In March of 2003, the United States and allied countries invaded Iraq following a shock and awe campaign which rained down bombs on various targets in the country. The stated goals of the invasion were the disarmament of Iraq, who was stated had weapons of mass destruction, and regime change.
By mid-April, Baghdad had fallen to the coalition, and the country’s leader, Saddam Hussein, was in hiding. Then on May 1, President George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln, and in what is now known as his “Mission Accomplished Speech,” declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq. It had all happened in just about 6 weeks.
But for Iraq, the violence was not to end on the deck of an American aircraft carrier. Soon after the events on the USS Abraham Lincoln, Iraqi retaliatory strikes would grow from scattered attacks into a full-fledged insurgency. The violence was first directed at US forces and Iraqi security forces, but eventually grew into sectarian violence that touched every level of life in Iraq.
There was no lack of photographs coming from Iraq. Journalists were in country, covering events as they happened and filing photographs and videos daily. Soldiers from all sides had their own cameras to document what they saw. But what about Iraqi civilians? What were their lives like surrounded by war? What could they show the world that others couldn’t?
In 2004, Michael Itkoff, then a student studying photography, and co-founder of Daylight Magazine, came across the work of Wendy Ewald. Itkoff was taken with Ewald’s photographs working with communities to create collaborative portraits. He was also very concerned with the ideas surrounding representation in photography, and Ewald’s method resonated with Itkoff.
“While curating the second edition of Daylight Magazine, I wanted to balance the depiction of the Iraq war by outside photographers with first-person perspectives by actual Iraqi citizens. The insurgency was in full force at that point and it was difficult for coalition forces to know who exactly the ‘enemy’ was in addition to it being a very challenging time for both foreign journalists and photographers to cover the conflict.”
Itkoff came up with a novel way of giving Iraqis a say in the how they were portrayed : he and the Daylight Community Arts Foundation sent the Iraqis cameras.
“I sent a box of disposable cameras to a photojournalist friend who passed them along to his fixer, Jassim Mohamed. Jassim became one of the photographers in the project and helped distribute other cameras to other participants in Baghdad and Fallujah… I knew there was only so much control and direction I could assert over the project, but I was hoping the cameras would make their way to a diverse array of people. In some cases, Jassim knew the participants and in others they were picked randomly.“
The photographs that came back gave a glimpse into a country at war in a much more intimate way than most foreign journalists would ever be able to capture. They are photographs of everyday life in a way that only a local could capture.
The photos captured both scenes of everyday life led among the violence, along with the results of the violence itself. A man pours tea at an auto repair shop in one photography, while in another a man smokes against the wall of a house with a child at his side. But a third shows a man looking over the crater left from a blast, a military vehicle burns on a roadway in another, and a group of gravediggers carrying their shovels head to work in a third.
In anticipation of the 20th Anniversary of the invasion of Iraq approached, Itkoff and the Daylight Community Arts Foundation decided to send a second box of cameras to Iraq to again be distributed in Baghdad, Fallujah and Mosul.
“The goal for both iterations of the project was to get a sense of everyday life from the people of Iraq. I certainly hoped to see images reflecting a more peaceful existence in 2023 but the scars of war were still evident especially in Fallujah and Mosul.“
This time, the photographs came back “remarkably unremarkable,” as the statement from Daylight reads. They are photographs of street scenes, markets, shop stalls, and reconstruction from the violence that shock the country. A man in a tea house. Two young girls with their umbrellas smiling. But also destroyed buildings on both sides of a narrow street, and constructions workers. Together they show the difficulty Iraq has faced over the last 20 years, and that the process of rebuilding, both physically and emotionally.
Salam Karim, a 30-year-old freelance digital marketing and advertising photographer and videographer who lives in Baghdad is one of those who received a camera. He took his camera and turned to show the old streets of the capital.
“I wanted to show my country shining with life, continuing and strong despite all the circumstances, wars and killings. I chose simple people who go to work in the morning to bring food and money to their homes. They are tired people in a country destroyed by wars and despite all this they are persistent and optimistic and love life. They want to live in peace as I do.”
Ahmad Al Faysal, who lives in Mosul, was another participant. He was introduced to the project through a friend, who put him in touch with those distributing the cameras.
“I want to show the world who sees these pictures that it is a city that was exhausted by wars that are not their fault, and I want to show them how it has recovered and is still recovering little by little despite the destruction that befell it.”
While Iraq is a much different place that it was 20 years ago, the scars of war and the toll it took on the civilian population are still not fully healed. A generation of Iraqi civilians lost their adolescence to the war that raged around them and are just now coming to terms with what they missed, and what they are left with.
As Karim says “I want to present everything beautiful, every truth, and every realistic story from the womb of suffering. I am continuing my work in order to achieve my goals and ambitions. My life in Iraq has taught me patience, struggle, and to pursue my dreams with full force because I am now living …. I lost my adolescence to wars and sectarianism.”
More photographs from the series Iraq from Within: Photographs by Iraqi Civilians 2004/2023 can be seen on the Daylight website here.