Jamal Penjweny has been a shepherd, an inventor and a sculptor in his short but eventful life. Today, he is one of Iraq’s most prominent photographers. He has come a long way since buying his first camera in Sulaimaniyah in 1996.
His photographs have been published by National Geographic, Reuters and The New York Times; exhibited in London, São Paulo and Shangai and have won awards in major international competitions.
Jamal does not know exactly his age.
‘My mother always told me that I was born in 1981, but according to my passport I am already thirty years old,’ he says, laughing. He is sure of his birthplace, however, and he bears it as his surname. He was born in Penjwen, a small village in the mountains on the border between Iraq and Iran.
During the Iran-Iraq war, his family fled Penjwen to live as refugees in Sulaimaniyah.
‘Just like many others of my age, I can say that I am a child of war. Iraq’s wars have marked the phases of our life: we were born at the beginning of the Iraq-Iran war and we became teenagers after the invasion of Kuwait. We were adults when we listened to gunfire during the Kurdish civil war and we were getting married during the US invasion of 2003,’ he narrates.
Iraq’s wars have scarred his life and the lives of many of his generation. When Jamal and his family returned to Penjwen after the Kurdish uprising, their financial situation was very difficult and he had to support his family. To do so, he employed all his creativity.
‘In Penjwen you did not have much choice at that time: you could be a shepherd, a smuggler or a farmer. I was a shepherd,’ he reveals. ‘Every day, I told myself that I wanted to change my life. I began making things. I made sculptures from stones I found in rivers and painted them so I could sell them. I also built a car for children from the remains of guns that I found in the fields around Penjwen. This is how I developed into an artist. It was a complete accident.’
In the 90s, his artistic talent was discovered by Jalal Talabani’s wife. He was given the opportunity to study art in Sulaimaniyah and buy his first camera. He shot his first snaps back in the Kurdish mountain where he was born – at the disputed border between Iraq and Iran. His pictures were of the very mixed types of people to be found in the area – the Kurdish villagers, smugglers, Peshmerga fighters and their children, learning to handle Kalashnikovs, just like their fathers and grandfathers before them.
In 2003, Iraq was invaded. The conflict and the civil strife that followed reshaped Iraqi cities and their inhabitants’ way of life. The professional middle class fled the main urban centres. Baghdad, Mosul and Fallujah city centres became battlegrounds in the insurgency and the cradle of sectarian strife. They were almost completely empty of people and commerce and the urban blight became the backdrop for Jamal’s photography as he left Kurdistan drawn to the capital and its stories.
Baghdad, which had been shut to the outside world for more than ten years because of sanctions, was suddenly flooded with foreigners – international journalists and photographers. Amid the carnage, Jamal was presented with a great learning experience.
Like many others, armed with his camera, Jamal explored Iraq’s streets while the country was at war. He did so with a unique perspective, however; that of an outsider.
‘The media always presents Iraq and Iraqis as tragic. I wanted to report the untouched Iraq and show moment of happiness and dignity beyond the ongoing chaos. The series Iraq Is Flying started this way ‘ he explains.
The series depicts Iraqi people jumping in front of the camera on the streets of Iraq’s major cities. Those jumping are normal people who the photographer met on the streets of Baghdad, Fallujah and Kirkuk. Children and adults, soldiers – both American and Iraqi – return briefly to their childhoods as they jump as high as they can in front of Jamal’s camera. A bittersweet scene is offered to the viewer – the energy of hope within the context of destruction.
‘I remember that when I was a child, we played the simplest games – we would just jump as high as we could! It was a favourite game of mine and my friends. In 2006 I found in my archives a picture where three kids were jumping for a farewell party. I took the picture while I was still living in my village. I decided to snap similar jumps in the streets of Sulaimaniyah, Baghdad, Babel, Fallujah, Kikuk and Ammara. I wanted to give Iraq’s energetic people a chance to regain their dignity, to let them jump beyond the setting of their lives. I wanted the people to fly,’ Jamal concludes.
Jamal is currently based in Sulaimaniyah but every two weeks he takes a taxi to take a tour of Iraq’s roads as he has done since the war started in 2003. On his travels, he discovers Iraq and Iraqis and presents them to the world. Beyond ethnicity, religion or political affiliation, Iraqis share with Jamal the fears and memories of almost half a century of continuous conflict and 35 years of Saddam’s regime.
‘I will always keep the memories of being a refugee and of witnessing war, displacement and instability. In the characters I photograph on the streets, I can see the same memories. At the end of the day, I am one of them,’ he adds.
During one of his latest trips to Baghdad, Jamal tried another challenging experiment, one that excavated deeper into the psychology of Iraqis and investigated their lingering obsession with Saddam Hussein’s charismatic personality. In the series Saddam Is Here, subjects, including a coffee seller from the streets of Baghdad, a prostitute in a hotel lobby and a doctor in his surgery, cover their face with a picture of Saddam Hussein’s.
‘Some people insulted me. Others praised me. His portrait always triggered a reaction, though. People say Saddam is dead. They don’t realise that Saddam is in their mind-set and their daily actions.’
Although they share many memories, Jamal does not share at least one of the aspirations common to many modern Iraqis. He does not want to leave Iraq to go abroad.
‘To me, Iraq is much more than the name of a country. My life is embedded in the history of this country and my work, too,’ he says.
While Jamal keeps himself close to the Kurdish mountains, his works are travelling all over the world, beyond Iraq’s borders. Next month, Iraq Is Flying and Saddam Is Here will be exhibited in this year’s Sao Paolo Art Biennial, in December.
‘I hope that with my work I can uncover the unreported Iraq. I make common Iraqis the heroes of the history of their country and now they are flying from Penjwen across the world.’