Cover image (top of page): Iraqis escape blistering city temperatures, which can exceed 110°F, in Habbaniyah Lake, 50 miles west of Baghdad. October, 2010. © Lynsey Addario
Documenting and dissecting change in the world has long been the lifeblood of artists, but perhaps nowhere is that so evident as in the work of photojournalists. In a new series for WePresent we bring two creatives of different generations together to discuss how capturing change has impacted their careers, starting with Lynsey Addario and Emily Garthwaite.
We’re living through extraordinary times. Change is coming thick, fast and daily, and it’s happening in every corner of the world. We’re all trying to keep up with the pace of information, but in doing so perhaps we have not yet had time to think about how we might look back on this very weird period of history. What will change? How will we change? What will we remember?
For photographers, these questions are central to their practice. Their eyes are tuned to focus on behavior, on reaction and on change in order to create a visual history that lasts longer than the events themselves – longer than us, even – to ensure that the future remembers what went before it. For photojournalists whose lives revolve around capturing historical, world changing events on camera – war, uprising, cultural collapse, rebirth – this rings particularly true. Their images are pivotal to our understanding of society, of making sense of what we see on the news and allowing us to experience situations and that we might not ever encounter otherwise.
In this new series we delve a little deeper into creatives’ opinions on the effects of change. Opening up a conversation between two creatives – one, with a long history of capturing world shifts and one who is just at the beginning of that journey – we’ll explore how documenting change in different periods has impacted their practice and their lives. Known for her work documenting war and humanitarian crises Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist Lynsey Addario was credited as “changing the way we saw world conflict” through her raw and unrelenting imagery that forces the viewer to confront the depths of human emotion. She began her career in the ‘90s in Argentina and has since covered conflict throughout the Middle East and Africa, documenting the war in Iraq extensively for the New York Times during the ‘00s.
For fellow photojournalist Emily Garthwaite that journey is still in the early stages. The 27-year-old award-winning young photographer has worked in the US and India, but is now based in Iraq, where she moved last year. She has been covering Iraq for the past three years, including documenting the world’s largest pilgrimage. She has since captured stories of resilience from a country still rebuilding itself. Here, they discuss how their experiences intertwine and differ, what they learnt along the way and why creators have a duty to document our changing world.
On their experiences working in Iraq
Lynsey: When I first went into Iraq in 2003, it was pretty clear that war was imminent. I crossed into the north of the country through Iran into the Kurdish territory – Erbil and Sulaymaniyah – and waited there for a few months until Sadam Hussain fell before I made my way south. It was a very, very unique time – not only in Iraq’s history but in history in general – because it was complete anarchy for a while; people were pilfering anything that wasn’t tied down, from Sadam's palaces to government and local buildings. It was chaos. There was no government structure and no one was really in charge, so it was a very different Iraq from what it evolved into by the time I stopped working there consistently in 2005. Overall the Iraq that I remember was really volatile and in the midst of chaos. Our days consisted of waiting to see where the next bomb would happen. One of the scenes that has stuck with me the most all these years later was from the early days when Shiite people were looking for their loved ones who had disappeared under Sadam. So many people were tracing relatives who had died or been killed – it was just people trying to survive in those initial days.
The world and the international community – particularly the countries that were involved in the war in Iraq – were relying on journalists to bring news of the aftermath of the invasion. I’ve seen the fall of a few different regimes and there’s nothing like it. Working amid the anarchy and chaos makes everything really, really time sensitive, because change happens so quickly. When I went back in 2010, it was shooting a feature for National Geographic about the resurgence of Baghdad. As a photojournalist that was so exciting for me; being able to have time to really go deep into certain aspects of local life which was something we just didn’t have the luxury to do in 2003. One thing I remember vividly was seeing people sit outside and eat ice cream, drink coffee and smoke shisha at night. We never saw anyone let their guard down like that at the beginning of the war. It was really the first time we started to see Iraqis just be Iraqis.
Emily: My journey in Iraq began in 2017 after I got an email asking if I’d like to come and photograph Arba’een, the world’s largest annual pilgrimage. I’d never heard of it before but it sounded extraordinary. When I Googled the photographs they were mostly taken from a bird’s eye view, but I was really interested in actually being on the ground and walking through it, to experience the physicality of the job. That was my first visit to the Middle East, and now I’ve been photographing Arba’een for three years. At the time I barely knew anything about Sunni, Shia, or any of the issues that were facing Iraq, and very little about the differences between the regions so that first experience was hugely informative for me.
Unlike Lynsey, my first trip to Iraq came at a time when it felt like there was greater stability. I first visited southern Iraq in October 2017. Mosul, in the north, had just been taken back from ISIS, and many men from the south were stationed there, so it was mostly just women that I encountered in rural villages around Najaf and Hillah. By the time I returned in 2018 the men had come home. Every man I interviewed was struggling with their mental health and the pressures of being a husband, father and soldier. The women were helping to carry people through. Now that I’ve moved to Erbil, in the north, I’ve found that being in the Kurdistan region of Iraq is totally different to the experience I had living in the south.
On how social media has impacted their careers
Emily: Social media has been really important to my career, but given the choice I’m not sure I would have grown up with it. I feel like there’s more accountability now. You can get called out but there’s lessons to be learnt from that if you have done something wrong. And because there’s also trolling you’ve got to have a thicker skin these days too. I’m disapproving of cancel culture because I think that people do grow and change, and I’ve seen photographers just get cancelled for one mistake which I don’t think is fair. What I have loved is being able to reach and communicate with Iraqi people around the world. I have messages from young Iraqi girls living in the US who have told me they’ve shown my pictures to their parents who were scared to go back, and after seeing the images they’ve gone back on holiday and sent me their own photographs of their time there. For me that’s the really exciting thing about Instagram, it just comes into your home and you’re able to reach the people you’re photographing.
Lynsey: When I first started out in the late ‘90s there was no social media. I think in a way it was good, because for me that time was such a huge learning curve and I’m glad I wasn’t a public figure during that. As Emily said, when she went to Iraq she had no idea how she had to dress or what the culture was and I was the same. We all have that learning curve and every time I go to a new country or every time I cover something new that learning happens again. That’s a lot harder when you’re in the public eye or when you have people giving you, not unwanted, but unsolicited feedback all the time – particularly from people that don’t know anything about journalism and about how it all works. We do ask permission, and the subjects are aware of what we’re doing. There’s such a detailed process involved but when you’re on social media some people think they’re suddenly an authority on subjects that they have no idea about. And because of that I’m glad that it wasn’t around when I was starting out. But like Emily said too, I think it’s amazing for the positives that it gives. I’m able to have an audience for stories that maybe didn’t get the exposure that I wanted, or even stories that didn’t ever get published. It opens up a whole different audience and is able to amplify our voice in a way that’s really crucial in this day in age.
On living and working through world changing events
Lynsey: For me the events of September 11 marked a palpable shift in not only the world, but in the attitude towards Westerners. I remember, I was working in Peshawar after it happened and prior to that I had been working in Afghanistan but as soon as September 11 happened and American troops went into Afghanistan there was hostility and hatred towards the west almost immediately. I remember I had made an appointment one morning to photograph women in a madrassa in Peshawar and I had spent a few days with them before that, but on the day that the American troops went into Afghanistan they told me that I was no longer welcome because I was considered an infidel. And that was it. It was like, “all bets are off.” That was the moment where the world shifted.
Emily: I think this is the big change, what we’re going through right now. After the pandemic, I don’t think things will be the same. From what I’ve experienced through my work in Iraq, I don’t think it’s possible for the country to go back to normal, but then again, Iraq is all too familiar with instability and change after decades of conflict. I hope to document the following months and years in Iraq post-COVID-19 and to witness how Iraqis overcome whatever the challenges may be. Iraqi people are phenomenally resilient and have fought for their freedom. My Iraqi colleagues have always believed in living their lives to the fullest. I don’t know what will happen next, but I’m watching the news closely.
Lynsey: I think what’s happening now is one of those other moments of history that marks a huge shift. Not only is it interesting to see how countries are reacting in terms of their populations but also how their governments are. How they’re taking responsibility for their citizens has been really telling. Are they providing PPE for their medical workers and the frontline staff? Are they doing testing? Are they doing tracing? I’ve been living in the UK for eight years and this is one of the first times I’ve actually done any work here. What I’ve found is that the censorship of COVID-19 and the deaths is extraordinary. I put in a request to get into a crematorium, near where I am in south west England and they want to veto power – they want to look at my photos and decide what can be published. This is the United Kingdom! That’s called propaganda, that’s not called journalism. It’s been fascinating in terms of learning how countries deal with journalists in these situations.
On changes in their process
Lynsey: September 11 happened when I was just finding my feet as a photographer and a photojournalist. I was just at the stage where I was getting consistent work and so it really launched my career in terms of continuing that. At the time I was living in Mexico and so I got on the first plane I could out of there and went directly to South Asia and ended up covering the war in Afghanistan and then Iraq. That was a time that really changed the direction of my career and pushed it towards war. My personal life ended with September 11 too. Any notion that I ever had that I could have a relationship and do this job was off for the next decade. I tried and tried to have love and work and to find a balance but it was impossible. My focus for the next decade was work
On the advice they would give photographers now
Lynsey: I think that all photographers should be documenting the world around them right now because I think that this is such a particular time in history. Whatever kind of photographer you are, I think your surroundings are interesting and I think that keeping a journal of what this all feels like is important. If you’re an artist and communicator it’s an important time to utilize that skill. As a photojournalist, and someone who normally documents these kinds of things (not necessarily pandemics, but humanitarian issues) I kind of sat it out for the first month because I wanted to ensure that my family were okay and safe and that we get into a routine here, but I started shooting again last week. I think that everyone has to listen to their own instincts of safety and what they feel comfortable with.
Emily: I’ve just been focusing on my family. I’d always wanted to produce work that was centered on them, but I never really found the time because with this job you’re constantly away and when you are home it’s so brief. Honestly I only ever come home to pick up visas. After the pandemic, I think people will commit to long term stories more and photographers should push editors to commission stories that take longer but really mean something. Once I’m able to fly back to Iraq I’ll have this wonderful archive of this time with my family to look back on. I’ve kept it like a job, every day I make sure that I tick off a few hours and focus on it, because the rare glimmer of light has been that I’ve realised that I really am a photographer. When everything else is stripped away, like Lynsey’s saying, I’ve come back to creating.