The Refuge Initiative

What My Camera Made Me Do in Iraq

It was the first time I’d ever been to the Middle East.  Oddly enough, much of it felt familiar. 

I wondered at first if that was because perhaps I was numb or simply unaware.  Sure, a plate of kabobs was new and heavenly, but it wasn't nearly as exotic as I imagined it would be.  And a stroll through the bazaar felt unusually more normal than not.  Even in the photographs I shot, a sense of commonality was always present between the subject and me.  I don’t know what I was expecting of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan—if anything at all—but familiarity was absolutely not it.

The day I arrived, Tim Buxton drove the “long way” from Erbil International Airport to Soran because he said the Kurdish countryside at that time of the year was a sight no one should miss.  And goodness, he was right!  The mountains flaunted her coat of late April green.  

I met Tim’s wife Sarah, and their colleagues Billy and Dawn Ray, along with a few others for the first time that evening at a rooftop dinner overlooking what looked more like the American Southwest than the Middle East.  Together these good people are raising their families in Soran and running The Refuge Initiative, which is a division of World Orphans.  I had come to photograph and write stories about the town and the work they are doing in caring for the displaced Yazidi and Shabak people who fled ISIS two years ago.

Now, in my documentary work, I choose not to photograph anyone before I have engaged with him or her, and they have agreed it’s okay for me to shoot.  It’s my conviction that not doing so is to take that which is not given to me—or, to steal.  And stealing by no means authentically captures the person in front of the lens, which is always my goal.  I know it’s impossible to sit over chai before every shot; but it’s not impossible to open myself to them—if only for a few moments—thereby inviting them to open themselves to me.

Photography, then, can be intensely vulnerable—for the subject, and for me.  That is the kind of image making that interests me.

And as you can imagine, that was a challenge in Kurdistan.  One, I don’t speak Kurdish or Arabic.  Two, I’m a Westerner.  And the topper: I’m a woman—a 5’10” blonde one at that.  As if that weren't enough, the U.S. Department of State had even issued a warning against any of its citizens traveling to Iraq.  So, confession: I wasn’t totally confident “open” was necessarily a good idea…

What is more, the women there tend to be reserved on the front end, so they’re certainly wary of photographs.  Men came with another set of challenges.  For me to engage with a man, especially publicly, was not exactly minding my p’s and q’s in their society.  But if I planned to authentically photograph the people my way, I had to figure out how to engage both genders; I had to risk crossing social boundaries. 


The challenge was to somehow marry that which seemed mutually exclusive: holding back out of cultural respect and boldly moving in close—demonstrating they were safe with me, but also that I felt safe with them and they could let their guards down.  Though I had two incredible local translators, Hersh and Dilgash, almost always accompanying me, I was often nervous and sometimes I was afraid.

I found the challenge achievable only when I tapped in deeper to that sense of commonality I discovered between the subject and me.  Occasionally I’d begin by asking them their name—with literal distance between us—then tell them mine, and go from there.  Other times I got to move in real close and hear their story, as it is human to want to be heard and known.  A few times they even asked me mine, which was really special because I think it meant we were on the same page.


Now, I get it; they sit barefoot on the floor to drink tea instead of on a Rooms To Go sectional—that can be strange.  And the ladies wear substantially more clothing than I’d ever consider donning in the desert.  Not to mention the blowtorched chickens hanging in the bazaar—people buy them…to eat

 That’s different, Jessie.  That’s really different.  I get it—I wasn’t walking around with a bag on my head.


But that’s not the familiarity I mean.  Those aren’t the things that make us human, ya know?  We are human because we do things with our lives—we are lawyers and poets, doctors and teachers.  We invent and strive to make the good, better.  We all have thoughts about a god, or no god, and how we ought to respond to it.  Right and wrong, justice and injustice, war and peace innately matter to us.  Then there's the fact that we mess up; none of us always get things right.  We are human because we all want to fall madly in love and be a part of making something bigger than ourselves.  And when we have little ones, we want to send them off to school and not worry they won’t make it home safe for dinner.

You see, it matters not where you go in the world—these things are always true.  This is the kind of stuff we humans do.  And for that reason, we belong together.   

With that, a man I want to photograph who looks nothing like my dad—with his brown skin, billowing trousers, and foreign god—starts to look a whole lot like him.  He begins to feel unusually familiar.  He, too, remembers the way watermelon juice runs down his arm in mid-July, and how much it stings that same time every year when he remembers a loved one lost, or the shame he feels from the mistakes he’s made or when he can’t put food on the table.  This man who is walled into a conflict-ridden country hates war and death and corruption just as much as I do, perhaps more.


Now, you may write me off because I’m no champion of domestic or foreign policy any more than I am Martha Stewart with a glue gun.  And, honestly, I don’t know the political state of Iraq post Blair and Bush.  I don’t know how the troops are doing “over there.”  And I don’t know what to do with the millions of refugees and IDPs with no place to go—both here and there and everywhere.  I don’t know how not to be afraid—afraid of airports and nightclubs and crazies with guns.

But when I dive headlong into the reality that what matters to me, matters to most everyone in the world—including Kurds and Iraqis—I see people and stories before I see policies and problems.  And my God, it’s my prayer they don’t see just another Westerner with a camera out to take what is not given to her.  This challenges my fears, but I want to be the kind of person that wrestles the reality that my culture and my story are equally as imperfect and human as theirs, so that strangers—both here and abroad—become brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers I can’t help but hurt with and for.

It is my hope that you too are struck by the same sense of commonality with people in these images; and though you are separated geographically and culturally, they would be brought near.  And that you’d risk engaging: take time to pray for them; reach out and give your resources to care for them; and perhaps more than anything, go sit with people like them in your own neighborhood.  Because they belong to you, and you to them.