Hadi Al Najjar (b. 1957) is a well known and established photographer in Iraq and President of the Society of Iraqi Photographers in Baghdad. His recent work ‘Beyond the City Lights’, focused on the destitute and marginalized communities living in the old districts of Baghdad. Streets such as Al-Rashid and Al-Mutanabbi are the last remaining examples of Ottoman Era architecture in Baghdad. These buildings, formerly homes were predominantly owned by Jewish families who fled Iraq in the 1950s. Today many of them are abandoned or occupied by impoverished migrants from Southern Iraq. Al Najjar took part in the Ruya Foundation’s exhibition ‘Calling Calouste: New Iraqi Photography’ (2016) in Baghdad. He speaks to Ruya about his work, and the changing conditions for photographers working in Baghdad from the 80s to the present day.

In your recent series, why did you decide to focus on a past that is almost obsolete, instead of contemporary urban life in Baghdad?

What I encounter in these districts is history and a distinctive historical architecture. Events of central importance to the culture, literature and sciences of Iraq took place on these streets. But the buildings are in a state of obvious neglect, due to our weak public services. A country without history is rootless. I spent my childhood in these neighborhoods, before the city developed and expanded. I feel close to the residents. Many well-known artists, writers and intellectuals come from the poorer classes of society in these areas. I love these districts dearly, their atmosphere, their environment and the aesthetic presence of the buildings.

Do you believe there are any ethical issues with photographing hardship and poverty in a visually appealing aesthetic?

I choose to portray suffering because it is a reflection of the living reality of the Iraqi citizen. I prefer to describe these communities as neglected rather than marginalized. Some of the residents have roots in these areas stretching back centuries. I visit these individuals frequently, and get close to them. My photography isn’t humiliating, I depict people’s suffering while preserving their dignity. I try to leave out any signs of my subject’s professions, beliefs and way of life. For instance, in a piece that is particularly close to my heart, I shot an old man who was selling children’s toys on the street. In the image, all we see is the man, and the toys hung on a street wall. I did not photograph him in his home, surrounded by the things that he owns. The absence of personal details gives the audience space to contemplate and consider why this man is there, and what he is doing. This open-endedness also suggests hope and optimism despite the gloominess of the scene.

Your photographs are known for their cinematic qualities. What films or photographers have inspired you in the past?

The Egyptian director Youssef Chahine had an extraordinary and effective way of addressing the daily problems of ordinary people through the medium of cinema. I loved the British cinematographer Jack Hildyard’s work for the Syrian director Mustapha Al Aqqad’s films The Message (1976) and the The Lion of the Desert (1981). Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1984), a film about the Holocaust, is a highly mannered and powerful film with excellent cinematography, which I have watched more than once. Among Iraqi photographers, I was influenced by Murad Al-Daghistani, who photographed life in Mosul and along the Tigris river in the 1930s. The photographer Fouad Shaker was an early admirer of my work and would always encourage me. We shared an interest in the slums and neglected districts of Baghdad. In his series ‘The American Adams’, he extracted the full seven tones of the black and white images with all their gradations, which makes them as vivid as colour photographs.

As president of the Society of Iraqi Photographers how are you hoping to stimulate the local photography scene and the market?

State-funded educational institutions in the country are severely under-equipped, so we try through the Society to provide training and workshops. We encourage photographers to develop both a visual and social consciousness in their work. We have an annual exhibition in Baghdad, now in its 43rd edition. This year, it is held at the Gulbenkian Hall. A panel of judges select the photographs that are submitted from across Iraq. We set a high standard. A group of photographers from the Diyala province submitted seventy pieces and not one of them was chosen – they were angry and objected. We also organise photography expeditions to northern Iraq, the Marshes in the south and during the wheat and date harvest. In our most recent participation overseas we took twenty photographers to an exhibition in Saudi Arabia. In contrast, an Egyptian association had only brought three photographers. Our support of younger and emerging photographers has caused us some problems, especially with older, better-known photographers when their work is not selected for exhibitions and international festivals.

How did photography as an independent, artistic medium develop in 1990s, during the embargo?

It was difficult to put on independent exhibitions back then because of the lack of supplies—a consequence of the economic embargo imposed on the country—and strict government censorship. Photographers, including myself, would keep much of their work private even from their closest friends and relatives. Their discovery by the regime could lead to execution on charges of being a traitor or a spy. Many photographers documented the events of the period, but kept it secret. I photographed the uprisings, the destruction, the corpses, the fires and the attacks on people’s homes, as well as the neglect that the rebel regions suffered from. These photographs reveal how the regime dealt with the population. I hid them at the time out of consideration for my safety and that of my family.

Have you shown them to anyone since?

Right after the fall of the regime in 2003 I put on a solo exhibition of some of these photographs in the Debate Hall in Baghdad. I showed the provinces that had been neglected and devastated by the regime. However, I have not shown my pictures of the uprisings of the 1990s. I still keep those to myself.

How have things changed for photographers since 2003?

After the regime fell in 2003 there was a positive feeling that things had changed. But today, the general chaos and the absence of governmental control means that laws designed to protect citizens are not enforced. Religious or tribal norms that are now prevalent in society create a form of ignorant censorship. Although I am licensed to take photographs I am still subjected to annoyances and transgressions that make me feel unsafe. It would not be possible for me to walk through the neighborhoods I am photographing, and get to know my subjects intimately, without the help of important and influential figures.

What are the new challenges faced by young and emerging photographers in Iraq?

There are no organizations or established academic institutions that can mentor talented young photographers in Iraq today. State-funded art schools do not offer training in the science or methodology of photography. In addition there is a fundamental break between the older generation of photographers—the pioneers—and their students, the new generation. The current generation views these pioneers as modern artists who are out of step with contemporary reality. It does not reach out to learn from them. This generation should improve its command of English, because most of the books and studies on modern art are in that language. Second, with today’s technology, there is a false assumption that owning an advanced camera makes you an advanced photographer. But what counts are ideas and knowledge. Most of the great works were made using old equipment.

What is the difference between photographers like yourself and those who work for press outlets?

All photographers are journalists, because they photograph reality. A photojournalist takes pictures of newsworthy events and happenings. The public interest in these photographs, as well as their impact, will wane with time. For example, the photograph of the drowned boy Alan Kurdi, on the beach in Greece cannot be displayed as art, as it would fall short of the highest standards. It was only the photographer’s good fortune that he was present on the beach at that moment. It is a piece of photojournalism, nothing more than that, and it will be forgotten when the incident itself is. Meanwhile, a photographer searches for the situation or moment that he can immortalize. The photojournalist has to be quick and observant. He cannot create the incidents. As a photographer, I can take my time. I can intervene to shape the elements of the scene, to make my image more effective.