The beauty of the mountains in the background at odds with one of the many horrific prisons of Saddam. Kurdistan, Iraq, March 2019

30 days in Kurdistan

Charlene journal

Sulaymaniyah, Iraq

I’ve been in northern Iraq (Kurdistan) for a month as I write this. It’s great to be on the ground, finally getting into the work I’ve been waiting so long to begin. On the personal photography front, things are at a complete standstill. Pretty much every photo I’ve made for myself is from a car, or the broad windows of our office.

There are a few reasons for this

It’s been raining. A lot.

Which means I haven’t been walking around.

There were some sunny days when I first landed, but that stopped pretty quickly. Here in the northern city where I live, it didn’t let up for 2 straight weeks. So I bum rides or take cabs everywhere. You’d think lots rain in a a region we think of as generally parched would be great right? Well, yes, and then no. It’s been wreaking all kinds of havoc all over the Middle East: people are dying and civil infrastructure is collapsing. Thousands in refugee camps, who have already lost everything to war, are faced with further hardship in the face of flooding, and crop yields are devastated by rain instead of drought.

So if you’ve been following me on Instagram and been as agog at how green Iraq (surely a contradiction in terms?!) has been all over my feed, know that there is a cost to this beauty. We don’t yet know the full extent of the damage that the rain has wreaked though; it’s still going.

But it is beautiful, what the rain does in this hot, dry place. More to come later on this.

Work and home making.

Reflection of the spectacular view from the office at sunset. Kurdistan, Iraq, March 2019

I work during the week now, and the days have been intense. I’m usually pretty tired by the time I leave work, and the thing I want to do after a day at the office is not make pictures; it’s take a shower and vegetate. I’m also in the process of settling in, so time off usually involves grocery / household shopping and generally attempting to organize home environment so it feels like exactly that: home. Which for me, appears to involve – among other things like obsessive cleaning and fixing things – rearranging my room every weekend since I’ve been here. Gotta get the fengshui right, people. Don’t want to be messing around when it comes to life energy.

I travel a lot.

Erin at the wheel, on the road to Duhok. Kurdistan, Iraq, March 2019.

On the point about photos being made from cars: I go to the office everyday, but my work is mostly photos and video, so I get to do a lot of work out in the field. I work in refugee camps, and Preemptive Love‘s – my employer, and the reason I am in Iraq – tech hub, where young people who have been displaced by war come to acquire tech skills and step into the world of freelancing, coding, entrepreneuring – online (where physical location and able-ness is no barrier to finding work, getting paid, and looking after your family and yourself. Does it work? Yes, it does). I’ve found myself going to the bazaar a lot lately which is awesome. The bazaar lives in the city’s historic core and is a constant delight, as much for its lost-in-a-crazy-maze quality as for the unending variety of stuff being sold there. I’ve made a ton of video there this past week. All of it Oscar winning footage, I promise you, if you ever get to see it.

Getting around means I spend a substantial amount of time in vehicles. Luckily, that’s my thing. And there are SO many pictures just waiting to be made, everywhere.

In the Sulaymaniyah bazaar. April 2019

My cameras have been busy at work, making stills and video for Preemptive Love. I worry constantly about the work that I’m doing. I mean, I think I’m reasonably capable with a camera, but it’s one thing to make street photos and quite another to be doing this sort of targeted documentary work, with its particular audience, focus and intent. And, the writing! I haven’t worked this hard at writing since the year I made a twenty thousand word thesis on the relationship of the self between land of origin and new home of Chinese migrant groups, in cinema.

I write, shoot stills and video as a part of my job. Between all of them, video is the most demanding of the brain, because there are SO MANY things to understand and remember when it comes to motion storytelling, especially since I’m pretty new to it. But writing is the most demanding of the soul. Words show my truth, no matter if I’m writing about someone else. Only with words am I confronted by a whole slew of unflattering truths about myself. I have biases I don’t want to have, blind spots in areas I should be seeing clearly, and my language reveals just how clueless I am when it comes to talking about people who are not like me. It doesn’t help, not knowing anything about the history, geography and politics of the Middle East. But, as my team reminds me, this is the work: in wanting a better world, the only place to start is right here, with myself. Whether it’s grappling with existential doubt or doubling down on History for Dummies (thank all the gods for the internet), I can’t ask someone else to do the work I can’t face. Fair’s fair.

Highway and snow-capped peaks are a sight for sore eyes. Kurdistan, Iraq, March 2019.

I’m still adjusting in all kinds of ways. To climate, to the environment, to understanding what people mean in what they say, to the sound of Kurdish all around me, to the hum of a different city, to the custom of this society, to keeping regular hours after years of zero-routine freelancing. I’ve been walking around in a haze of semi-confusion, these last few weeks. But I’m anchored by the work, and the stability is doing me good. It’s good to have real work to do. Gives meaning to life, and worth to the self. And that’s what so much of it is about, isn’t it?