The end of 2016 was my first encounter with a part of the world that was always far away, not geographically but borders and labels and all. Stateless with an Israeli travel document, I’ve never even met people from my own region.

Working with the United Nations offered me that experience when I got an assignment to teach photography for some amazing communications officers from all over Iraq, it was my first time teaching something I love so much in a context I have never been a part of before. 

There I was, flying across the Atlantic last minute to my brother’s wedding in Jerusalem for one night then waking up in Istanbul en route to Irbil, on an almost empty plane with an extremely young flight crew “ like with pimples covering their faces “  Suddenly, I notice this man smiling and looking so angelic, regardless of his muscles spilling outside the frame of the photo I had in mind. One minute after, I approached him and tried to get my photo but our language skills didn’t help at that moment at all and I might have oversold myself since the only expression I could read of him was “ you are such a dick”.  I guess I  didn’t give him a chance to shine. Shortly after landing he was escorted  before “all of us” (me and another 7 passengers). Naturally I confused everyone at passport control, travel documents never seem to make sense to them. Finally, they let me out and I see it, “Nezar Ghazali, winner of the international bodybuilding championship in Greece” all caps. I get my chance to photograph him and I move on to what I was brought here to do.     

Part of the workshop was conducting field visits where all these photos were taken – of Syrian refugees and other internally displaced people around the time the fight with ISIS was at its peak. Naturally I get food poisoning and end up throwing up behind peoples tents, just adding more to their misery.

The trust with people when they smile for you or your camera is so intense and never easy to grasp. You think you are used to that, from experience photographing refugees for the last years. One thing I’ve learned though is that smile doesn’t always mean trust,  the truth is that you will leave them after taking these shots, most of the time people are just too exhausted to argue so they smile, especially the young ones.  

Irbil, December 2016
©Alaa Ghosheh

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