Hello beautiful people.
My name is Yosra El-Essawy. I am an artist and photographer, nomadic NY:LON (Londoner living in New York), recovering perfectionist with incurable photo OCD and Beyoncé’s official world tour photographer turned slug slayer. In June 2013 whilst on Beyoncé’s ‘The Mrs Carter Show World Tour’ just shy of my 32nd birthday, I was diagnosed with stage 4, inoperable oeseophageal cancer.
Welcome to my blog.
In the beginning…
Before I was born, my father had a long list of 17 possible names for me. On July 3rd 1981, my mother went into labour and he rushed her to the hospital in the middle of the night but eager to see the world and before the anaesthetist had time to rub the sleep from his eyes, I was here. My dad says that he took one look at me and said “that’s Yosra”, the only name not on his list. In the Qur’an, ‘Yosra’ means ‘ease after hardship’ and in hard times, I have always called upon it’s meaning to guide me. In my short 32 years thus far, I have been blessed with an incredible life, filled with crazy stories, phenomenal people and a tremendous amount of love and to core of my being, I believe that with every hardship there is ease, if you choose to see it.
I was born and raised in London, UK to two of the most kind hearted and loving people I will ever know, my father Hesham and my mother Laila, two dentists with considerable artistic flair. They got married in Egypt where we are from and came to the UK for my dad’s studies, where they eventually settled and had 3 children together, my older ‘super-sis’ Roba, my younger ‘super-bro’ Belal and myself. Medicine was a centre point in our house growing up and we’d joke that the dinner table was not such without inappropriate conversations about medical and/or bodily dysfunctions. As a quiet middle child, I was the apple of my dad’s eye. I would run to the door as he arrived home each night, climb up his belly and take my seat upon my throne. I loved school, I was curious and jovial with ability for most subjects but didn’t really excel at any one in particular… until my final year at school at 17/18 years of age, when I discovered the American artist Chuck Close. Suddenly, a passion for art arose as I looked to his work to understand my own and I quickly became the artist of my year, the last to leave the art room every night, the agonising perfectionist, the one obsessed with every detail.
The science teachers would push for me to study medicine at university, my art teachers would push for me to study art, however as focussed on art as I was, painting and drawing at that point, I made the ‘sensible’ decision to study medical science/pre-med at university because deep down I knew that had I entered into art straight away, I would never have left it and I needed to prove to myself that I could do it and have something to fall back on, should my art not sustain me. And so at 18 with more ‘sense’ than I’ve had since, I went to UCL and studied Physiology, with the view that if upon graduation I still wanted to be an artist, I would make the transition. 2 years into my degree, creatively starved and yearning for an outlet, I found my dad’s old 35mm Nikon camera at home. I picked it up and through the world of its lens, the way I see suddenly changed and a whole new phase of my life unfolded.
From medicine to photography
Upon graduation, I earned a place at Camberwell College of Arts Foundation program as a mature student, hoping to explore the world of art. Although the course did not turn out to be exactly what I was hoping for, I did discover the dark room, where I would spend the majority of the next year, teaching myself photography and fine art mixed media techniques. That year in 2002, on my 21st birthday, I was given my first SLR camera and my best friend’s sister was getting engaged. She asked me to shoot her engagement party alongside her official photographer, to which I agreed, ”sure, why not.” I said hi to the people I knew but found myself hyper aware of what was going on and walked around as if invisible, as if I were secretly looking in on something. I scoured the room, looking at people from different angles and started seeing them in a different way. I became sensitive to the little things, to the gestures, the emotions, the things that added together, made the whole. Suddenly, the room was full of little stories and that’s what I was interested in. I wasn’t nervous and I wasn’t shy because I was just watching them and they couldn’t see me.
I got the photos back from the lab and took them round to Rania and Daniel. The response I received was overwhelming and totally unexpected. Deciding that they preferred my photos to the photographer’s they asked me to photograph their wedding.
“Huh??” I said, laughing it off. “On my own? But I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Unfazed and totally sure of themselves, they said “we trust you.”
“We trust you.”
So, with more recklessness than sense, I shot their wedding and that’s how it began. People saw their photos and before I knew it I was a ‘photographer’, although it would be several years before I had the confidence and belief in myself to call myself one.
Paving the way; 2002 – 2006
Between 2002 and 2006, I was fully committed to being an artist. I worked part time, mostly as a medical secretary in hospitals in order to earn just enough for an art studio. In it I would paint away the days but I felt isolated. I didn’t have a world of artists around me, most people I knew were the ‘sensible’ ones who pursued well paid, vocational jobs. I was always the wayward one, the hippie, following the direction of my heart, with little clue as to where it was taking me. An avid traveller, I travelled the world alone with my cameras, capturing people along the way. People are all that have ever really mattered to me. Where there are people there are stories and where there are stories, there is beauty. I’m not so interested in the formal or unnatural, I look for the beauty that doesn’t know I’m photographing it, the beauty that is already more beautiful than I can ever make it.
And so for years I plodded along, struggling mentally and financially, quiet about my work, just trying to find my way, until in 2006 I went to New York for the first time. 2 days later, I made an appointment with the US embassy in London to arrange my visa, I returned home and much to the shock and fear of my friends and family, I packed up my studio and my flat in London and moved to New York a month later… to this day, the best and most instinctive decision I have ever made.
New York: 2006 – 2013, the year it all came together
24 years old, wide eyed and determined to understand what an aperture was, I arrived in my new home. With money from a bank loan in my pocket, I signed up to every photography class I could fit in to a 24 hour day and worked day and night, my cameras in towe, clicking the shutter at every new site to learn my craft. To my friends back home, I led a glamorous life of artistic freedom, free to travel and be as I pleased but in reality, I became that quintessential ‘struggling artist’ (minus the drugs), obsessing over my photos in the middle of the night, filling hard drives, hustling for jobs to keep me afloat and lying to questions like “how are you doing for money?”
“I’m fine” I’d say and just fine I was because I didn’t need much. I believed that I was where I was meant to be and I knew I was going somewhere, I just didn’t know where.
Over the years I met incredible people, people who have forever changed my life and I have experienced things that movies are made of but constantly yearning for that next challenge, I’d leave and return to New York, “using the airplane as [my] subway” as one friend would say, searching for myself along the way. In truth, I didn’t need to struggle because wedding photography was lucrative and I was good at it, but money has never been a motivator for me and there was always something in my gut that prevented me from really investing in it. I grew to resent the time I spent editing photos because although I loved those stories, I devoted so much time and energy to them that it left no room for anything else, particularly my fine art and I couldn’t ignore that feeling inside that weddings were not all I was here to do.
So in January 2013, after several particularly stressful months, I decided it was finally time to surrender; surrender to the truth that I was not happy and that despite my best efforts to push it away, photography was my companion, the thing I could not live without, plus my US visa was expiring, I could no longer afford to pay my rent, I had no health insurance and no stability… so I let go. I packed up my studio and my apartment once again, stayed with friends and gave myself until April 15th to leave New York.
Meanwhile, a good friend who’s wedding I shot 3 years prior, was working for ‘Parkwood’, Beyoncé’s company, and they were soon to be holding auditions for a photographer for her upcoming world tour. Sapphira recommended me for the role, I won the job and on April 12th we left for Europe.
Beyoncé’s official photographer turned slug slayer
So I made it… I landed the job of a lifetime, my reality far exceeded my wildest dreams and I was truly truly happy. 8 weeks later, I was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.
Welcome to my blog.
My blessed journey through cancer, the most incredible experience of my life.