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ONE PHOTO – ONE STORY

24.09.2021

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“Taken in 2017, this photograph was a defining moment in my career. It is one of the first photographs I took in Iraq, a country that I have since moved to, and where I have spent over four years working. It reflects a young photographer learning about Iraq's complex history, navigating how to visually understand sensitive stories, and how to develop intimate relationships with communities, families and individuals.

The children are playing in their back garden in Al-Hillah, Iraq. They are behind a tent for pilgrims made of stretched, unbleached cotton, during the Arbaeen pilgrimage, the largest annual pilgrimage in the world. It is of great importance to both the Shi'a communities and to Iraq. Each year, as many as 25 million Shi’a Muslims partake in the ziyara [pilgrimage], converging in southern Iraq to mark the end of a 40-day mourning period. Pilgrims travel from all over the world to walk the 50 miles between the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

For twenty five years, under the rule of Saddam Hussein, the Arbaeen pilgrimage was banned and those who were caught walking it were imprisoned. After the fall of Saddam in 2003, pilgrims were allowed to walk the Arbaeen pilgrimage once more – no doubt with some trepidation. The family of the children pictured here, was one of thousands of local families who risked their lives to open their homes to pilgrims, secretly walking the pilgrimage under Saddam's regime. They would hide pilgrims inside their homes, in the depths of the date palm jungle, and even mark their homes to signal their support to pilgrims walking at night. To this day, Iraqis between Najaf and Karbala, and indeed beyond, open their homes up to weary pilgrims and offer fresh meals, water, and many other amenities for free. I learned that some families set aside as much as twenty percent of their annual earnings to cover the costs of feeding and caring for pilgrims over the forty-day pilgrimage.

Hospitality lies at the beating heart of Iraqi culture, and shaped my understanding of the region. Photographs encourage memory, and in this case, the most beautiful of memories that I treasure to this day.“

Text and image: © Emily Garthwaite
Equipment: Leica M (Typ 240) with Summicron-M 35 f/2 Asph.


Find Emily Garthwaites portfolio Guardians of the Zagros in LFI Magazine 7/21.
© Emily Garthwaite

Emily Garthwaite

The photographer and storyteller focuses on humanitarian and ecological issues, combining subjects such as inter-humanity, religion, coexistence and displacement. Since 2017, she has travelled more than 650 kilometres on foot through Iraq, photographing the country and its people. She has a Master’s in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism, and currently lives in Iraq.

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