Ayman Oghanna

Yesterday’s War Today’s Iraq


My father left Iraq in the 1970s. He would not have recognised it, by the time I had gotten there. It was 2009 and Iraq had nearly car-bombed, kidnapped and executed itself into oblivion.

‘Cultures that may seem as durable as stone’ wrote Anthony Shadid, ‘can break like glass, leaving all the things that held them together unattended.’
And Iraq was broken. It’s shattered pieces unattended by the humming of generators and of U.S. drones overhead. Trust lay only in your family, in your tribe, in your sect. If you were lucky enough to be part of a sectarian majority, it lay in your neighborhood – now purged of rival tribal threats, both real and perceived.

The myth of Iraq a proud country, had stopped in my father’s time. Asir al thahabi. The golden age. Before Saddam, before the eight-year-war with Iran, before Kuwait, before sanctions, the myth before the fall. Today’s Iraq is many fractured pieces. A simmering federation of Sunni, Kurd, nationalistic and pro-Iranian Shia, whose first civil war has ended, whose second seems just at the corner. It’s a nation of many nations, lots of little failed states underneath the veil of a much larger one.They are identities by no means new. They have been laying dormant since the fall of the Ottomans, created alongside the artificial state carved out by the victorious imperial powers.

The goal of my project is to confront the multiple identities in Iraq today and examine their relationship to the greater Iraqi state. I have been living and working in Iraq since 2009 searching for a glimpse of the country that my father had left behind. I can’t see it. Perhaps it had never existed in the first place. A necessary nostalgia for better days, during such consistently disappointing ones. I don’t know yet.

If it does exist, however, it is within these smaller communities. Each vying for a future in the new Iraq. The project I am trying to fund, is an attempt to build a cultural narrative of the new Iraq.




Ayman Oghanna, 26, is an independent photographer and journalist working in the Arab World. A British-Iraqi, born and raised in London, he now lives out of Istanbul. His photography, writing and multimedia stories have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Sunday Review, Businessweek, The Guardian, The Economist, Time and Vice Magazine. He is currently based between Istanbul and Iraq, where he continues to work on ‘Yesterday’s War, Today’s Iraq’ an on going project on life in the new Iraq.

13 thoughts on “Ayman Oghanna – Yesterday’s War Today’s Iraq”

  1. Jamie Maxtone-Graham

    Withstanding even your youth, this is really interesting and mature work and great to see here. Keep working on this. Hope to see more someday.

  2. وقد لاحظت أن أي شخص مقعد هذا الرجل يبدو انه اشتراها في الممر الجبن في وول مارت؟

  3. So, let me ask again, has anyone noticed that this guy’s chair looks like he bought it in the cheese aisle at Wal-Mart?

  4. What I loved about this essay is that in 15 photos it shows many dimensions of life at this moment in Iraq. I would have expected this essay to have 30 photos that all focus on one angle. Instead, I want to applaud and say, “Here is the truth! It’s hard, and yet life moves on, people die and others celebrate, and the powerful prosper…” In contrast to the previous essay, I find this one more powerful and revealing, because IMO it comes from a more immersed photographer who dares to show me contradictions, many angles, and let me think about it all. Well done.

    I regret that I didn’t say this right away. I’m often one of the first to comment, due to my time zone, but there are many people who write with more credibility than me. So sometimes I want to wait and let them have the first words.

  5. On a critical note, I would take out 5 or 6. In such a short essay, these photos are too similar (and 5 is very similar to 4). I’d also like more information about what just happened in #15.

    Actually, I liked this essay best when I watched it without reading the captions, which I think is a good thing.

  6. “In contrast to the previous essay, I find this one more powerful and revealing, because IMO it comes from a more immersed photographer who dares to show me contradictions, many angles, and let me think about it all.”

    I’m with Andy Gray on this way of thinking and that’s what I liked best about this essay as well. I know David is adamant against any need for balance in an essay, but I don’t think it’s a question of balance (journalistic balance is most often a joke); for me it’s a question of depth. Too often and an essay will be about one thing and one thing only, which will lead to it being flat, if not superficial. A well told story needs depth. It needs contradiction. It needs some kind of tension.

    Harking back to comments I made about the Serbian work, I’m uneasy when an essay shows me (sans irony) what I expect to see; when it mirrors the stereotype, the collective unconscious, the flotsam and jetsam of the media mire that’s somehow found it’s way into my head — angry Serbs, drunk Indians, mentally handicapped sisters, third world victims, the rural poor, and so on. This essay does not do that. For Iraq, I’ve been conditioned to see images of carnage, of suffering, of religious fanaticism. This essay shows those things, it would be dishonest not to, but it shows so much more. Things we’re not conditioned to expect like the 3D moviegoers and the shoppers in the bright and shiny grocery store. Scenes like these are just as real as the carnage and fanaticism. It’s not necessarily dishonest to omit them in a story about Iraq, but the omission of these kinds of counter-stereotypical images makes for a much less effective essay.

    That critique applies to all too much documentary photography and advocacy journalism in general. Too many people feel a need to edit out the contradictions when it’s the contradictions that tell the tale most powerfully. Filmmakers have known this since Eisenstein promulgated his theory of intellectual montage. We become numb to endless images of violence, poverty and degradation, but when they are juxtaposed with images of those who benefit from these horrors, the human reaction is likely to be much stronger.

    Which brings me to Jukka’s comment in the richland thread. If I read it correctly, he’s criticizing people who are critical. I’ve just never understood that attitude. How can one possibly grow without receiving and giving careful consideration to criticism? How can one possibly grow without considering and criticizing the work of others? Perhaps it’s possible for a few, but for most of us that kind of negative attitude toward criticism is bound to be limiting. Of course there are caveats. One shouldn’t blindly accept the critic’s viewpoint and as a critic one should at least be impersonal, if not constructive. But in general, criticism is a good thing for both the criticized and the critic. A very good thing.

  7. Pingback: What’s some billions lost in Iraq between friends? — Antony Loewenstein

  8. Those are really good observations, mw.

    This work reminded me a lot of the real experience of travelling far abroad. There’s the expected foreign-ness you’ve seen too often from afar, broken up by surreally familiar normalness.

    What you say about the critics reminds me of what Piotr Zbierski (2012 Oskar-Barnack Newcomer Award winner) said in his interview for Leica: it’s the honesty that pushes you forward. I have a fantastic guy on my team at work who asks to be judged very hard. He’s fond of saying, ‘I’m not going to get better from people telling me I’m awesome, am I?’ The best encouragement isn’t always praise.

  9. Pingback: Features and Essays | 10 July 2012

Comments are closed.