I couldn’t dare be another man giving her orders.

The assignment seemed straightforward. As a part of the United Nations’ Development Program, I was to go to Iraq and take portraits of refugees. I knew it would be somewhat heavy considering the emotional weight behind the purpose of the shoot. But like many international projects, my focus was on my equipment, visas, logistics and mental planning of what I would hope to capture. 

When we got to the Sharia Camp in Dohuk, my mind was still very much on the technical, even given the state of the tent camp, the somberness of it all. The camp houses 18,000 refugees in 4000 tents. I set up my backdrop. As I handled the large screen, I was introduced to the first person I was to photograph.  The woman was stoic, hardened, but calm. 

I asked some introductory questions to the translator to get some of her story. He nodded, and then spoke to her. Her voice was softer than I would have imagined. Then the translator told me her words, “They would beat me every single day. And treated us like animals.” My attention now pulled away from my camera. I asked a few more questions to the translator.

He relayed to me that not only had she been beaten, she had been raped repeatedly. The ISIS rebels had used heavy weapons to subdue her and her helpless family. They forced her children to learn Sharia Law. “They took my husband and my children away. Please help me find them.”  

I had a painful realization. This woman in front of me, all her freedoms removed by gun point, had suffered one-only-knows how many months of being of ordered and controlled, brutalized and beaten by men with their own agendas. I am a man with a camera, used to directing people to bend and shift for my lens. I too had an agenda. My heart was crushed.  I couldn’t dare be another man giving her orders. From that moment there was a total shift in me. The delicacy and humanity of what I was there for seeped through all of the travel jitters and goals. A greater sense of responsibility filled me. These people were not only in need of a voice, but as the one carrying that voice to the other side, I was going to have to do so with great tenderness, a kind of tenderness that up until that point I had not ever yielded with my subjects.

I took a deep breath. I was probably only going to be able to take one photo. Anything more than one would have been an injustice to her in that moment. I told the translator. “I just need her to face me.” I smiled at her kindly, as peacefully as possible, to assure her even a minute amount of comfort. I held my breath as I snapped and let it out as I checked the view screen. One shot. I thanked her and she walked away.


Inside one of the tents that provides shelter for 7 people, I met a mother and her four children.

The eldest daughter wore long sleeves that covered the bite marks, where members of ISIS had bitten away chunks of her flesh from her forearms. Her mother pulled up her daughter’s sleeves to show me. Her scars were very clearly the map of a mouth full of teeth. The bites were only the physical traces of what thirteen months being held captive had left on her family.

“Day before yesterday, my six-year-old son grabbed a knife and put it to his sister’s neck.” He was playing. His young, impressionable mind had absorbed brutality like a sponge. And now that’s how he plays. He tries to strangle, stab and cut the throats of his siblings. He thinks it’s just a game, and he wants to be like the grown-ups that were around him. So it was only natural that he would copy the things he’d seen, not knowing what it actually meant to do such things.

“It’s what they (ISIS) trained him to do.”  She said. “I don’t know what to do.”

Without any resources to mental health professionals she is unsure how to help her children. The whole family probably is suffering and will suffer from PTSD, but I am not a psychologist. However, it doesn’t take much to realize that these people need more than blankets, clothes, food and refuge. They need a whole array of support if they are to recover from all that they have experienced.

“My family had to pay the thirty-five thousand dollars to buy us back,” the mother stood holding her toddler, her older children stood by her sides. The girl covered her head with her hood. The older boy wrapped an arm around his little brother who ironically wore a sweater that read “BKLYN 62.” Brooklyn is where I live. Thousands of miles from my home this little boy, in a Brooklyn sweater, has been pretending to kill his family. With the same sensitivity to the emotional state of this family, these exiles I took a few undirected portraits, hoping to catch on their faces all that they have been through.

Near the rusting remnants of a blown out pick-up truck

“Stop! Stop!” I shouted at my driver.
“It is very dangerous to stop.”
“I don’t care. Stop the car, please.”

We were driving along a high road that looked out over a vast green valley, a landscape most people don’t picture when they think of Iraq. But it wasn’t the beautiful view, green with life that caught my attention. Near the rusting remnants of a blown out pick-up truck, not far from piles of concert ruble and square slabs in the Tal Afar district that were once the walls of houses, I saw a group of teenage boys playing soccer in the grass.  They were laughing, playing, joyful amongst the looming echoes of death, bloodshed and bombs.  We passed them in the car. 

“Go back! We need to go back.”
“But sir,  it is not safe for you to stop.”
“Go back please!”

He shook his head, not agreeing with me, but he turned the car around.  “I'll not take more than three minutes, I promise!”

We parked near the blown out car. I called out to get the boys' attention. They looked over, a little scared at first. I held up the camera and pointed to it. “Pictures! I want to take some pictures.” My signals were clear enough even though they didn’t understand my words. Using my best pointing and hand waving I got them to come over.

 I took one of the older boy in the group with the soccer ball in front the destroyed pick-up. Then I waved them off with an OK sign and they resumed their game. Watching them play restored a sense of faith in me. That inside us, inside people is a resilience for joy that can’t be extinguished. It can be stifled, pushed down. It can feel as though it’s been blotted out. But after a little bit of time, people can find joy in life again; we can play amid the rubble. Even when danger still lurks nearby, we will play nonetheless. Terror only works for so long, until the mind normalizes it and what bubbles to the surface are those other emotions that were waiting on the bench for their turn to enter the game.

We are all trying to get there

 I was weaving through the tents of the Ashti camp in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, looking for more people to photograph when a woman approached me. She seemed very eager to have her picture taken, which was unusual for a woman in that part of the world, especially an unaccompanied mother. Most all of the women were very timid and not outwardly voluntary until we expressed the desire to use the photos as a way to promote more aide and knowledge of their circumstances. This woman seemed to be fully aware of this fact, and that her photo would be seen by a large number people. She began speaking and I called the translator over.  She stood regally in the gravel laneway between the rows of tents. She held her child of maybe two-years-old on her hip, a proud smile on her face. I took a picture and the translator shared her message to the future viewers of her image. “I don’t know what has happened to humanity. We are all trying to get there. How does is matter which route we take?”

I was unsure what she meant about, “there.” Did she mean heaven? Happiness? Life? But it didn’t really matter what, “there” was, I understood the point.

ISIS has been destroying the lives of peaceful people in the name of God. What should it matter how other people prayed? Don’t we all just want the same thing? Don’t we all just want to live without suffering?  Don’t we all want to cultivate a sense of heaven in our lives?

At the beginning my trip to Iraq was just another assignment. But while there, I witnessed first hand the undying spirit in people who have been plagued with torment. From all the people I photographed, some were captive, some had lost their loved ones, some had travels hundreds of miles from their homes, and some were there just to help.  What I used to think were noble motivations for being a photographer, now seem petty. This trip was only a small effort to shed light on these amazing human beings and their enduring faith in humanity. And my hope is that the photos I took are able to speak the volumes of courage, strength and resilience I encountered.