[Fujilove] Night Lights: Iraq

Originally written for the Fujilove website, published on 28 October 2018

I’ve just returned from a month in northern Iraq, doing some work for an organization called Preemptive Love Coalition. This piece, though, is not about the work but my after-hours in Sulaymaniyah, the city nestled in the mountains of Iraq’s Kurdish region, where I was based.

Aside from long-haul transits in plush airports, I’d not been anywhere in the Middle East before this. The impressions I had of Iraq were exclusively news-driven: burning oil fields, military-armed and flak-jacketed to the teeth, faraway plumes of destruction, decimated cities, a despairing population and ISIS, all against the scorching backdrop of desert.

But I knew that was only one side of the story, not only because I have friends in Preemptive Love who have shared a bit of their daily lives over the last couple of years, but, as someone who’s rapidly approaching midlife (argh!), and is a couple of months short of six years on the road, I’ve learned, as Amos Lee puts it, that “you find men and women all have trouble if you travel”.

And, too, a daily life that precedes those troubles. It was that daily life that I was intensely interested in as I normally am – what does ordinary look like?

I found out by walking and, when I could, hitching rides with my teammates.

It was still warm after sundown when I arrived in mid-September. Nights were the only sensible times to explore, when the unrelenting sun…well, relented! I padded along main thoroughfares and quieter streets in safety, untroubled and mostly unnoticed, except when I brought the camera out. Then there’d be all kinds of curiosity because I was the only woman a) walking alone and b) with a camera.

The curiosity was harmless and the atmosphere vibrant. Night is when the city truly wakes. It’s the best time to people watch, and get to know the collective hum and movement of the city.

There was plenty to absorb. As the day waned and the long evenings gave way to night, I was charmed by the strings of big lightbulbs that festoon just about every eating establishment in the city. They offer an entirely different perspective of the city, delivering it from the desert’s glare to the relief of shadow and color. These lights were everywhere in Sulaymaniah. And they glowed tremendously, as all lights did in the city. I thought it was my eyes until the camera sensor confirmed it. As the days wore on I realized the diffusion was caused by all the dust in the air. Not great for breathing, but they certainly made artificial lighting look good on camera!

I did nothing but make pictures of lights for a month of evenings, both on my feet and in cars. It was a good way to get a feel for how people reacted to cameras and if it was OK to be doing what I was doing. I’d been told before heading over that cameras were a tool of oppression used during Saddam’s regime and I’d need to be more aware of how I was using mine. So, I asked for consent when I could. I’ve made more eye contact with random strangers in four weeks than I would have in a year of street shooting elsewhere. As a result, there are a few people in Suli who know (and are undoubtedly amused by) how beautiful their lights are to this stranger.

I haven’t talked about gear at all. This was what I brought with me to Iraq for the month:

X-Pro2
X-E3
XF18-135mmF3.5-5.6
XF35mmF2
XF23mmF2

All the stills I shot in that month (and for this post) were with the XF35mmF2. I started both my Fuji and nomad journey with only a 35mm lens, and it’s the one I still want to use the most.

I used both the X-Pro2 and the X-E3 interchangeably for stills and video. I’ve previously borrowed X-T2 and X-H1 bodies for bigger video jobs, but that wasn’t an option this time.

The thing that saved me all month long was one lens. I haven’t used the XF18-135mm for year but knowing that video would be a big part of my job in Iraq, it would have been my choice in a one-lens-only scenario. All the video I made was handheld so I was stupidly grateful for that excellent image stabilization 100% of the time.

For that single saving grace, thanks Fujifilm!

And thank you Erin for some legendary drives in those four weeks.