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Surviving the Cynical Circus

Byline Investigations photo
Byline InvestigationsSulaymaniyah, Iraq
Surviving the Cynical Circus
Metrography CEO Stefano Carini on ISIS, the plight of displaced people, and the value of photojournalism in a country like Iraq

Metrography is the only independent photojournalism agency in Iraq. Though they focus mainly on Kurdistan, they have reported from all of Iraq’s 18 governorates. Part of their approach is to train and hire locals; it is no exaggeration to say that Metrography is single-handedly revolutionising photojournalism in Iraq. We are very proud that they are joining us on Byline - please click here to fund them.

Here, we speak to CEO Stefano Carini, who has been with Metrography in Iraq for around one year:

What is Metrography, and why did you decide to join? 

Metrography is the first Iraqi photo agency, and now the only independent one. Furthermore it is an idea and an ideal with at its core the will to educate and support local photographers so to create a vibrant and professional photography industry.

I joined it because I wanted to try and implement the agency structure I learned and worked with while I was at NOOR images in Amsterdam and make in into a local reality. Also I wanted to coach a small group of local photographers through the production of large projects. 

What was the situation for Iraqis taking up news photography before Metrography started?  

Before Metrography (which was started long before I joined) the only possibility to be a photographer in Iraq was to work with the wires, where nobody is really helping photographers to progress visually, to develop a personal visual language. I don’t think I have helped Iraqis to become photographers, but I did help photographers to refine their vision, and to better understand the business.

How many photographers do you have? Where are they from? 

I work with 10 photographers, of whom 2 are women. They are all from different parts of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Do your female photographers face bigger challenges? 

Certainly so. I mean, to be a photographer here, sometimes a woman has to make decisions that have consequences far more problematic that those a man would experience. Being a photographer for a woman sometimes means to be ostracized.

Is there a high level of danger involved in the work of Metrography photographers?

Sometimes there has been. We have covered volatile situations at different front lines. But generally I try to keep it safe, for I don’t believe it is worth it. There is a lot that can to be told without risking one’s life.  

What do you want to show the world about Iraq? 

I want to help the photographers to go beyond what the world wants to see from Iraq. I want to push them to go and find what they want to show, and so in that sense I don’t have a clear idea of what I want to show. I guess I would like to show diversity, variety, intimacy between people - and the circle of life, which here is so intense, so precious and so fragile.

Please tell us about the Yazidis and your work photographing them…

I don’t know much about the Yazidis, except that they are one of many minorities in Iraq, and that they follow a religion, or better a creed, that is more ancient than both Islam and Christianity. What we did, was simply to document their exodus from Sinjar. We were at the right place at the right time, and we cared enough to follow through and document it in depth. Some of us still work with Yazidis, documenting their conditions now, which are no different from the conditions of Christians, Sunni, Shabak, and Kurds who had to escape from ISIS. 

Have you had any run-ins with ISIS? How does it feel to be in Iraq on the ground with ISIS on the rampage; and is there anything outsiders misunderstand about ISIS?

I have not come across them, and hope to never do so. I don’t go closer that where I already am. Being here feels safe, but it is a bubble we all live in, 140 km from the front lines. ISIS is in Kurdistan too. There is a mosque in Sulimania, where I live, where the imam praises ISIS, and preaches seclusion for women and so on: the ideology is much wider than just ISIS, and it spreads like a plague through deprived neighborhoods, and villages where education is non-existent. There is a lot that the world has misunderstood about ISIS. Firstly and most importantly, they have not come out of the blue. Even though their ideology is anti-civilisation, inhuman and so on, they have came out of some situations which the world has known for years, and in some cases, helped create. I think this question would need a very long answer. But the reality is that ISIS is not easily understood. They are an organization like many others, but they implement and showcase a shocking level of violence, therefore they are more exotic, more “interesting” than others. Deep down they are not much different from many other organizations. The interesting question is: how come so many people joined their cause from the suburbs of comfortable Europe and US? 

Is there any hope for Iraq now, as a state? 

I don’t think I know much about Iraq: as I mentioned, we live in the Kurdish bubble. There is always hope, but the level of hatred, racism, discrimination, distrust and sectarian violence that I have seen here, even in everyday life and everyday interactions, is far greater than what we’d like it to be. This will take a long time to change, if it ever will. This means that peace can only be imposed from above, and it will hardly last long.

Demand for your work seems to be very cyclical… please tell us about how that is the case, and the challenges it gives you. 

Demand for our work follows the events, but more precisely it follows the media circus. People get bored of hearing about Ukraine, so for a while the media covers Nigeria, than Syria, then Iraq, then back to Ukraine. We try to exploit the momentum, but we have grown tired of being part of such a cynical (more than just cyclical) circus, and we are trying to become sustainable away from the news. The news comes and goes, but people stay, and life goes on. It is a big challenge to keep the agency running in the months when - fortunately - nothing too dramatic or shocking happens. But I prefer that challenge, to the misery that usually causes outrage, and therefore media interest.

What attracted you to photographing Kurdish communities?

We photograph everything that we care for: diversity is one important component of Iraqi society, and therefore we photograph it.

What specific challenges do you face as an independent media organisation? Are things getting better or worse in this current market?

The main challenge is surviving, finding a model that will be sustainable, and enabling our photographers to continue their work and their personal paths into visual communication. All the other challenges are just the soul of the work itself. The market is fine, there is space and there is potential: it is just sometimes very hard to understand it, and find your own place in it. And definitely it is even harder to bend it to your needs, but we try. 

How is your relationship with the Iraqi government? 

Good, since we have no relationship. Sometimes it is better to avoid trouble.

Do you think Metrography has a specific style of photography, and if so, why? Is there a difference between the type of photos you can sell, and the type you want people to see?

I don’t believe Metrography has a specific style. The photographers are young and are still exploring. But for instance, the work of Rawsht Twana starts to be identifiable, for he knows exactly what he cares for and where his interest lies: intimacy, and the human condition. His work is all about that, even though the stories he does are different. So in a sense I think that Metrography’s photographers will indeed distinguish themselves, and make the best of the fact that they are from the place that they photograph. I hope we will be able to use this and show it to others. Indeed, the images I want people to see are more difficult to show. Iraq is violence, blood, and war. But there is more, much more. For these reasons we are trying to publish our own work, bypassing the media. This is one of our main goals: to self publish our work, so that we don’t have to compromise on what we want to show, and what the media asks for.

What is your view of Instagram and the sudden profusion of people describing themselves as ‘photographers’? 

I think Instagram is a powerful tool and it can be used wisely. But I personally don’t like it, and for me it is not photography. It is a mirror of a bulimic and narcissistic society, the society we live in. You see, in the end the pen that a traffic policeman uses to give fines is the same implement that Kafka or Camus used. It is what you have to say that makes the difference, not what you use to say it. People have forgotten about this simple, but fundamental truth.

What is your favourite piece of Metrography work to date and why? 

I have two, and for two different reasons. One is Aram Karim’s five year project about smugglers in Kurdistan, because it is full of commitment, dedication and passion.

The second is Kirkuk daily life by Hawre Khalid, for we have really built it together from zero in the heat of last summer, and it was very rewarding to see how the collaboration between the photographer and myself in the end paid off. This was the reason why I came in the first place. 

What is your opinion about the state of the news media today? Are things going in the right direction? 

Things are moving slowly but inevitably, and that will ultimately be good. But there is a lot of resilience from some of the dinosaurs of the industry, and some organizations who believe they are entitled to dictate the rules and to foresee the future: but it is not up to them, it is up to us, the people who care enough to get our hands dirty while trying to change things and at the same time bear the responsibility for that on our shoulders.

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#Iraq, #Kurdistan, #ISIS

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