Over the years, the media has been reporting on Iraq through the dark images of war, violence, destruction, refugees, Islam and ISIS. Few know much else about this country, nor how daily life of Iraqis looks like. The exhibition Over My Eyes: Stories of Iraq in DOX tries to portray the innocent, mundane white images of life, which usually stay concealed in the background of the black wartime pictures fed to us by mainstream media.

With the intention of extending their “caliphate,” ISIS seized most of northern and western Iraq, including other large cities such as Fallujah or Tikrit. These events mark the onset of a great humanitarian crisis, which has reached even our own comfortable lives. Over a tenth of the whole Iraqi population has been displaced, driving more than three million innocent people out of their homes. These people have no interest in ruining our lives or forcing their religion on the western world (as many people might believe); their deepest wish is simply to return home.

Stefano Carini, an Italian-American photographer and curator of Over My Eyes, came to Mosul, Iraq in May 2014 to work for the country’s first free photo agency Metrography. A month later, on June 10th, the city was captured by the extremist group ISIS (Islamic state of Iraq and Syria).

Despite (or perhaps because of) the great disorder, Stefano Carini stayed with the agency and continued to work with local photographers featured in Over My Eyes: Aram Karim, Bnar Sardar, Hawre Khalid, Seivan M. Salim, Rawsht Twana, Twana Abdullah, Sebastian Meyer, Dario Bosio and Ali Arkady. His own encounter with Iraq in the midst of war is displayed in his complementary exhibition The Woman, the Moon, the Snake. Seventeen Months in Iraq.

Through the exhibition, we can see Iraq in all its mundane glory through the eyes of the local photographers. People pass time at home during frequent power blackouts. Children play or swim in the local waters. Soldiers rest after a battle with ISIS.

Many photographers have depicted the life of smugglers on the border between Iraq and Iran, but none of them produced images comparable with the ones by Aram Karim. Aram grew up among the smugglers and has a close relationship with many of them, which enabled him to photograph them while they were dividing money or getting drunk at night. These images are thus very unique, since the smugglers wouldn’t allow any stranger to join them in such intimate moments.

One and a half million Iraqis escaped to Kurdistan, an autonomous region of Iraq. Stories of such civilians are told online through the Map of Displacement, which is an additional project to the exhibition Over My Eyes. The accounts of the civilians were compiled “irrespective of their religion or ethnicity,” demonstrating the demographic diversity of Iraq.

Three quarters of the population are Mesopotamian Arabs and the other quarter is mostly composed of Kurds, who have been granted their own autonomous region. Kurds include smaller groups, such as Feylis, Yazidis or Shabaks. Although a majority of Iraqis are Muslim, they divide themselves into two branches of Islam: Shia and Sunni. Other inhabitants practise Christianity, Mandaeism and Yazidism.

The city of Sinjar had a big community of Yazidis, whose monotheistic faith has elements of Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam, yet ISIS perceives them as “devil worshipers.” Hence, when ISIS captured the city, they killed over ten thousands of Yazidi men and kidnapped five thousand women to be sold as sex slaves.

The Iraqi female photographer Seivan M. Salim found some of the women who managed to escape. She wanted to take portraits of them, but could not capture their faces for their own safety (so ISIS would not find them again and their community would not condemn them). She finally portrayed them veiled in their traditional purely white wedding dresses. The testimonies lurking in the black void behind the innocent women in the photographs are shocking.

Their husbands, brothers, sons were killed: “Then we heard the shooting. We thought they were killing animals not our men.” Women, including the pregnant as well as children, were sexually abused and tortured. “They told us that they would punish us, but never kill us, because they preferred to torture us,” reads another account of 20-year-old Jihan held in captivity for ten months.

The powerful portraits and their stories were offered to major agencies such as New York Times, but everyone turned them down. The media wanted pictures from Mosul, which was in the hands of ISIS at that time. ISIS had very strict rules for photographers, forbidding taking any material they did not previously approve out of their territory, as Stefano Carini explained during a press conference. In the end the western media published videos and images produced by ISIS, meaning their propaganda was given to us instead of (or even masked as) “objective” news.  

As their ancestors in ancient Mesopotamia were accustomed to the annual chaos when Euphrates and Tigris flooded their land each year, so have contemporary Iraqis learned to live in constant military conflict. After the Great War, the Ottoman Empire disintegrated and the British colonizers divided the Middle East without any regard to the ethnic and religious diversity of the land. Generations of Iraqis have thus lived through constant unrest, revolts and wars. Nonetheless, the exhibition Over My Eyes shows that the civilians have to go on living their lives in the midst of war – working, eating, playing and sleeping just like anyone else.

Over My Eyes: Stories of Iraq

DOX. 9. 2017 – 8. 1. 2018.