Buthena (center, in the white tshirt) straightens the hair of a bride in her new salon with her mother, while another customer gets her makeup done. The salon is a space for women to gather, chat and care for themselves. Photo by Charlene Winfred/Preemptive Love

My Best Photo in 4 Months

Charlene journal

Kurdistan, Iraq, May 2019

That, above, might be the best photo I’ve made, at this 4.5 month juncture in Iraq. Read about Buthena and her salon here.

I was having one of those days where nothing I pointed a camera at went much wrong. I was in camp to make video of the businesses that my organisation starts for internally displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees.

It was one of the rare occasions that I had a full hour to hang around and just watch Buthena attend to her clients while she joked around with Enaas, my colleague who builds our relationships with displaced friends in camp. Everyone was a little unsure about the cameras at first but I was there for so long that they got used to it and stopped paying me any attention.

That, for me, is always when the magic happens.

Same photo, in black and white.

Mind, I’m not saying it’s the world’s greatest documentary photo, but it’s a personal milestone, one of the best I’ve ever made.

Why? Well, since you asked:

✔ It has women doing their work. Work that men don’t see, and so generally don’t know about. Running a salon is harder physical work than you might think, guys. It requires stamina, dexterity, deftness, attention to detail and understanding your clients well enough to deliver what they might not even realize they need/want.

✔ It has layers of people and things that describe the space, the work, and the atmosphere effectively:
  ✓ Straightening irons, a salon staple
  ✓ The reclining chair with the kiddy bag tucked in behind it, because where there are women, there are children.
  ✓ The face masks to protect lungs during keratin hair treatments.
  ✓ The bride having her hair done, grimace visible despite half her face obscured, because it’s not gentle, this hair straightening thing.
  ✓ Another customer having her make up done
  ✓ Even separation between all the women in the frame

✔ The accidental tilt of the camera gives the picture a strong sweeping diagonal from top-left to bottom-right of the frame that lends the frame itself the kind of movement I so very rarely manage to capture.

✔ Buthena in the center of the frame commanding the activity around her. The tights and the “Ralph Lauren” tshirt and the short, unbound hair. She isn’t the “Iraqi” as the news has taught us about Iraqis. See how all of the terrible things she’s been through — war, personal tragedy and monumental struggle for survival — haven’t stopped her from being a boss?

These are photos I want to make more of. That describe people in motion, living and working. It’s a beautiful thing to see people at work, especially here in Iraq, with its dismal employment rates, particularly among the displaced (close to 24% of displaced persons are under-/unemployed, according to the World Bank overview) and youths. War punishes long after the battles are done.

Oh and in case you want to see this in motion, here’s the video I was making footage for that day.

There wasn’t much I could do about the blue cast on everyone, because that’s what sunlight filtered by the ubiquitous blue camp tents does to people, but on the bright side ISO 3200 video doesn’t look half bad from the X-T3!


Note: My personal web spaces are going to involve more black and white photos from here on, because I do so love making them, and they need to be seen!