Creating “People Of Islam” and why the Iraq War made me a photographer

I opened this exhibition with the subtitle – Photos From Iran, Iraq, Somaliland and Marrakech – on April 3, 2015.

It has come about in a quite natural way. I have worked in some countries where Islam is of fundamental importance and so been exposed to the people living there as well as their problems – problems related to conflicts and war.

I did fact-finding in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, I do peace work and photography every year in Iran since 2012; I worked in Somalia between 1977 and 1981 and visited the self-proclaimed independent Somaliland in the Northern part in 2014 and I spent a week in Marrakech, Morocco, in February 2015.

But it wasn’t a planned project. I don’t do projects in the sense of saying to myself that, in the next few years, I shall concentrate on a certain theme, produce a number of works and then exhibit them. That is not part of my concept. My work and general curiousity takes me to places and, while there and in between having meetings or giving lecturing, I shoot pictures.

Ahmed, Baghdad 2003 - mild eyes indeed © Jan Oberg
Ahmed, Baghdad 2003 – mild eyes indeed © Jan Oberg

This is perhaps not the way a professional would do it but in this way I can combine my work as peace researcher and mediator with my photographic work. In this sense, photography is an integrated part of my more or less international life.

So it all began with the idea that I might have taken enough photos over the years to make an exhibition – usually about 40 – which I could gather under this title, “People of Islam”. Human beings and their lives is anyhow the most interesting thing I know of.

Images from Iraq 2002 and 2003

Of particular importance were my old images from Iraq. Digital cameras did not have many pixels that far back in time. And there wasnt much space on memory cards. At the time I had no idea that they should be used for printing, I thought of only showing my pictures on the Internet where reproduction is possible with low resolution, small original files.

At the time I had no thought about printing them on paper which normally requires about 270 dpi, dots per inch.  Believe it or not, some of the files were down to 65 k – for those not familiar with that it is less than one-tenth of 1 MB where today a normal camera will have about 20 megapixels, a very fine and high resolution that permits enlargements. To blow up originals which in their 100% format is less than 10 cm on the height or breadth is not an easy task.

However, quite a few people who had seen some of the Iraq photos years ago said two important things about them:

– these Iraqis all have so mild eyes – and not only the children in them;

– to many it was interesting to see people from Iraq because in those years all you would see in Western media were images of Saddam Hussein in various outfits and shooting a gun in the air, military parades and some luxurious palaces and over-sized mosques. Indeed, you would see nothing – be it photos or movies – about the culture, history, art, films etc. and nothing human or positive about that country. The reason of course is that if you plan to invade and occupy a country, your top priority is not to show that these people are human beings like yourself or that the place has great culture or was a cradle of civilisation for ourselves; dictatorships simply don’t have such features. And it is easier to bomb and kill if the objects have first been deprived of their humanity. It is sad but I know from many places and personal experiences that that is, knowingly or not, how most of our mainstream “free” media operate.

Baker Shop, Baghdad 2002
Baker Shop, Baghdad 2002 © Jan Oberg

When I had returned home from Iraq in January and the war started started on March 20, 2003 – I found out that media, citizens and organisations around the world were more interested in the images from Iraq than in the many, more analytical, articles I wrote as an academic.

The images had been posted on the homepage of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research , TFF, of which I am the co-founder and director – you may see the text we published here and my images here.

Engaging in photography in a more serious manner

I had always done peace work through the media of writing and speaking but now people’s reactions stimulated me to think in terms of photography too.

I guess it all coincided with the development of the new digital technologies, the rapidly increasing use of the Internet and – finally – that the image revolution took place by which I mean that pictures, visual depiction of places, people and problems began to compete seriously – for good and for bad – with the written word and with books. In addition, new possibilities of self-publishing and what we call social media came up. Television had not had any such impact, digital technologies, the Internet, blogs etc. did.

To help mobilise public opinion against the war, photos had turned out to be at least as important as (academic) texts and since I have never had a talent for novels, travelogues and that sort of thing that wouldn’t be my way to proceed. However, having grown up with art and looked at pictures since childhood, I had a feel for image and image-making. In short, I felt it was worth – and exciting – to begin to try to walk on two legs: texts and images.

Now, this does not imply that I do photography today to only promote peace – my “palette” is broader than that. But it does mean that the reaction to my pre-war Iraq images pushed me to explore photography more systematically and 6 years later in May 2009 I opened my little studio and began to show photos to the public.


So, this “People Of Islam” exhibition is very much my heart and soul – because some of the pictures are indeed historical in the sense that they show you aspects of Iraqi life that is probably more or less gone now after 12 years of warfare and 13 years of the most cruel, suffocating economic sanctions on a fundamentally innocent people. I think I was a witness there and then to a ppiece of imortant, sad, world history.

Secondly, it also has a touch of personal and professional history because the experience compelled me to things in new ways.

In “People of Islam” I have returned to images I took long ago with the old limited technology and worked on them to be shown in printed formats of up to A1 (61 x 91 centimetres). As a matter of fact it has been a bit of an emotional challenge to relieve these places and faces.

In a future blog post I shall focus a bit on the problems and dilemmas you encounter when doing a thing like “People Of Islam”. And here you’ll find some thought on how to do photography in a most photogenique place such as Marrakech.


One Comment

  1. Pingback: Exhibitions – past and future – Oberg PhotoGraphics

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