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Meet Hawre Khalid, An Iraqi Photojounralist

When taking pictures is a matter of life or death. That’s the life some photojournalists live on the daily basis and get us the reality from the conflict zone. Hawre is one of the braves out there getting us the real-life pictures from his homeland Iraq. He will tell us about his home city Kirkuk, challenges he faces on his job and future of Iraq. 

Hawre Khalid. b. 1987; Kirkuk, Iraq

Anshul- Thank you for taking out time from your busy schedule Hawre. Tell us something about yourself.

Hawre- I was born to a Kurdish family in the city of Kirkuk. At the time of my birth, tensions between the Kurds and the government of Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, were extremely high. My father was a manager in Kirkuk’s hospital, and my family had been in the city for several generations. But in that era, Saddam began his program to remove Kurds from Kirkuk and “Arabize” the city, and so we were forced to move to Diyala province. My father brought us back to our home a couple of years later, but the peace did not last. In 1991, after the Gulf War, we were forced to leave again and become refugees in Iran for 6 months during the Kurdish civil war. I do not remember much from that time except fluidity, coming and going, a sense that nothing was permanent.

Some of my earliest memories took shape in the mid-90s, when my uncle began sending us photographs from his life in Holland. He had moved there to escape conditions in Iraq, and his photographs showed me another world. I became interested in photography, and I wanted to take pictures and send them back to my uncle, to show him our life. But I didn’t have a camera. Eventually my uncle sent me one, and in the early 2000s, just after the United States invaded Iraq, I started taking photos of my own. Since then, photography has become the art through which I try to understand the world—my life, my family, the chaos of my country and my people. The sense of motion and displacement that I experienced early in my life is one of the major themes of my work, and I try to capture it and represent it in the stories I tell.

I received a degree in photojournalism from the University of Sulaimaniyah in 2008 and I started working as a professional photographer in 2007. My work has appeared in print and online in many places, including the publications listed below.

The New York Times; Time Magazine’s “Lightbox”; The Washington Post; National Geographic; Der Spiegel; Le Monde; Aljazeera English; The Sunday Times

Anshul- There has been a lot of change in Iraq since last one decade. What kind of impact did it make on you as a person and as a photographer/ photojournalist?

Hawre- Since I was born, Iraq has always been at war with different Ideological terrorists group and countries around.

From Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s to Gulf war in 1990s; then America invaded Iraq in 2003 and Saddam Hussein was overthrown, I thought now it’s the time to live in peace, but that never happened. Civil war broke, then Al-Qaida showed up till ISIS recently, who knows what else will happen!

As a native of this country and as a photojournalist, I am tired of witnessing all the battle and death around me, but what makes me appreciate that I am still alive. A lot of people think the job we do as a photojournalist is very brave, but to me it is opposite, I constantly live in fear but this is something I have chosen.

Anshul- How is it been living in Iraq now and especially in Kirkuk?

Hawre- Living in Iraq is not easy since it has always been in war, terror and refugee crises. Kirkuk as a city is complex because it has rich oil reserves and varied ethnic groups like  Kurds, Arab, Turkmen and Christians exist. Political reasons always make a problem between these groups, Arab hates Kurds, Kurds hate Turkmen and all the way around.

I was born in Kirkuk, a city of northern Iraq in the Kurdish region of the country. It’s a multicultural place, where Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Christians and foreign workers live together. Back in the day, Saddam Hussein initiated several campaigns to ‘Arabize’ Kirkuk, evicting Kurdish families and giving their homes over to families from the south of Iraq. But when the US-led invasion of 2003 reached my hometown, Kurdish forces worked to reverse this process. The city fell within the so-called disputed areas; responsibility for administration and security was shared between Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities.

The security situation has been bad since 2003, but it took a turn for the worst with the war against ISIS. It’s very close to the city and people are scared. The economy went down, there are fewer jobs, people only buy the bare necessities. Arabs are suspicious of the Turkmen and Peshmergas and the other way around. There are still many explosions, executions, and kidnappings happening across.  

Living in Kirkuk and especially as a Photojournalist is difficult for many reasons. Most of the time, officials don’t understand what I’m doing or don’t trust that I am a journalist. People don’t want to be photographed because of security reasons. They’re afraid to open up about their true feelings. I also fear for my personal safety: journalists are big targets for being terrorists, but what I find the most interesting is that people don’t leave Kirkuk. I met a woman who told me she lost her only son in an explosion, she hopes for better time to come but still won’t leave.

Anshul- Your projects specifically “The last train from Baghdad” and “Denmark- A Man Without Country” are very heart-touching. They have a portraiture of an individual and a context of a story. Could you please talk more about them?

Hawre- During the refugee crises, I got a chance to know about Qanie Nazari who has no country and living in a refugee camp in Denmark. The 24-year-old man was born in a refugee camp in Anbar, Iraq, after his family fled Iran to escape political persecution. Now, Nazari lives in Denmark, to which he immigrated in 2013 in the hope of a new life – one that would bring a sense of identity for the stateless man.

Instead, Nazari traded one camp for another, as Denmark now prepares for his deportation. His life reminded me of how was my childhood when I was only four, my family, terrified of Saddam Hussein’s regime, immigrated to Iran. I know how it feels when you don’t have a country. Nazari lived in the Sandholm Asylum Center for refugees in Denmark for three years.  He has now been transferred to another camp to await his deportation. He was not allowed to work, but has received monthly benefits from the Danish government. He does not have any friends, does not go out very often. He hardly sleeps or eat, and spends most of his time smoking and drinking tea that other people in the camp buy for him. Denmark has asked both Iraq and Iran to take him back, but neither country recognizes him as a citizen – condemning Nazari to live in a diplomatic limbo. Under no illusion that my photographs will help Nazari, but he hopes they can put a face on the current humanitarian crisis. I believed There shouldn’t be people without a country, and without the right to live somewhere.

I also moved to Baghdad for a couple of months. While I was living there I realized the whole country has only one train and that was from Baghdad to Basra and back to Baghdad. I thought It’s very interesting to make a story about that because people would never expect trains in Iraq especially when media is always showing the war and conflicts. I met the first Iraqi train driver who was in love with the trains. The whole idea was so interesting to me and I decided to work on it.

Anshul- What kind of challenges you face on day to day basis during photographing?

Hawre- Photography is an everyday challenge for me, but the most difficult challenge is when you are shooting on the field. They don’t trust you that you are just a photographer & nothing else, it’s because Iraqi media is always using us for propaganda towards political reasons.

When you are working and living in a country like Iraq where one is always surrounded by war, danger, kidnapping, etc, while you should take some risks that other people won’t, at the same time you should think about your family’s safety, because in such countries if anything goes wrong then not only you but your family in danger as well.

Anshul- You have been an important part of the Global project Map of Displacement, talk to us more about it. 

Hawre- I and couple of Kurdish photographers were displaced when we were kids during Saddam’s regime and we all grew up with war. But when IS war started thousands of people became displaced and came to Kurdistan region where we live. It was a chance to document their lives with involving our feeling and experience of that used be our life back in days. Each photographer has been at least once displaced if not twice. We started making stories in different areas in the region with help from an Italian photo editors Stefano Carini and Dario Bosio. The project became an exhibition in Prague last year at the same time published as a photo book which you can buy it online on Darst project website

Anshul- You have been documenting Iraq since last on a decade and I am sure would keep doing it for time to come. In a nutshell, you are recording a modern history of Iraq real time. How do you feel about it? Do you have any plans to publish this as a book?

Hawre- I feel as a local photojournalist I have more chances to document events that no one else would be able to do it. Because We as locals know the places, languages, and the culture. It gives us more accessible and easier to cover the situations and stories. I would love to publish a book about my experiences with the stories behind the scenes which can’t get published on media most of the time. I am already working on a book about my hometown Kirkuk that I have been shooting there since the first fight against IS.

Anshul- I have seen your work on Instagram, you have been a part of many close encounters with Kurdish forces and their assaults, any experience you want to share which was dangerous or near death?

Hawre- I have been in dangerous situations many times and survived by luck. The first fight between Kurdish Peshmergas and ISIS 12 June 2014, I was embedded with the Kurdish forces in Kirkuk. It was very dangerous since we didn’t know too much about the war against ISIS. My photojournalist best friend Kamaran Najm was wounded and then the forces left him behind. Afterward IS captured him alive. Since then we haven’t got any news about him, but I am hoping one day see him again.

Recently I was embedded as a photojournalist with the Peshmergas, the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, to cover the recent war in Kirkuk between them and Iraqi forces (Kurds have decided about referendum). A photo featuring me moving a wounded soldier to safety was circulated widely on Twitter and featured on Rudaw, a Kurdish TV network.

A car behind our car got hit by RPG and suddenly saw three wounded peshmergas on the street. I think I took three photos and then immediately put down my camera down and decided to help them and take them to safety. At the same time the Iraqi forces were shooting at me from about 200 meters away. After about half an hour we merged put them in a pickup car and send them to the hospital but unfortunately one of them died on before reach the hospital.

Shortly after the photo was published, I received a phone call from a colleague instructing me to leave Kirkuk for my own safety because authorities in the Iraqi military saw the photo. The Iraqi military, according to my colleague, will use the photo as evidence that I was aligned with the Peshmerga and thus an enemy.

A few days later, rumors began to circulate that the Iraqi military has a list of Kurdish journalists and volunteer fighters. Colleagues called me and told me about the list and warned me that my name is likely to be on the list. The next day, Arkan Sharif, a Kurdish cameraman, and my close colleague was stabbed to death in front of his family.

Anshul- Do you follow work of any photographers? Has anyone’s work influenced you and motivated you to keep doing what you do?

Hawre- I have been following many photographers work, but I have always been inspired by Yuri Kozyrev’s work. From my early career I only knew him by name, but in the last two years I have personally met him and worked with him closely when he was visiting Iraq. I am surprised by the way he works. He is very good at making people calm down, get close to them. To me, he is not only a great photojournalist but also incredibly nice human which I found so important as a photojournalist.

Anshul- What kind of gear do you use? Any favorites in lenses etc.

Hawre- I use Canon 5D Mark III camera with a fix lens 28mm. My favorite lenses are 28mm and 35mm.

Anshul- What kind of advice would you want to give to new/ budding documentary photographers and photojournalists?

Hawre- I would advise new photographers to pay attention to details while they are working and since photography to me is more about feeling than seeing I would advise them to feel the moment and their subjects before they capture it. 

You can see more of Hawre’s work here.