Jamal Penjweny, one of Iraq’s most prominent photographers, has been a shepherd, an inventor and a sculptor, but he does not know his exact age.
“My mother always told me that I was born in 1981, but according to my passport I am already over 30,” he says, laughing. He is sure of his birthplace, however, as its name is also his: Penjwen is a village in the mountains on the border between Iraq and Iran.
“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 lives: 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,” he explains.
In the 1990’s, he used all his creativity to help support his struggling family.
“In Penjwen you did not have much choice: You could be a shepherd, a smuggler or a farmer. I was a shepherd,” he says. “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 1990’s, his talent was discovered by the wife of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, and he was given the opportunity to study art in Sulaymaniyah. In 1996, he bought his first camera and shot his first images in the Kurdish mountains: pictures of villagers, smugglers, Peshmerga fighters and their children.
After the 2003 invasion, strife and urban blight became his backdrops. Drawn to the capital and the potential of a camera to tell stories, he left for Baghdad. Amid the war, Jamal explored the streets with his camera. As he did, he found his own unique perspective.
“The media always presents Iraq and Iraqis as tragic. I wanted to report the untouched Iraq and show moments of happiness and dignity beyond the ongoing chaos,” he explains.
“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.
“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 is, too,” he says. “I make ordinary Iraqis the heroes of the history of their country, and now they really are flying, from Penjwen around the world.”
||Maria Fantappie ([email protected]) earned a master’s degree in Middle Eastern studies from Sciences Po in Paris and is currently completing her doctorate at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. She is also a contributing writer to Niqash, an online magazine dedicated to Iraq’s politics and society, in which a longer version of this article first appeared.