Iraq: Amna Suraka is a project I have completed off the back of a recent trip to Iraq. Amna Suraka is the name of one of the ba’athist regimes prisons and torture chambers in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah. I spent an extended time documenting the inside of the worst place I have been in my life. The buildings themselves are littered with bullet holes and grenade damage. These mark the battles during the uprising when local Kurds in Iraq took control of the prison. Old tanks from the Iraqi military line one wall of the courtyard. The buildings have not been restored, remaining as a museum memorialising the cruelty of Saddam’s regime. There is no official museum text to welcome you; the prison is left almost exactly as it was when it was liberated. I was taken to the secret prison, where the Baath regime had interrogated, tortured and killed Kurdish prisoners. We walked through rooms where women experienced torture and rape. The bedding and plates had been left exactly as they were when the captives were set free. I was confronted with solitary confinement cells where prisoners wrote or scratched messages, drawings and poems into the walls. The cells seemed too small to stand up or lie down in, its then that I realised that the place was designed for evil.
The work is not intended to be political, however, anything engaging with the subject of Iraq cannot avoid the political and historical context. In the midst of our political posturing about the rights and wrongs of the war, we seem to miss the people and their stories. Out of all my experiences in Iraq, it was the people who impacted me the most. The beauty, humility, hospitality and the genuine desire for peace. The exhibition contains a series of portraits showing our common humanity and the beauty and dignity clearly found in the Iraqi people.
The work does not claim to make any bold statements, rather I would prefer you to view the work and make your own conclusions. I went to Iraq assuming I would have my political perspective clarified, what I experienced only brought more confusion. I am a pacifist. History shows us, that violence doesn't stop violence. One of my friends who works in Iraq wrote a song with the lyrics: 'Waging a war for peace, is like raping a girl, because she wants a baby'. I agree with this statement, however, what I witnessed in Iraq made me also realise that it seems right that the dictator Saddam Hussein is no longer in power. My hope is that the project goes beyond a political position, and confronts you with a reality that allows you to identify with the people we met and photographed.
The project depicts three main series of work; the first is a collection of portraits showing the common humanity, including the beauty and dignity clearly found in the Iraqi people.
You change from personal/first person language to second person the artist etc – you also repeat a lot of information. So I’ve changed things back to frist person and taken out repeats (I realize you may have done this for a reason)
The second is a series of large format prints depicting the inside of Amna Suraka, a Baath Regime prison in the northern Iraqi city of Sulaymaniyah. I spent extensive time on my own documenting the inside of “the darkest place I have ever been to”. We were told torture, rape and death had been perpetrated in this place on a daily basis. The trip and specifically this experience has affected me profoundly and as a result has become a focus for this series of work.
The third, a video installation created in one of the cells from Amna Suraka from 3,000+ photos. At one point the electricity failed and I was left in complete darkness, it was emotional. My aim is for you to experience some of those feelings - I want the work to reveal this space to you. However, the restricted view a single image gives you only allows you to view small areas at a time. So I produced this video to try and capture the way my eyes darted around the space, with the hope that it will force you to slowly see every inch.
For a recent exhibition in the UCMK Gallery I created a large (6m x 3m) photo-montage for the upstairs space in the gallery. The thousands of prints were cut and attached directly onto the wall. This 360° distorted the panorama and allowed the piece to envelope the viewer in the space. It had a curious fusion of beautiful but sinister, it connected to us with the truth yet was somehow surreal as it took on a ‘painterly(or painted) form.
I went to Iraq with a photographer and social entrepreneur friend Ian Rowlands. We went for a number of reasons; Firstly, we went to help an incredible organisation called the Preemptive Love Coalition (PLC), which exists to eradicate the backlog of Iraqi children waiting in line for lifesaving heart surgery and also pursue helping to bring peace between communities at odds.
Secondly, I am a member of the International Guild of Visual Peacemakers (IGVP). Which was created to build bridges of peace across ethnic, cultural, and religious lines through visual communication that is both accountable to an ethical standard and created by those who authentically care about people. Being a part of the IGVP inspires me to use my camera to try and make a positive difference in the world.
I am interested in art's ability to bring about positive change. My interests, research and time is caught up with this notion. I am also interested in ideas of story telling, narrative, place and location. These are some of the other reasons why I went to Iraq. I went looking to explore the story of the Iraq still unseen, to engage with the lives, questions and challenges the media has been ignoring. Though I wanted to tell their story, I soon realised that I could not do this as well as the Iraqi people themselves. I have subsequently co- curated with Ian Rowlands and the PLC; an exhibition of art work by Iraqi people which is currently touring here in Europe. “Iraq: The Forgotten Story” gives the Iraqi people an opportunity to have their own voice. In my own work I have tried to show my perspective of the place and I want to convey some of the highs and lows of the experiences in Iraq. I am not a photojournalist, I do not hunt down the headlines or stop myself getting involved. I am interested in the people, their lives and their stories.
After connecting with PLC, we got them to connect us to other photographers and artists in the region. We then went through the trouble of working out visa’s and all the paper work. This was a lot easier than we had originally thought. We then planned the trip, raised support for the charity and packed our bags and hoped for the best.
We were in Iraq for only a couple of weeks and it meant long 16+ hour days shooting as much as possible. We created over 100GB of digital photos, 20hrs+ of video and audio, 16 rolls of medium format film (120 645) and collected lots of stories and first hand accounts of the dramatic events.
We were made to feel so welcome. I have travelled a fair bit, including other middle eastern nations and I have never felt so welcome. I don’t think we paid for a single meal, everyday people invited us to their house for tea or food. Occasionally when we went to places to buy food they would refuse payment and insisting on covering the cost themselves - to them it was an issue of honour, as this was our first time in their nation.