Our translator subtly gestured behind us with his head. “Mukhabarat,” he said in Arabic—secret police. We were wandering the streets of a Syrian refugee camp while I was striving to create images of some of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who had fled the war.
Working with a population as vulnerable as war refugees was difficult enough, and now we were being tailed by a man in a suit, like something out of a bad spy novel. But we only improve our craft through challenge, I thought.
Like so much of photojournalism, this was a personal project—fueled by passion and funded on a shoestring.
Photographing people is the most challenging thing to do well when we travel, and perhaps the most compelling. Images like Steve McCurry’s iconic picture of the green-eyed Afghan girl, or Irving Penn’s carefully choreographed portraits of people around the world, transport us and connect us intimately with a person. As far as I can discern, the art is more magic than mechanics.
You must begin with a crystal clear understanding of the most basic thing involved in making a photograph of another person: the agreement between you and your subject.
Sometimes agreements are spoken, but more often they are communicated more subtly, without words. Only if you are aware of the agreement—both your expectations and your subject’s—can you be a trustworthy photographer. And only when you are trustworthy will people invite you to work with them to make great photos.
The agreements that I made while photographing the refugees were not always easy to reach. They had been witness to and subjects of unimaginable traumas of war. Many fled Iraq after receiving direct threats of death. They were hiding in a country that didn’t entirely welcome them. Their tenuous hold on security was under constant threat.
Three Iraqi brothers had a heated debate when I asked to photograph them. Then they slung their arms around one another to pose for a photo. They said very little, but this I understood: They had been soldiers. Not long before, other Americans had been pointing something more lethal than a camera their way. The photos represented a brave act of defiance for them. I made the photos after agreeing to email the pictures to them. While the brothers had allowed me to publish their images, and even their names, doing so would be doing far more harm than good, I decided. This was a dangerous game they were playing. That evening I emailed the photos to them and then promptly deleted the images.
Another refugee was persistent in asking questions. “Can you photograph me? How can the photo help me?” he asked repeatedly in Arabic. To him, my camera might be a lifeline. I could only tell the truth. I explained that I wanted to tell visual stories of the refugees. Perhaps the stories could help build sympathy for their situation. Given the scale of the desperation I had seen, this was a weak promise at best. He paused, and I watched as he made the calculation of risk versus benefit. After some time, like many I wanted to photograph, he said that he didn’t want to be photographed.
I photographed a young Iraqi doctor caring for sick and wounded refugees. He was highly educated and angry about what had become of his country. He said he was never going to return. He understood the reason for the photographs, and despite the death threats that chased him from Iraq, he was eager to be photographed, and to even provide his full name for the captions. The photos were his way of bravely fighting. I made his patients anonymous, excluding their faces from the compositions. I was proud of the resulting images.
The Mukhabarat never gave us problems, and I was happy about some of the images I was capturing, but weeks of this type of intensity left me exhausted.
So I headed into the busy old Damascus souq, a maze of alleyways between closet-sized shops filled with spices, candy and just about anything else you want. The intensity was wondrous. In the middle of it I set up my tripod and the flowing crowd parted around it. Standing beside the camera, I fired off dozens of images with a cable release, and later built them into a 360-degree panorama. Here in the souq I was taking photographs—stealing them—and somehow amidst all the anonymous commotion it felt just fine.
A few days later, two young Iraqi refugee friends and I were blazing through the Syrian desert in a small car, heading to the ancient ruins of Palmyra. Omar had his hands on the wheel, and his younger brother Ahmed was in back handing us cups of soda and fistfuls of chips.
Omar had recently called the parents of three of his best friends to tell them they had been killed. One of his friends was a Sunni, one a Shia, the other a Kurd. They had perished in a cafe bombing days before their college graduation. Omar, Ahmed and his family fled Iraq soon after. At 17 and just over 20 years of age, the two had seen far worse than my family had in two generations combined. But here was Omar singing and dancing to Arabic music as he drove while Ahmed told me about his secret girlfriend. “This is my first road trip!” Omar announced.
For two days the three of us wandered through the weathered columns and ruins of Palmyra, forgetting the realities of the war. Looking over the hundreds of pictures I have of the trip now, I see just a few photos of my friends. Each is just a silly snapshot of us grinning and monkeying around. Anything more serious would have felt inappropriate—an immediate reminder to the three of us of how desperate their situation was. We wanted a few days free of that.
Instead, I chose as my subject an empty desert, and the ruins that had witnessed perhaps as many as a hundred wars and had no real opinion of them.