Nabil Salih ist in Baghdad aufgewachsen, hat Anschläge, Menschenrechtsverletzungen, Gewalt und Angst gesehen und erfahren. Mit Covid-19 hat eine weitere Krise aktuell Einzug in den Irak gehalten. Über seinen Werdegang und seinen aktuellen Blick auf die (fotografische) Situation hat er mit den #FacesOfPhotography gesprochen:
You live in Baghdad, Iraq – What is the current situation? Also in times of Covid-19.
As a journalist and a native of Baghdad, I fear summarizing how the situation is like here in a few lines may omit so many things that are bad and give rosy thoughts to your readers. But I am not in the business of giving false statements.
A couple of nights back, the wire which feeds our house with electricity from a private generator in the neighborhood was cut. We were in total darkness for about three hours. There are routine state-power outages, and we regularly use motor pumps because water supply is meager. High-end shopping malls, restaurants and beauty clinics spring up here and there, there are some nice bars too. But concrete blast walls still line bumpy-streets and confiscate others. Poverty rate is constantly on the rise, and our health system needs years of development.
No more car-bombs ripping through local markets these days, but armed groups still shell military camps, government buildings and foreign embassies – terrorizing and traumatizing locals every now and then. The U.S.-led coalition also continues to assist Iraqi forces bombing positions of remnant Islamic State (IS) militants in rural areas. While no civilians are perished as “collateral damage”, violent scenes continue to be a staple in the news, occupying TV screens as they have done for three decades. Also, worth mentioning is that armed soldiers manning security checkpoints and never-ending traffic jams have been part of everyday life since the invasion of 2003.
In the past few weeks, COVID-19 has spread rapidly, with local health authorities so far announcing 24.254 patients infected and 773 others dying from disease. It’s worrying, considering Iraq’s health facilities suffered decades of sanctions, war and corruption. More worrying is that our society lacks health awareness and most people I see on the streets are not abiding by protective measures.
However, people are accustomed to curfews and lockdowns. Iraqi families repeatedly had to cramp in one room to shelter from bombing or armed clashes. So when authorities first imposed a curfew in response to COVID-19, it saddened me to see the city empty, and reminded me of all the times we were under lockdown because of war and its consequences.
What does the photography scene in Iraq look like?
The photography scene in Iraq is dominated by local photojournalists who have worked for international news agencies for now near two decades. But in the past few years a young generation of independent photographers started to rise. Of course, some of them are brilliant and have covered the October Uprising with such dedication and bravery. But on the other hand many tend to give the world a rosy image of an Iraq that is prosperous and stable by focusing solely on capturing photos from beautiful areas in the country. Of course, every human has the right to see and do things in their own way. But the night landscapes, albeit still important, don’t show the flocks of homeless people hovering on almost every intersection. And this is my opinion on written stories as well.
How do you see the national and international networking of the Iraqi photography scene?
Well, social media is well instrumentalised by local photographers to showcase their work, connect with international journalists and reach as many clients as possible. Especially wedding and graduation photographers – it was a flourishing business before Covid-19 hit the country. And the language barrier some may have when freelancing let’s say with a particular international media outlet is bypassed by fixers.
Still many western media outlets who have no bureau in Iraq arrive with their photographers and TV crews, and independent foreign photographers secure contracts before arriving here. I would say that other than the local photographers working for the leading international news agencies, it’s rarely that you see a photo on a prominent international media outlet credited to an independent Iraqi photographer. The same goes for press, most of the reporting coming out of Iraq is done by foreign journalists. That, I argue, has more to do with how the market is than the quality of the work done.
What does photography mean to you personally
It connects me to other people and their stories. With my camera in hand, I often take long solitary walks in the city. I stroll old meandering alleyways where rarely ‘outsiders’ show up, stop, and look. I meet people and have brief sometimes funny conversations with. Sometimes I am invited for tea at local tea houses and people ask if I need help reaching a certain area. Photography connects me with people and introduces unfamiliar areas to me. It opens my eyes, teaches me to be patient, and gives me opportunities to learn and meet people.
How did you get into photography, writing, journalism?
We have to go back a decade ago, when the streets of Baghdad were engulfed by angry protests at the misery begotten by a dysfunctional system. I used to translate the news posted by prominent Iraqi Facebook pages when foreigners asked questions. Later journalists asked to have phonecalls with me to explain how life in Iraq was like and why people were protesting. In the following few years I frequently appeared on TV and radio shows like the BBC’s World Have Your Say, providing insights into life in Baghdad. But my first ever published piece came as I was protesting again in 2015 at Baghdad’s al-Tahrir Square (where protesters are still camping today). I used to send updates on my twitter feed when the editor of a digital magazine called ShakomakoNET contacted me. He simply asked me to write them a piece and said “sure”. With great deal of help from him, I made my first step into journalism. I would then start writing more stories for them and then for The New Arab, discovering that journalism is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life instead of engineering, of which I hold a Bachelor’s degree.
As for photography, I always loved going through the family albums where pictures from as early as the 1970s are stored. Not much from the 1990s though, the UN imposed sanctions had an effect on every aspect of Iraqis’ lives and people couldn’t afford films and even sold their cameras along other belongings to survive.
For years I have enjoyed taking pictures with my smartphone, mostly random photos from the streets. But then I got my first camera in early 2019: a second hand bridge camera from Canon. I was lucky to have worked along a professional photographer for 10 months. Khalil al-Murshidi, who worked for several international news agencies for near two decades, guided me to the right path of photojournalism. I was also inspired by the work of the late Iraqi architect and photographer Rifat al-Chadirji, whose black and white photos from the 1970s and 1980s are a treasure.
What is your photographic focus, how do you work and who are your clients?
Most of the time I focus on the misery around me, on the consequences of war and corruption on humans and their surroundings. Since I have the means to share the stories of Iraqis with the world, then it is a duty to focus both my writing and photography conveying what it’s really like here to the world.
The first photos to be published for me last summer from the northern city of Mosul, where blood was spilled at every corner of the old town, and most homes, mosques and churches still lay in ruins in the aftermath of the devastating war against the Islamic State (IS) group.
Then came October of last year and millions took to the streets of Iraq in what’s known today as the October Uprising. I was covering the protests for Xinhua News Agency, but also writing for The New Arab and Jadaliyya. My photos from the protests were published on Jadaliyya, The New Arab and the Romanian newspaper Libertatea. I was mostly focusing on the victims of the state crackdown on the protests, which killed around 600 protesters and wounded around 20,000. Many journalists were assaulted, wounded and some were even assassinated for covering the protests. It was a historic period in Iraq’s history, which I am honored to have documented.
I then joined Doctors Without Borders in November that year as their media manager until as early as late April. Among other many things I was did was taking photographs, mostly to patients lingering in the beds of the hospitals the organization runs.
Recently I wrote a piece through which I took the readers for a stroll through central Baghdad. Through my words and the accompanying photos I tried to remind the world of many of the things that are wrong here. Prior to that, I also wrote a piece on the anniversary of the invasion, with photos focusing on the scars of that war on the cities infrastructures.
What are you currently working on?
I am currently on the look for an opportunity where I can put my skills in both writing and photography in use, and further develop them. It is not easy considering the number of foreign journalists working here, and the security the power of their passports provide.
On the other hand, I have been thinking of a book documenting life in Baghdad in photos. If the circumstances allow, the project will see the light in the near future.
What role do you ascribe to photography – especially in times of crises?
Since I was a child, I became an eye witness to some human right abuses. The consequences of war and violence were present in my surroundings for the most years of my life. They are still today: you can see them on the faces of humans and the walls of their homes. I only wish I had a camera in hand growing up, to document what I have seen, the changes in my neighborhood and my city.
The news was part of my upbringing in Iraq. So was photojournalism. Pictures from Palestine or the wars Iraq has fought – so many! – were constantly on the screen. This I think has seeded an understanding of how powerful photography is in telling stories. You can read about a woman mourning a child perished in an airstrike, but it’s the photograph that shows you the tears glittering in her eyes, give you a sense of the anguish she’s drowning in.
What is your personal photographic wish for the future?
Simply to grab my camera and roam the streets of Baghdad freely again, not having to fear for my health or that of the people around me. I also hope that I can visit some of the cities that I have never been to or did not have enough time seeing when I did, such as the southern port-city of Basra, which I visited briefly earlier last year, and the western countryside on the Euphrates river – I long to spend enough time outside, to rotate the focus ring and let the camera lead the way.
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