A group of photographers offer an alternate narrative to western-made images of war
Name three things about Iraq that don’t have to do with the fall of Saddam, burning oil fields, sectarian violence or black Isis flags. If you’re coming up short, take solace in knowing you’re probably not alone. The fraught relationship many westerners have with the country lies at the heart of co-editor and photographer Stefano Carini’s impetus for the joint exhibition and photo book Over My Eyes: Stories of Iraq, the former which has just closed at the DOX Centre for Contemporary Art in Prague. “Is it possible to know a place only through images of war, and more precisely, western-made images of war,” he asks rhetorically in the book’s opening statement.
With the aim of training a generation of photographers from the region to speak for themselves and add their singular perspectives to the mix, Carini and co-editor Dario Bosio traveled to Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014 and set out to work for Metrography, the country’s first photo agency. They oversaw the work of many of the young Iraqi talents highlighted in Over My Eyes, whose contributions cover an impressive amount of ground geographically, thematically and artistically. The exhibition and book administer a heartrending reminder that Iraq is much more than the conflict-laced snapshots we’ve been fed since our toddler days, when we, like Carini, first came across ominous green lights shooting through the night sky on live TV during the First Gulf War.
“The best you can do is merge the two points of view” – Stefano Carini
Divided into four chapters, Over My Eyes speaks to the ethnically diverse and heritage-rich region that once served as the cradle of civilisation. Take, for instance, the enigmatic beauty of Ali Arkady’s shots of a worker asleep on the loading ramp of a van or that of an Iraqi Olympic rower lit up by the morning sun as he pushes across the Tigris. Or the colossal, recently unearthed archive of late photographer Twana Abdullah, who spent close to 20 years (1974-1992) capturing vibrant and unexpected fragments of daily life in his Kurdish village. There’s also “Smugglers”, a photographic glimpse into the country’s porous border zones, and the nomadic plight of those who routinely move across these areas. The carefully curated projects that make up Over My Eyes constitute an invaluable contribution to the region’s photographic history. As the exhibition comes to a close in Prague, Dazed spoke with Carini, as well as photographers Hawre Khalid and Rawsht Twana about the value in merging complementary perspectives and the necessity to cover not only the major tragedies but also the minor triumphs in one’s backyard.
AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE PREVAILING MEDIA NARRATIVE
When Carini was putting the finishing touches on Over My Eyes and charting the genesis of the project, he began asking himself why he’d cared so much about Iraq in the first place. What compelled the Italian editor to move there and work with local photographers? “I was tired of being told what I should see and how I should look at the country,” he sums up. A professional snowboarder until 2010, at which point he shifted gears to study photojournalism, inspired by 1990s greats such as James Nachtwey and Paolo Pellegrin, Carini recalls his early exposure to the live TV footage of the First Gulf War as game-changing.
“Over the last 25 years, that kind of image has been reinforced, and I have no problem in saying that there is an agenda behind that image,” he indicates, describing it as the dawn of a new kind of visual propaganda. “It’s not just because it’s shocking and strong that it gets through and therefore sells more copies. There is a political agenda. I mean, we had to get behind the decision of our countries to go to war with Iraq so many times, so we needed to know that it was a dangerous country, that the people were nasty, so on and so forth.” With that in mind, Carini and co-editor Dario Bosio sought out local photographers who would broaden the existing visual record of Iraq and “enrich the images we have of the world,” suggests Carini.
A MERGING OF TWO VIEWPOINTS: THE LOCALS + THE FOREIGNERS
From restaurant staff in Shaqlawa embracing in a celebratory moment to the terrifying testimonials of Yazidi women who’ve escaped a life of sexual slavery at the hands of their Isis captors, Over My Eyes is imbued with the kind of startling intimacy that can only come from robust relationships of trust. I wonder whether Carini thinks Iraqis are better equipped to bear witness to events unfolding in their own backyard. “The best you can do is merge the two points of view: the foreigners who are experts and have access to the greatest education and assets to do this job, and who aren’t personally intertwined in the events, with the locals, as they have greater access and a better cultural understanding of the situation and the place. When you combine both points of view, as part of a collective project like this, you can offer a more thorough documentation of the situation.”
According to photographer Rawsht Twana, the western media’s coverage of Iraq in the past has mostly been lacking in context. “They don’t focus on life in Iraq or Kurdistan, but solely on the war,” he tells Dazed from Italy. “Their journalists and photographers fly in and out and have no time to connect with the people who are experiencing these events. Between the war in 2003 and when the war (against Isis) started again in 2014, there were the banal but also happy fragments of daily life in Iraq that were left undocumented.” That’s a sentiment echoed by Hawre Khalid, who first got interested in photography as a kid after his uncle sent him a camera from Holland. Khalid considered the possibility of picture-taking as more than a mere hobby when he came of age and began reflecting on his childhood fascination with “the dead bodies returning to our neighbourhood from the frontlines.” “We as Kurds missed our history,” he tells Dazed via e-mail. “It has always been other nations documenting the events happening here. At the same time, photography was a very new thing for us. So I started to learn more about it, I studied journalism and thought of it as an opportunity to (document) the many things happening in my city.”
A CHILLING REMINDER OF WHAT’S AT STAKE
To get a better sense of what’s at stake for the young Iraqis bearing witness to their country’s everyday beauty but also its volatile history, consider this: on June 12, 2014, Kamaran Najm, the Iraqi co-founder of Metrography, was kidnapped by Isis and never heard from again. “Isis took my boss and I couldn’t speak about it until recently,” Carini explains, referring to the media blackout that ended in November, as friends and colleagues have appealed to the public for any information or potential sightings of Najm.
What’s more, with September’s Kurdish independence referendum having led to airport closures and mounting uncertainty in the region, only one of Over My Eyes’s Iraqi photographers, Hawre Khalid, remains in the country. Via email, Khalid explains the dangers of being a Kurdish photojournalist in Iraq at the moment, weeks since Iraq’s central government retook his hometown of Kirkuk from the Kurds on October 16. “It was very difficult for me to only be a journalist in that moment, because I saw my people suffering and getting killed in front of me. How can we keep so much hate inside us and use it against each other, especially when our blood is still fresh from the war against Isis? At the same time, I had to focus on my safety because the Iraqi forces started looking for Kurdish journalists and I am one of them. My life is not really safe at the moment and I am hiding somewhere. The most difficult thing for me is that beside my life being in danger, I can’t do any work, (out of fear that Iraqi forces might hurt loved ones).”
AN UNPARALLELED ARCHIVE OF KURDISH LIFE
The story of Twana Abdullah’s photo archive has all the trappings of a heartstring-tugging Oscar movie. In 2006, Rawsht Twana’s mum gave her teenage son a dusty cardboard box filled with the life’s work of his late father, a full fourteen years after his passing. She had previously hid away her husband’s 30,000+ negatives, as photographs were dangerous items to possess during Saddam’s reign, Rawsht explains. “My dad had taken lots of pictures of the Peshmerga (the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan). If Saddam’s regime knew my father had pictures of some of the martyrs, it would have been very problematic.”
When Saddam Hussein bombed his hometown of Qaladze in 1974, Twana took up photography then and there, determined to document his surroundings for posterity. For close to 20 years, until his untimely death in 1992, Twana travelled everywhere with his camera – to weddings, political rallies and mountain picnics, and to capture sunflowers, studio portraits and street scenes at sunset. Parsing through the comprehensive selection of Twana’s work included in Over My Eyes, you understand why Carini enthusiastically refers to him as Iraq’s most valuable photographer. “He was truly obsessed and possessed by photography,” asserts Carini. “He shot with black and white, and colour, slide film, medium format, large format, and with all sorts of cameras. He experimented with printing, with frames, you name it! His archive really gives you a sense of the place and it brings you very close to the people. I have not seen many bodies of work that are so honest and pure. This guy knew what he was doing. He did it by passion and for history.”
Perhaps the most beautiful twist to this story, an unintended consequence sparked by the discovery of Twana’s work, has been Rawsht’s decision to follow in his father’s footsteps. “I meet him every moment because I hold his camera,” reads his Instagram bio. “When I started looking into my father’s archive, I was not a photographer. I was just a 17-year-old kid! But my father’s archive was like college for me. I bought a scanner from Germany and started digitizing all the negatives for ten months straight, roughly 14 hours per day. I analysed it all and took inspiration from the way he photographed. My father’s archive really opened my mind and eyes to photography.”
A CHALLENGE TO THE NOTION OF “TRUTH”
Whether people come away from Over My Eyes feeling outraged, happy, saddened or invested in the issues are all valid responses, argues Carini. “I hope we make more people aware of living conditions in Iraq, and that we also get a debate and a discussion going about the way we produce and consume images.” Going back to that footage of ominous green lights broadcast in real time during the First Gulf War, Carini stresses there’s an important lesson to be learned about authenticity in imagery. Something he himself learned the hard way, when he was a student on assignment in Cairo during the Arab Spring. “At the time, I somehow thought I had to report ‘the truth’, instead of reporting what I was seeing or interested in. When you think of it, 60 years ago, the strongest, most intelligent photojournalists already understood that they were only reporting part of the truth,” he insists.
“I think it’s important to remember, in the context of Over My Eyes, that the exhibition is not showing the truth, as opposed to a lie. The media is telling something that is real, something that is happening – but only that. They’re not saying anything else because that’s not part of their agenda. Same goes for us. We’ve assembled a body of work that is part of what you can see in Iraq. It’s as diverse as possible, but it’s only a piece. It’s not in contrast or in opposition to what the media does, but rather in complement to it.”
The Over My Eyes book can be purchased online at Darst Projects