La Maison Bleue in El Gouna

In the images of Nour El Refai (@nourelrefai), the photographer’s compositional attention accompanies the architect’s practical attention. Yet architectural photography is the culmination of a long journey that begins with a fascination for the figurative arts in general. A passion that Nour has constantly cultivated over the years and which has taken and still takes various forms. After graduating in Architecture in Cairo, he worked for four years for a big firm, carving out time for photography until, once his career started, he devoted himself completely to it.

Interested at the same time in documenting the life and customs of his country, Egypt, and its neighbors, such as Morocco, Algeria, Turkey and others further afield, such as India, Nour represents architecture from a social point of view. In his shots there is room for contamination, for large buildings as well as tradition and the street. A capacity for adaptation that is reflected in his interiors, portrayed by putting himself at their service. They are often sumptuous buildings, with refined furnishings that must be returned in all their opulence. A task that Nour does not evade, convinced that, in any case, his work is “explore and represent that beauty in the best possible way”.

Villa King Mariout | Client: Khaled Tahoon Designs

1) In your bio, you say your story with the camera started when you were 12 years old. Tell us something more about that.

Before that, I was always fascinated with drawing and painting scenes and surroundings, sometimes shots from movies, sometimes totally imagined realities. Maybe that’s what improved my imagination and made me good at Architectural and Engineering drawer which later convinced me that I should study Architecture. When I got my first camera, I was obsessed; finally, I found a quicker way to capture my surroundings and my trips so I can later draw them. “Was shooting on film of course”, I started to practice my perception through using this new tool.

2) Now, among other things, you also teach architectural photography. What is the main link between these arts?

Perception. The Architect creates realities that may alter, challenge, excites, or surprise people’s minds and urges them to perceive things in a certain way. The photographer has the opportunity to do exactly the same through his/her photography.

Villa King Mariout | Client: Khaled Tahoon Designs

3) Do you prefer taking pictures of ancient or modern buildings? Why?

I don’t have a preference towards a certain type, what I prefer and look forward to is taking pictures of buildings that has a strong language and impact, whether its ancient or modern, each has its own beauty. My goal is to explore and represent that beauty in the best way possible.

4) Some years ago, you won a LensCulture award with a shot that is the sum of two souls: architecture photography and documentary. Tell us something about it.

Before that, in 2008 the photo won a European Union Competition dedicated to the Mediterranean countries and was held in Barcelona, it led to me explore the work of Gaudí. So it’s a very important photo for me. It was one of those magical moments, I was taking my students for a field-trip in downtown Cairo where we have many heritage buildings, and suddenly found a guy on a bicycle moving far away and holding a large mirror reflecting many scenes, it looked like he was holding the possibility of another reality! I decided to leave my students and ran towards him and tried to explore the different reflections I could get, I was on my toes, he stopped for few seconds to adjust his hands then moved away, I never saw his face but I got the photo. Some say its street photography and I agree it has most of the elements of that genre and the a bit of a decisive moment, but for me, it’s much more, it encompasses the two genres I’m most passionate about, Architectural and Documentary photography. I believe it will always be one of my most memorable photos.

Villar Residence | Client: Hussein Nassar Designs

5) In that occasion, you said you don’t consider yourself a street photographer, but a documentarist. What’s the difference in your opinion?

I’m always interested in documenting people in their surroundings, whether its people in their homes or in the street, workers in their workplace, farmers in their field, or even shoppers in a mall! I’m not confined with one place, I’m interested in the relation between people and their surroundings wherever that is.

Pyramid Hills Villa | Client: Spectrum

6) You are also known for your interior shots. What are the main challenges of this kind of job?

Taking the best angle is always the main challenge, lighting can be easily mastered, but taking a good angle requires a lot more practiced eye. Some interior spaces are really difficult to capture, either its very small or so huge, each space is a totally new challenge. You need to spend some time to get the feeling of the space, and their is a process to approach the angle were we keep asking ourselves many questions until we feel most satisfied. It’s an exhausting process but I love it.

7) How can you adapt to the different situations and subjects you are going to shot?

With experience, naturally I have a routine, and with each situation I modify my routine accordingly. Some people may think that I arrive into a situation and suddenly know what to look for and what to do! That’s not often true, I have a routine and a process, then new things will come up and I will act accordingly. I know this is a very general answer but its a very general question! I think the only way to understand what I’m saying is to attend one of my shoots or see any experienced photographer at work.

Grand Residence Landscape | Client: Math Architects

8) What is the question you hoped for and that I didn’t ask? What’s your answer?

I didn’t hope for it but the question I get often is what you see yourself doing in 10 years, and my answer is doing exactly what I’m doing right now. Shooting great projects for great clients. But I also have few hobbies that I want to explore, Woodworking is one of them, I took an advanced course but never had the time to apply what I’ve learned. Maybe I’ll find more time in the future to do those hobbies.

9) Tell us 3 young photographers that we should follow.

Unfortunately I don’t know any young photographers in my field, the ones I follow their work are experienced like Tim Griffith, Scott Francis, and Iwan Baan. I guess I’ll have to check your other interviews to see the young photographers that were suggested by other photographers.

MK Villa | Client: tDf Architects