swimsuit living in a van! Because I had no children and no responsibilities, I could live this hand-to-mouth sort of life. I used to live in a swimsuit from summer to winter!
You’ve been credited with establishing Sharm El Sheikh as one of the world’s best diving spots. How did you achieve that?
When I first settled in Sharm, there were only about 20 of us who actually lived there, in addition to the Bedouin populations. Living there was wild and rough. I lived in my van for nine years, and my wife, Susi, even lived with me there for that last year. When she became pregnant, we figured it was time to live responsibly. At the time Sharm was a place that only backpackers interested in diving passed through. So we found a government flat and I had a car that didn’t have brakes! I’d say I was a pioneer in building Sharm El Sheikh up because I took beautiful pictures; the only pictures actually available at the time to show the world how incredible Sharm is. More and more divers then came to Sharm to seek out that beauty and soon tourists followed.
How did you become interested in underwater photography?
At first it was only a hobby. I borrowed a camera from Alain Sabbour, a friend of mine, and I was hooked. I started putting together slide shows and printing my photos to sell. In the morning, I would dive and take photos. Then at night, I would sell those same pictures. In 1991 I opened a photo centre for underwater photography at the Red Sea Diving College in Sharm. By that time I was a master photographer and taught photography courses, rented cameras and began filming underwater.
As an amateur documentary filmmaker, how did you manage to make one of the world’s best underwater films?
As I became more experienced in filmmaking, I began putting together short films in my spare time. Then in 1997 I was introduced to Pierre Couton, the Chairman of the Antibes Underwater Film Festival in France. He was told I was the best person making underwater films in Sharm. So he gave me his business card and said he wanted to see one of my films, but I didn’t take it seriously. He called a few weeks later, and I thought, why not? I might as well send Blue Heaven, the first film I’d ever made. A few weeks after that, I received a letter that told me I’d won the prize for best film at the festival, the Golden Fin Award. Blue Heaven was simply an artistic project where I used nothing but the images of the desert and underwater life. But the other filmmakers at the festival chalked it up to beginner’s luck because there was no way I could have the experience to film, edit and direct the entire film. But I’m a very stubborn man, so I was determined to win the Golden Fin again. So I entered my next film Colours of Sinai, and managed to win an even greater award, the Palm D’Or out of 720 films from 62 countries. Those victories really pushed me to the top of my field; making my filming and photography very popular and the premier source of footage in Sharm.
How do you manage to get those amazing shots of living creatures without scaring them away?
The only way to take a proper shot is to be extremely confident and fast; ready to shoot at any moment. The fish must trust that you won’t harm them in any way, as if you’re just another fish. Otherwise, they won’t pose for you and that is what makes an underwater shot stand out. Also, your lungs are your tripod. A few breaths lift you up; then a few breaths push you downwards. I studied a lot to understand composition and light well enough to take good pictures. I actually continued to study even after I became well known. But I’m still old-fashioned and for me photography is photography and computer graphics are computer graphics. I’ve never altered any of my pictures with a computer. But I do think I need to learn the new technology soon because that is the direction photography has taken.
Have you had any dangerously close encounters underwater?
I was filming two years ago in Sudan and taking close shots in a bay renowned for shark feeding. One shark bit my camera and I lost the arm of my camera, but luckily I was fine. Other than that, I’ve had some nasty experiences with fire coral. Overall this job is incredibly safe, although my mother still worries. But diving for me is like going to the office, I’m more comfortable underwater than on land. I know how fish think. I really don’t know how humans think. I also love my bubble. My bubble is a bit bigger than what other people need; I need to be alone for long periods of time and diving lets me do that.
What has been your greatest challenge?
When you’re in Europe or America, and someone discovers your talent, you’ll find sponsors telling you, “You take the camera and I’ll do the rest.” In Egypt however I had to do the marketing, finance my cameras; everything. If you wait for it here, it will never happen. But it is very difficult for an artist to also be a businessman and I’ve lost many jobs because I couldn’t manage myself properly. Because of the lack of resources here, I’ve started to offer free courses to Egyptians, teaching them how to dive and take underwater photos. During the 90s, I had taught 70% of Sharm El Sheikh’s divers. It’s important to give back. If you need anything regarding film or photography of the Sinai, I’m the person to talk to and because of my reputation I now have good connections with sponsors. I’ve had many photographers dive with me just to watch me take photos, to see the technique. It’s a fascinating process.
Tell us about the inspiration behind your photography book ‘Sinai from the Heart’?
I have this wonderful friend, Ahmed El Gibaly, a high profile businessman, and he really supported me during the whole process of making this book. Most of my photos have been illegally used for postcards and other commercial ventures. So I wanted to do this book for the principle of showing my work correctly, not for the money. For years I never sold a single photo and just kept them all. I’ve won the world’s first prize twice for underwater photography and I’ve even judged the competition, so I didn’t want to tarnish my reputation in a market that wasn’t great. But when Ahmed came to me with the idea for the book and guaranteed it would be of high enough quality to compete with Dubai and Europe, I agreed. And thankfully, it really is top quality. Sinai from the Heart is the biggest and best book about Sinai. Since the Jewish, Christian and Muslim religions all have roots in Sinai, I felt it should be documented; for both its beautiful desert and fascinating underwater world.
‘Sinai from the Heart’ is available at Virgin MegaStore and Diwan bookstores across Egypt, Hallmark stores across the Middle East and Europe, and at most hotels in Sharm El Sheikh. For more information, visit www.sinaifromtheheart.com