Workshop participants take photos with their instructor during a walk through their camp. Photo: UNICEF/Iraq/2015/Mackenzie

Empowering Yazidi women through photography

It’s late afternoon in a camp for displaced Iraqis, near Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Bright sunlight reflects off every surface — the even rows of beige tents, the steady flow of white 4x4s, the sliver of a lake in the distance. Squinting children with bulging backpacks walk home from school while older men sitting in the shade play dominoes.

A group of young women, compact cameras in hand, walk past the domino players. Suddenly, one of the young women sees the scene and stops.

Bushra, 16, strides confidently toward the game and asks to take a portrait of one of the players — a dignified Yazidi man whose blue-grey eyes are framed by elegant black eyeglasses. He obliges and Bushra crouches down next to him and starts taking photos.

Bushra and other young women are enthusiastic participants in a UNICEF-supported photography workshop. With funding from the Government of Italy, and facilitation by partners RDO, the aim of the workshop is to empower young Yazidi women through photography.

“Bushra is an entirely different person,” says Nuha Serrac, coordinator for the workshop. “At first, if we asked her a question, her face would go red as a tomato. She wouldn’t even lift her head to give a response. Now look at her. She’s walking up to people on her own and taking their picture!”

Bushra, 16, takes a photo of men playing cards in her camp. Photo: UNICEF/Iraq/2015/Mackenzie

UNICEF programmes like these aim to provide children and adolescents with practical skills and learning opportunities. They also build confidence, facilitate friendships and provide a sense of belonging and achievement.

Bushra says she joined the workshop simply because she “wanted to become something.”

In the month since starting the workshop, she has.

“I’ve learned so much,” she says. “I learned to communicate with people. I’ve built up much more confidence. Now I want to become a photojournalist.”

She also says the workshop helped her forget the sadness of her recent past. Last August, acute violence forced Bushra and her family to flee their village in Sinjar in the middle of the night. They spent nine days stranded on Mount Sinjar with little food or water.

“I witnessed so much tragedy [on Sinjar],” she says. “But now I feel like things are changing. This workshop feels like a breath of fresh air — to be a part of something again.”

Photography instructor Seivan Behdinan shows workshop participants an image on the back of her camera. Photo: UNICEF/Iraq/2015/Mackenzie

Workshops like these also provide an important opportunity for UNICEF and partners to spot and address other issues.

When Safiya, 14, told her photography instructor that she wasn’t going to school, the instructor replied that Safiya couldn’t participate in the workshop if she wasn’t in school. It was the motivation the young girl needed to convince her father to let her attend the UNICEF-supported tented school in the camp.

Nuha says that when the workshop began, girls’ photographs were often melancholy. Now, a month later, these same girls seek inspiration. One participant, Nasrin, 17, photographed a woman whose husband died just before their baby was born. Though devastated, the illiterate single mother was determined to overcome her hardships. She taught herself to read and write and then opened her own business in the camp — a successful salon.

Nasrin titled the photo story ‘Never Give Up.’


Selected images by workshop participants

Left/centre: portrait series by Barfi, 18. Right: IDP Camp. Image by Neam, 20.
Left/centre/right: project by Bafrin, 19, about her mother’s experience of displacement.
Left: photo by Nasrin, 17. Centre: photo by Bafrin, 19. Right: photo by Neam, 20.
Left: photo by Nada, 21. Centre/right: portraits by Bushra, 16.
Left/centre: photos by Xulud, 17. Right: photo by Zina, 19.
Left/centre: photos by Nasrin, 17. Right: portrait by Safiya, 14.
Left: portrait by Safiya, 14. Centre/right: Neam, 20.

Lindsay Mackenzie is a consultant with UNICEF Iraq.

Direction donations to UNICEF Iraq: https://support.unicef.org/campaign/donate-now/donate