What images come to mind when foreigners think of Iraq? Perhaps a blurry shot of soldiers dodging gunfire. A young girl displaced by ISIS staring sadly into the lens. Women who wear black abayas. These are the kind of images taken mostly by foreigners, especially American and European photo agencies and media companies. However, since 2009 Metrography, an independent photo agency in Iraq, has been training Iraqi photographers to tell their country’s stories at a level of internationally competitive professional standards.
In Iraq there is little visual education for photographers, few exhibitions, few workshops, and not much independent media production. Metrography was founded in Sulaymaniyah by American photographer Sebastian Meyer—who remains on the agency’s advisory board—and Iraqi photographer Kamaran Najim. Their goal from the beginning was to create the possibility for photographers to meet, share experiences, receive training, and share knowledge.
As the agency grew, it needed structural improvements, more training for the photographers, and growth in their international market presence. Stefano Carini, an Italian photographer working as a photo editor at NOOR photo agency in Amsterdam, was compelled by the idea of working with a small group of local photographers and so joined the team as editor-in-chief in May 2014. “I’ve been working for years with great photographers who travel the world to bring us news,” Carini said. “I find that idea old and a little bit not part of our world anymore, not sustainable, and often superficial. With greater access to technology, visual communications, and the internet, we should benefit in the education of local photographers,” Carini said, “rather than fly superstar photographers half way around the world.”
The increased fighting in Iraq due to the advances of ISIS since June 2014 forced Carini to reduce the number of photographers they represented from one hundred to around ten. To maintain professionalism without losing clients, and also due to the risks of covering war, Carini wanted to personally know each photographer and their level of skill and commitment. Carini felt he could handle only the most professional and dedicated. In addition, the war against ISIS shifted Metrography’s focus from in-depth photo stories to more event- and news-based coverage. The majority of their revenue comes from the international editorial market and work for NGOs, while very little comes from internal Iraqi markets due to the dearth of independent media.
Metrography photographer Rawsht Twana is from Iraqi Kurdistan and is based in Sulaymaniyah. He started photography in 2006 and when Metrography began in 2009 he contacted the founders, who also happened to be his friends, to join. Twana describes Metrography as a big hope for him at that time because there weren’t many other independent agencies. He also describes the impact of the agency’s training on his work. “My photography now is very different from my work when I started,” Twana said. “I did single photos and street photography, but now I focus on storytelling, and finding details of people’s lives to tell more about them.”
Jadaliyya Photography Page intern Maddy Jones interviewed Sefano Carini about Metrography and their work.
Maddy Jones: What makes Metrography’s work stand out as compared to other photo agencies?
Stefano Carini: We have produced an incredible amount of work since I’ve been here since last May, something like twenty-five to thirty stories. Which is incredible if you think about it. But what makes it important is that Iraqi photographers are looking at their country with professional skills, with network, with capacity to reach out. This is important because Iraq has been photographed by thousands of foreigners for the past twenty-five to thirty years. The best we could do is to mix the foreign eye and the local eye, and then you have a better idea of what this place looks like and feels like. The work we have done is so important, for me, because the standards are high enough to compete with what we have seen taken by other photographers. These photographers are young and still learning. They have access that foreigners don’t have, or will have but only with a substantial amount of time. So they see things that maybe we overlook a little bit, but there is some intimacy with stories and certain images that are very hard to gain here. It’s a process; the circle is not full yet.
MJ: Are there any issues or stories that Metrography will not cover?
SC: I am really against the front lines. There are lots of photographers here from all different agencies, newspapers, and so on, it’s like a hip thing. Everyone goes to the front lines. If one of our photographers wants to go, they go, but I don’t send them. But we’re ready to cover everything. There are certain subjects that … well, I’m Italian. I have an Italian passport. The worst that could happen to me within the region is to be deported because I do something they don’t like. But the Iraqi photographers, no, they disappear, they get arrested for a long time, or they get killed if they cover the wrong issue or point fingers. So with certain issues we are careful. We’re very concerned with the safety of our photographers. So something like torture, or corruption, these delicate political issues, which are very hard to cover anyway, I think I would probably find a way to do it, but it would be a very delicate process.
MJ: How many women photographers do you represent?
SC: There are two women photographers, Bnar Sardar and Seivan Salim. There aren’t many women photographers here but I am always looking for more. It’s not easy, it’s not that free of a choice, for women in particular.
MJ: What are some projects Metrography is working on?
SC: A Map of Displacement, the first collective project of the agency completely produced by us. The idea was mine and the photographers’. It aims to map the displacement inside Iraqi Kurdistan through a series of in-depth photo and video stories that will be held on a website when they are finished. Our deadline is September. We got that through small grants, a crowdfunding campaign, and investing our money into it. I team up one of our photographers with a foreign writer. The idea is to give us a chance to work with an international journalist and share experiences.
At the same time we are building a large exhibition of contemporary documentary photography from Kurdistan. It will be launched in Europe in 2017. So, everything we do we try to visualize it in this platform. Our photographers are working very hard on this project (A Map of Displacement) but at the same time they have their own projects. For example, Hawre Khalid is from Kirkuk and he’s done incredible work through the war. But when he goes home he photographs his own city, which is not easy. It’s a disputed area and having a camera is not easy, it’s multiethnic, but problematic. He’s doing a portrait of the city. The way we do it is we make a list of things: childhood memory, the mosque, the Kurdish area, the workers, immigration—a list of things. He comes back, we look, we edit, and we see what’s missing. Sometimes what’s missing is a distance, or closeness, some color, better light, etc. We are trying to construct a complex body of work. Photojournalism in the streets.
Then with Rawsht Twana, his father was a photographer between the 1970s and the 1990s in Iraqi Kurdistan. He was killed at the beginning of the 1990s but he left his son with sixty thousand negatives from his work. The majority of his work was done in a studio, and part reportage. But those years were when Saddam Hussein was destroying villages, deporting, and killing. He photographed part of that, he has the before, during, and after. He traveled throughout all of Kurdistan photographing. With Rawsht we are trying to create a visual dialogue between his father and his own photography, which is going to be part of the exhibition. It’s interesting because we have pictures from the archive, and Rawsht is a very different photographer from what his father was. So we are trying to find the link and combine these two visions. For example, his father photographed about twenty people from his village Khalsa with a black background. He photographed them very simply, all black and white, all the same distance and background. So Rawsht, he recognized most of them from the pictures and he went back to see them. This is 1978 to 2015, thirty-seven years later, so the little girl is now huddled with kids and grandchildren. Some passed away. We started with that, photographing in the same way. But then we’re thinking how do we make it more? Maybe we can select some of these people, ones with particular stories and you can make a photo story in a way that Rawsht would usually photograph, very intimate, to talk about the time in between. So this is one of the projects I’m looking forward to seeing completed.
The photographers of Metrography are Hawre Khalid, Hawre Mhammad, Rawsht Twana, Bnar Sardar, Seivan Salim, Furkan Temir, Beseran Tofiq, Aram Karim, Zmnako Ismael, and Bandan Atta.