If the Iraqi people could send Americans a snapshot or two of their lives today, what kinds of things would they focus on? Part of the answer: children at school and at play, men hamming it up at a local barbershop and everyday portraits of friends and family.
An exhibit titled “Photographs by Iraqi Civilians, 2004,” on display at Union College in Schenectady through March 7, offers an intimate slice of daily life in Iraq after the U.S. invasion and occupation of the country. It features 30 large ink-jet color prints of photographs taken by Iraqis from different walks of life, including a dentist, a college student and a cigarette factory worker. None of the images are by professional photographers or journalists. The exhibit, which is in the college's Arts Atrium Gallery in the Arts Building, is free and open to the public.
“I wonder what they're trying to say with their pictures,” mused Cynthia Post, a 19-year-old Union freshman from Monterey, Calif., while looking at the images with her photography class last week. “Some make you see that they're normal people like us and have families, and they care about the same things we do.”
Cara Kantrowitz, a 21-year-old senior with a double major in psychology and anthropology, used the word “personal” to describe the photographs. She was touched by one photo of a family that lives with hundreds of others in a garbage dump, along with their cows.
“I expected to see more politics, protest, anti-Americanism,” said Kantrowitz, who spent an hour studying the images on her own before the class made its visit. “They weren't asked to make a political statement. They took pictures of their families and lives. I think it's interesting they chose not to [make overtly political statements].” That's not to say politics and war are entirely absent or hidden in the photographs. For example, there is a photo of a man walking by a banner, which in Arabic reads: “Yes, yes to Islam, Yes to peace, No to terrorism, No to the occupation.”
VIEW ON FLAGS
Another image shows an Iraqi flag painted on a wall. The caption for the photo reads: “The Iraqi people refuse the new flag and insist on the old one.” The exhibition is based on a project by the nonprofit Daylight Community Arts Foundation Inc., which distributed disposable cameras to 10 Iraqis last spring and told them it was their opportunity to “show the American public what you want them to see.”
Fred Ritchin, an associate professor of photography at New York University and former picture editor for The New York Times Magazine, was invited to view all of the more than 250 photographs from the Daylight project and asked to be the curator for an exhibit. The photos were first exhibited at NYU last year.
It received good reviews last September in The New Yorker magazine and the Los Angeles Times. Ritchin was interviewed about the exhibit by Aaron Brown on CNN. “People in Portugal and Argentina saw the broadcast, as well as in the U.S.,” Ritchin said in a phone interview last week from New York City. “Part of the point is, you can do projects like this with very limited budget and if it's well conceived and executed, it can impact the world's sense of what's going on.”
Photography students who viewed the images last week at Union College compared and contrasted them with the press images they've seen from Iraq. They noted the absence of sensational images of tanks, soldiers and, with the exception of one photo, things being blown up. “It's not about active combat,” said Cooper Braun-Enos, a junior from Boulder, Colo. “There are no American soldiers or Iraqi soldiers. You don't see adults with guns. There's no active form of warfare. It's the repercussions of war, not war [itself].”
One photo shows a man standing near the crater a bomb left, while another shows a woman consoling a child who has been traumatized by bombings in Baghdad. There are also images of gravediggers at work. The perspective of the photographs in this exhibit is different from what you'd typically see in the newspaper or on TV, said Walter Yund, a 19-year-old freshman from the Saratoga County village of Galway.
“It's not from the outside looking in,” Yund said. “These pictures show they are much more like us than we may think. I think this more truthful than regular photojournalism.” About a dozen of the 30 photos in the exhibit were by one man, Jassim Mohammed Al Khafajy. He is described as a 31-year-old medical instruments engineer who now works driving journalists between Jordan and Iraq.
“I wish the Americans [at home] could see what they do here in Iraq,” Al Khafajy is quoted in the exhibit. “The situation in Iraq is now very bad because we are like Palestine and Israel.” Braun-Enos was hesitant to draw too many conclusions about the Iraqi people from just 30 photos by 10 individuals. He said the exhibit raises more questions than it answers. The curator of the exhibit agrees. “It's very difficult to be authoritative and to say, 'This is Iraq, especially in a few dozen images,' ” Ritchin said. “But it's important to provoke discussion, reaction, and thoughtfulness. If these pictures make people question what they already know about Iraq, then it has succeeded.”
Ritchin said photography projects of this kind have been done before in other countries and contexts, always with the goal of getting an inside and unfiltered look at things. “They've been doing it in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. “It's been done a lot with children, orphans in Rwanda. We put up a Web site of their work. . . . children in India, children of sex workers. This has been done with children quite a bit.” And there may be more of these kinds of photography projects in the future.
Kantrowitz, who studied abroad in Tazmania for one term, would love to go back and distribute cameras.
“It's an interesting way to learn about a culture,” she said.