Connect: Metrography, the first and only Iraqi photography agency.
Blink is committed to connecting local journalists with media companies around the world; such connections allow companies to hire people who are on the ground and able to tell their own stories from inside the communities that they know better than anyone else. This is exactly what Metrography has achieved in Iraq.
Laurence Cornet interviews Metrography Agency’s editor in chief Stefano Carini and agency photographer Rawsht Twana for the first installment in our new series “Connect,” interviews with outstanding professionals from the Blink network.
LC: Stefano, you started to work with Metrography in June and it has been the most productive time since the agency started…
SC: When I arrived there was no war — it was a very boring Kurdistan for the editors. My role was to work with the photographers on developing in-depth stories and coach them. Already, in the first month I had lined up about 5 or 6 stories that would be developed, all of which we could not finish because the war started and we had to react to it. We needed to exploit, basically, the moment and the photographers wanted to talk about what was happening in their country.
The events made it possible to work more. We gained some trust, people knew that we were there, and now we are slowly moving back to the stories that we had in mind, that we believe are important and will give legacy to Kurdish photography.
LC: What kind of challenges do you face?
SC: I don’t speak Kurdish so it’s difficult for me to promote the agency in Kurdistan in Iraq. We currently don’t work with people in the South because I have never met them personally and I can’t put an editor in New York in touch with somebody I have never met. It would be too stressful. Assignments are usually in dangerous places or about things that are difficult to access, so to send somebody without much experience would be risky.
LC: It’s not an easy job to be a photojournalist who satisfies internationally known photo editors…
SC: You need to prove that you can do it, and we did. We did several assignments with Der Spiegel, Le Monde and Al Jazeera. The editors were always happy.
Having a photographer who speaks Kurdish, but also Arabic or other dialects helps when it comes down to getting the access or finding the people you need for your piece. When you are from abroad, either you have been here many many times, in which case you are kind of a local, or you are not going to find the right people. You are going to find the mainstream characters that are always the same — politicians and so forth. The best scenario is to match local knowledge with international understanding and experience, in other words, to have an experienced writer teamed up with one of our photographers.
LC: Do you work with local writers?
SC: We tried to work with local writers but journalism here is hardly independent and the Kurdish language is very difficult to translate. What we do is work with international journalists who live here and know the place. Some of the most interesting stories we did involved this combination of international writers and local photographers.
LC: What successful stories did you produce recently?
SC: We are working on a large project about Internally Displaced Persons (IDP’s) in Iraqi Kurdistan — there are 1.2 million Iraqis who have entered Kurdistan since the beginning of the war in June. It’s an ongoing process, but it’s not really newsworthy so we are raising funds to do a series of in-depth stories.
The first story we did was with Rawsht who found a family in Erbil that was hosting two children from Alqosh, a Christian enclave in the North of Iraq. At that time Alqosh was attacked and then controlled by ISIS, so everybody left the city.
RT: The children are originally from Baghdad. The father left them. He is in Baghdad and doesn’t care about them. The mother died of cancer, so the children were left in an orphanage in Alqosh after having already been displaced a couple of times. When ISIS arrived they had to escape and that’s when I met them in Erbil where an uncle hosted them.
SC: Rawsht has this very particular way of working that he gets really close to people.
RT: I always eat with them!
SC: Rawsht had already started the story. We got some money for the expenses and a fee so he could continue the work and stay with them for a few weeks. Alqosh became secure again, so the orphanage reopened and school started. The children had to go back to the orphanage. They were being displaced once again from their family environment in Erbil, and sent back to the orphanage. Rawsht went back to Erbil and stayed with the children for a few days, then traveled with them to Alqosh and spent one night at the orphanage. That’s something you can only afford to do with a local photographer — you get that kind of intimacy.
Of course, foreign photographers could do that but it would take a level of commitment that is very hard to capture when you come from abroad; because you are spending money to fly to a place that you only stay in for a limited amount of time. It took Rawsht two months, working every week with the family.
LC : Do you plan to develop the agency across the region?
SC: If we had more resources we would have already grown. It would not make sense to make the agency an international one, but a regional agency — yes. It would be very interesting to expand to the countries that border with Iraq such as Iran, which has huge photographic potential. Perhaps even Turkey, and connect a few photographers working in the Kurdish areas. You can then share, invite everybody, send the photographers from one side to the other and get different views on the same topics. But until now it has been impossible because of time and the amount of work, coupled with limited resources.
LC: What are your plans for the near future?
SC: We have many plans and projects in the works. We finally edited a 5-year project by Aram Karim about the smugglers on the border of Kurdistan. We also have a huge exhibition on contemporary photography from Kurdistan that you will hopefully see in New York in the next couple of years. Also, in Rawsht’s father’s archive there are over 30,000 images from a period of time when there were no formal records of Kurdistan. It’s a unique piece of work, so we are trying to find funds to archive it properly and create a project that would combine that with Rawsht’s own work. It’s all work in progress!
Metrography was founded in Iraq in 2009 by two photojournalists who wanted to create a place for photography in a country where it is largely misrepresented. Kamaran Najm Ibrahim and Sebastian Meyer’s idea was to define the agency as a place for the photographers to be protected, helped, supported and educated. Basically, a place where anybody could stop by to show their portfolio, browse through a book from James Nachtwey or Reza, learn, and most importantly meet an editor with international experience and a level of understanding for photography that could be inspiring.
Stefano Carini started photography in 2009. He then became the photo editor of the agency for one year, working with some of the best photographers in the world. His idea for Metrography is to implement Noor’s very clear and organized structure on a local agency level, working with what he believes is something really important and often overlooked: local photographers and journalists. In the meantime he works on his own long-term projects without too much stress.
Rawsht Twana started photography in 2006 when he found the archive of his father, who photographed Kurdistan from 1965 to 1992. He became a member of Metrography in 2009, and is currently working on a book.
Laurence Cornet is a writer, a photography critic and a curator based in Brooklyn. Her clients include L’Oeil de la Photographie, The Magnum Foundation, Images magazine, Vice, MSNBC, Vogue and Camera.