Seeing Iraq Beyond the Frontlines

Photographers Hawre Khalid and Sebastian Meyer give us a more rich and complex view of a country at war.

From left, A Kurdish family has an autumnal picnic. Photo by Sebastian Meyer; A goldsmith looks out from his shop in Kirkuk. “People are not buying gold since the ISIS war started in June 2014, because the economy went down and no one knows what will happen in the future” he said. Photo by Hawre Khalid; A waitress works in Bab Alhara Cafe, the only cafe where girls are allowed to work on Jumhuriyah Street in Baghdad. Photo by Hawre Khalid

We as Iraqi people have been surrounded by death for a very long time,” photographer Hawre Khalid says.

Hawre grew up in Kirkuk and says he remembers wars with Iran and Kuwait as well as the Civil War. Then came the conflicts with Al-Qaeda and now ISIS.

“I remember when I was a kid, I was so curious to see dead bodies wherever they were,” Hawre says. “I saw as many as I could.”

View of Kirkuk, Hawre’s hometown. Photo by Hawre Khalid

Since the conflict with ISIS started, Hawre has covered most of the frontlines in Iraq and Syria. As the Mosul offensive began, he moved in with a guitarist friend in Erbil.

“Every night when I go home after working on the frontline, I ask him to play the guitar so I can keep believing in beauty,” Hawre says.

Hawre shared a video of one such night on Instagram with the text, “We need beauty to continue with the front lines.” Despite his familiarity with it, Hawre says he still has difficulty understanding war.

“If you don’t understand darkness, then you can’t understand light,” Hawre says. “If you were never homeless then you would never feel how amazing it is to have a home. Therefore, I want to see and touch beauty to understand more about war and death.”

From top left, A wall in Kirkuk after an ISIS attack; A grave of a peshmerga who was killed by ISIS in Kirkuk; Often you live in hell yet you feel you live in heaven! A man in Sulaymaniyah on the phone to set up an appointment with God to ask him some personal questions; Inside a peshmerga’s room on the frontline; A boy skateboards in Sulaymaniyah. Photos by Hawre Khalid

Hawre is not alone in his desire to depict more daily life from the region. When Sebastian Meyer moved to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2008 he admits he was drawn to the more dramatic stories of war, poverty and trauma.

“But the more time I spent there, the more I realized that this was only a fraction of what was going on in the region,” Sebastian says. “Of course it’s vitally important to report on human rights abuses, violence, and inequality, but if you’re going to tell the story correctly you have to put it in context.”

From top left, While I was taking a break between sets, this legend rocked up in his suit, took off his jacket and knocked out a dozen pull-ups; One of the most magical days of the past seven years that I’ve been coming to Kurdistan. Yezidi men and women pick olives that will be pressed into oil to light their holy sanctuary, Lalish; Salih out fishing this morning; Christmas is in full swing in Kurdistan; Sashi, from Nepal, mops the floor of a villa in Kurdistan. Photos by Sebastian Meyer

About a month ago Sebastian was taking pictures of a play rehearsal and a man fishing. Two weeks later he was photographing a retired peshmerga walking toward the frontlines. I asked him about the contrast.

“I’ve never had to reconcile the contrast between my images because I don’t see them as contrasts,” Sebastian says. “They complement each other in the way they show the rich diversity of what Iraqi Kurdistan is. Some images might be more ‘dramatic,’ but that doesn’t make them more important. The best journalism out there takes the viewer/reader into the grey areas, the subtleties and nuances of a story. That’s what I aspire to do. If my images provoke questions and mixed emotions then it means I’m doing my job. If all I’ve done is create a simplistic two-dimensional view, than I’ve failed.”

“It was on the Tigris at sunset. You could hear a voice which was fully of life. Tigris, palm trees, and even the air became silent. Baghdad remembered itself. Pain went away…. Yes, it was the time when @jumjumjaber19 started singing. She sung like an angel. She cried deeply from inside, but the tears came out of LOVE. Not only Baghdad, even humanity needs her. Proud…” Photo by Hawre Khalid

After working on a story about an actress and football player in Kirkuk, Hawre decided to expand the project by doing photo stories and short documentaries about ordinary people in cities like Baghdad, Sulaymaniyah and elsewhere in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.

“I realized it’s important to show more stories like that because this country is not only war and oil,” Hawre says.

With his time and energy concentrated on the Mosul offensive, Hawre has yet to publish these stories but hopes to soon.

“Through ‘news’ photographs we know what war looks like, but that’s it, nothing more,” Sebastian says. “I want to go deeper and show the full breadth of Iraqi Kurdish life. Not only how people continue to live and thrive despite the violence, but how they love, worship, and mourn.”

Next year Sebastian will publish a book that explores daily life from Iraqi Kurdistan. He says the goal of the book is to show the nuances of what life is really like in a region that’s been through decades of violence and upheaval.

“Teaching my Iraqi students emergency archeological documentation. This is so important in light of what is happening to so many archeological sites across the region.” Photo by Sebastian Meyer

In this same vein, not long ago he produced a short video for Great Big Story about the Middle East’s first waterkeeper, Nabil Musa.

“The response has been amazing,” Sebastian says. “It’s been viewed over 103,000 times on their Facebook page, been shared 520 times, and has over 1,500 likes.”

There is a clear need and craving for this type of storytelling out there — and not just from Iraq. Sebastian tells me a story of an Iraqi woman who was terrified by the amount of violence in the United States. Her husband, who was a translator for the U.S. military, was working on the visa to relocate their family but struggled to convince his wife to move.

“I asked him why and he replied, ‘She watches the news on TV,’” Sebastian says. “For months at a time the only thing she saw was the Black Lives Matter protests and mass shootings all over the country — the violent stories that make headlines. And that was her only impression of America. If all that journalists and their editors focus on in Iraq is the violence, then that’s all anyone’s going to think happens there. And that’s dangerous because those views end up affecting American and European government policy.”

From left, Parween, a Kurdish farmer, returns from work in the fields near the Iran/Iraq border. Photo by Sebastian Meyer; Rashid Street in Baghdad. Photo by Hawre Khalid; A Kurdish smuggler and his horse on the Iran/Iraq border back in Oct. 2010. Photo by Sebastian Meyer

Sebastian’s book will be available through Red Hook Editions, Amazon and direct sales early next year. Follow Hawre and Sebastian on Instagram at @hawrekhalid and @sebmeyerphoto. To see more images of daily life in Iraq, also follow @EverydayIraq and @EverydayMiddleEast.