Photographer Hawre Khalid on working in Iraq’s wars: ‘All I can offer is a click’

The former tobacco factory in central Sulaymanya is a rugged, unpolished place: damaged walls, sandy floors, rubble splattered around everywhere. The perfect setting for an exhibition of the war photography of Hawre Khalid. 

How deeply personal the exhibition: ‘Through the smoke, behind the curtain’ is, became clear when photographer Hawre Khalid was asked which photos have a special meaning for him. Without hesitation, he walked up to the picture he took in Mosul. It was 2016 and the Iraqi army’s offensive to reclaim the city from ISIS had just begun. It was at the outskirts of the city that he found people trapped between the army and ISIS. They hadn’t received any water or food for twenty days. Khalid jumped on the truck of an aid organisation that was about to hand out essential supplies to get a good angle for pictures, and as he shot the picture that is now on the wall (header picture), a man grabbed his leg, begging him to give him food. Khalid remembered: “I saw flashes of my childhood, as a refugee in Iran. The images were vague, I was only four years old, but I remember my father being in exactly this situation, trying to get food for his family. I grabbed a box, I don’t know what was in it, and gave it to the man who had held my leg. I jumped off the truck and left the scene in a hurry. I couldn’t handle it.”

The entrance to the exhibition

The picture was one of many that Khalid (32) shot between 2014 and this year in Mosul, Kirkuk, Shengal, Basra and al-Qayyarah in Iraq, and in a refugee camp in northeast Syria. They hung on the damaged walls of the Culture Factory, a large complex that is a free art space in the former tobacco factory in central Sulaymanya, Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The concrete floors were swept before the opening but not meticulously; there are wires sticking out of walls, holes in the floor and rubble lying around. In the halls and spaces where the pictures hang, candles are burning. Photos are displayed on the long walls but in hidden corners and undefined small rooms as well. 

The question of which photo affected him most when he took it came after Hawre Khalid told the story of a photo at the entrance of the exhibition. It doesn’t seem to stand out. It shows a terrain of sand, dust roads and grass, peshmerga fighters seen from the back, and light weapons. But for Khalid, it is a memory of one of the darkest days of his life: the day he lost one of his best friends, photographer Kamaran Najm. It was 12 June 2014 and ISIS was advancing towards Kirkuk.

A better angle

“We were sitting here”, Khalid gestured with his hand in the air in front of the picture, as if to touch the place from where he took the shot. “Kamaran pointed at the doskha there on the right, do you see it? He thought he would have a better angle from there. He ran. But ISIS pushed forward and came closer, and I ran away with a peshmerga commander. The commander said that a journalist was injured. I asked what colour shirt he was wearing and he said ‘grey,’ and Kamaran’s was blue, so I thought it couldn’t be him. But later it turned out it was Kamaran. The peshmerga put him on a pick-up car but he had fallen off and they weren’t able to stop and return to get him.”

The picture of the day Hawre lost Kamaran

Khalid thought his friend had died and he returned to Sulaymanya, where he was based. But then Kamaran called a peshmerga commander. He had been taken hostage by ISIS and was forced to pass on ISIS’s demand: if the peshmerga forces attacked a village that ISIS had taken, Kamaran would be killed. Khalid: “The peshmerga said they couldn’t stop the war. Many peshmerga had already died so why would they halt the war for a journalist? Maybe it is logical for them, but I pleaded with him to stop the war for maybe a week. They didn’t. We never heard from Kamaran again.”

Najm was, together with US photographer Sebastian Meyer, the founder of Iraqi photo agency Metrography, for which Khalid worked. Najm’s abduction and the quest to find out what had happened to him became a well-known and important case that showed the dangers that journalists faced in the war against ISIS. Khalid: “It is five years ago now. We still don’t know what happened.”

Covered in shrapnel wounds

‘Through the smoke, behind the curtain’ was an idea of Pshtewan Kamal from Kashkul, the centre for arts and culture at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS). He and Hawre Khalid have known each other for nine years and Kamal thought it was time for an exhibition of Khalid’s work ‘in a suitable setting’, which they found in the former factory. “This location has an atmosphere that is similar to those in the pictures”, Kamal explained. He curated the exhibition with two co-curators, Marie LaBrosse and David Shook. 

The name ‘Through the smoke, behind the curtain’ was inspired by one of the pictures, of a little boy in a refugee camp who was playing behind a curtain of a tent and turned into a shadow in front of a light behind him. At the entrance hall, a niche has been screened off with a white cloth like the one in the picture with a big light behind it. Visitors disappear behind the curtain to have their picture made as a shadow like the little boy’s. Next to the boy’s picture is a photo of his brother, also just a kid, with his back covered in shrapnel wounds. 

Hawre Khalid in front of the picture that named the exhibition

What is remarkable about every single picture in the exhibition is the closeness you feel to the subject. Whether it is a couple in Shengal burying their three-day-old child, a small group of peshmerga relaxing after duty at their military base, or a photo of two beds with neatly laid out clothes under the portraits of two murdered brothers, it feels as if the photographer wasn’t even there, so intimate and natural, real. 

This is, Hawre Khalid said, exactly what he wanted to do when he decided to come to his homeland to photograph the war, in 2014. He was living as a refugee in the Netherlands at the time. He had six more months to go before he would get a permanent residence permit there, but he decided instead to go back home, to Kirkuk, where his family still lived. “I had left in 2009 because of a rather specific situation that had since passed. So many foreign journalists started coming to Iraq and Syria, documenting our history as outsiders. We, local journalists, have to document our own history too. I am from here, I know the culture, the language, the people, the land. I am not on a ten day assignment, I live here, I am part of it.’

Surrounded by war

Khalid was born and raised as a Kurd in Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city just outside the territory of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. His family still lives there but he now resides in Sulaymanya, partly as a consequence of his work. ISIS never managed to take Kirkuk, and instead the Kurdish peshmerga took control in 2014. After the referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, which was held in September 2017, the Iraqi army regained control over the city with the help of the Iran-supported   militia Hasd al-Shabi. As a Kurdish journalist, Khalid doesn’t feel safe enough to work in his home town now and mainly visits it to see his family.

After arriving back in his home country in 2014, and being a journalism graduate and a photographer ever since he laid his hands on a camera for the first time when he was thirteen years old, he started working for Metrography agency. Sebastian Meyer introduced him to international media. Khalid’s pictures soon drew the attention of international titles and he has published in, among others, the Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Le Monde, (Dutch) Volkskrant and many others.

A Yezidi couple burry their three-day-old child, early August 2014, Shengal. It was around a week after ISIS attacked Shengal and started the genocide. The couple had, like thousands of others, sought refuge at Shengal mountain, where their baby was born - and died.

Displaying his work in Sulaymanya is of special importance for him though. He said: “This city is surrounded by war but it seems nobody is aware of it. There is an uprising in Iran, Turkey invaded the north of Syria, both very close-by, but it is as if the people here don’t feel it. I want to wake them up to the realities of war.”

He continued to reflect on why Sulaymanya (‘Suli’), the second city of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, seems to be indifferent. Khalid: “Suli has been far from the frontline compared to Kirkuk or Shengal. The economy was good, people were going to parties and picnics, they forgot where they were living.” He pondered in silence and then continued: “The new generation doesn’t take responsibility. They go to a cafe, talk about fashion and our media fail to tell them what is going on. Young people follow the news on social media, they scroll through the war and it doesn’t affect them anymore. But you know, there is a saying here that every generation will live its war. What will the effect of this behaviour be when the war comes? We won’t be connected anymore. Our culture used to be different. We cared about each other. Now, when your mother dies, you get condolences online.”

Hawre Khalid: “I spent some ten days with these peshmerga. In the first days, I didn’t take pictures after the battles, I just had tea with them and talked. Then, when I started taking pictures, they weren’t so conscious about it anymore. They didn’t notice me.” 

He felt alienated from society after his five-year experience in the war, Khalid said, standing between the two huge lamps that lit the entrance hall of the exhibition while new visitors kept entering. “I have lived all these pictures. What I do is selfish. Well, it’s selfless because I tell people’s stories, but my mom and my friends worry about me. I am lonely because I can’t have a relationship and a family. It is a choice. I either have a family, or do this work. I choose this work. It is in my blood, I can’t stop. It’s a circle. I feel guilty because I make a living from somebody else’s suffering, although of course it doesn’t make me rich because it’s journalism after all. Still, all I can offer is a click while the people need food and safety. So the least I can do is to share what I see as much as possible.”

When you think of it, Hawre Khalid said, it is too much for one person.

‘Through the smoke, behind the curtain’ is open until 15 December, every day from 2 till 6 pm at the old tobacco factory in central Sulaymanya, next to the Ramada hotel. 

Alaa and Ahmed were killed during the Basra protests demanding basic services in October 2018. Alaa was killed the day before his engagement party. Every morning,their mother goes to their room, selects the day's outfit from their closet, and lays the clothes out on their beds, just as she did before they died. In the evening, she replaces the outfits with pajamas, turns out the lights, and closes the door, as if they were going to bed. Photo taken on 6 March 2019, Basra.
Hawre Khalid: “The mother took me to this room. She opened the door and I didn’t know what to say. I stayed silent and she started to talk and to cry. I felt hesitant about taking a picture because maybe she didn’t want it, but at the same time, I felt this story needed to be told. I quickly took three shots. I was in the room fifteen, maybe twenty minutes. Then we had to go because the mother’s crying only got worse.”

Hawre Khalid: “It was 16 October 2017, the day the Iraqi army took control of Kirkuk from the peshmerga. This was at the outskirts of the city, it was chaotic. We were driving and the car behind us got hit by shots from Hasd al-Shabi. There was ammunition in it and it started to explode. I dragged one man away from the burning car, that’s the man you see on the left. As I started taking pictures, my colleague dragged another victim away. The man on the left lost a leg but survived. The other man was his father. He died on the way to the hospital. His uncle was still in the car. I don’t know how we survived this. I mean, Hash al-Shabi was still shooting.”