“Everything that happens out of necessity, everything expected, repeated day in and day out is mute. Only chance can speak to us while chance inevitably leaves us open to both good and bad experiences. The key is to trust it and to always seek to learn from it.
This is not a terribly new concept for any of us: when we choose to step out of our comfort zones and into unfamiliar situations — whether it be moving to a new state or country, changing career paths, or even just choosing to drive a different way home from work — we are opening ourselves up to the unknown — an abyss that I find terribly exciting and that leaves us both vulnerable but also open to great possibility. For as much as I appreciate routine, I am a big believer that if we are not careful comfort can breed complacency. And, in my opinion, we should all be aware of and ultimately fear complacency. I do my best to weigh decisions in this manner — knowing that one possible outcome is personal, professional and human growth and with a decision already made that anything that goes sideways will be looked at as a way to learn and/or do things differently next time. We hold the power to decide if and/or how life affects us.
I recently returned from spending several days in the field with MSF (Doctors without Borders). It was my first time stepping foot into Iraqi Kurdistan, working within a stones throw of a frontline and my first experience traveling, eating, sleeping and working in collaboration with a large NGO.
To refer back to the quote that I opened with, flying to Iraq to join the MSF team was a “chance” in at least two senses of the word — an opportunity to further my understanding of the world and more specifically that of displaced persons. And, to be fair, it was also a risk and a rather big step into the unknown. I have known for a long time that I wanted to start working in the Middle East, to continue working with humanitarian aid organizations and to do so in “hot” areas … areas where there is (arguably) the most need for aid and for documentation. So, when the opportunity came up in March of 2016 to work with Global Outreach Doctors and SAMS (Syrian American Medical Society) for several weeks in April I followed my instinct and ultimately decided that it was where I needed to be. With the support of friends, family and colleagues I was able to book a plane ticket and have enough so that the time spent abroad made at least some type of financial sense. As things often do when you put yourself out there and are receptive to what the universe has to offer, it was there, during that mission, that the chance to join the MSF mission came up. The timing of it all was uncanny with my time in Jordan coming to an end perfectly aligning with MSF’s weeklong mission at the end of April.
To be straight I knew that I was going to go when the opportunity first presented itself, but I did my version of due diligence and ran the idea past a few friends — admittedly those that I knew would be most apt to support my going. In the end, I changed my return flight to the US (and booked a flight to Erbil — northern Iraq. As with any plane ticket I purchase, the moment that I received the confirmation email my heart began to race, my adrenaline kicked in and I felt a renewed sense of energy (for life). The unknown is some wonderful combination of terrifying, exciting and full of beautiful possibility.
I have posted and handful of photos over the course of the past several days, but i have yet to write much of substance about what I have seen, experienced and felt while in the Zummar region with MSF. i think that at least part of this has to do with the challenge of putting into words something that does justice to and is an accurate depiction of the situation(s) that I have entered, witnessed, experienced and then exited. The other part of it is undoubtedly the accumulative effect of of a month of working in what i am fondly referring to as crazy, beautiful and challenging circumstances. As someone who gets her energy from time spent alone processing (both figuratively and literally working through photos) the lack of that due to a very “go” schedule has left me still reliving and considering the past month.
That said, I want to share a brief overview of time spent with MSF northern Iraq and then, over the course of the next several weeks I intend to break out and expand upon images and stories both from Jordan and Iraq — I hope that you will find them worthwhile.
So, without further preface: We, being myself and the MSF team, spent much of the first day last Saturday, the 23rd of April, of our mission in a van together traveling first from Erbil to Dohuk and then again from Dohuk to the MSF office in Zummar province. We arrived Sunday night at the safe house and were given a security briefing, dinner and shown our rooms. The accommodations were more than adequate with shared rooms, a living space, kitchen and, my favorite part, a rooftop on which I caught more than one stunning sunset. What I did not expect, but should have, were the restrictions. The safe house was on a small plot of land with a 10-12 foot wall surrounding the perimeter and guarded 24/7. Movement outside of the walls was permitted only with a driver/escort and only until 5 PM. Zero movement was permitted after 6PM. As someone who is both a runner at heart and incurably curious about the world, being told that i was not permitted to leave the compound without an escort and that there was absolutely no movement after 6PM was something that I had to struggle with for at least the first day or two. Security concerns aside, my inherent desire is to be out, to see, to explore and to interact — this is where I have always found my truest experiences and images. With that said, it was my first of many learning experiences of working with a large NGO and of working within this specific part of the world. I did my absolute best to adapt … but I may or may not have been the young woman running laps around the inside of the compound perimeter at 10pm each night.
I have nothing but good things to say about the MSF team that I had the pleasure of working with. A combination of expats and local Kurdish men and women made up the team of doctors, nurses, logisticians, drivers, guards and staff. Consistent with what I experienced when in Jordan, the warmth, generosity and general kindness of the locals has managed to brighten my days.
Each of the three days (Monday through Wednesday) were spent at different village clinics where MSF was working in collaboration with the local security forces, community leaders and any existing health practitioners. Aesthetically, the buildings left much to be desired. They are brand new, relatively nondescript tan block structures built in 2014 by the government but had have never been used because IS reached the area in early 2014. With a primary concentration on chronic health issues, sexual and reproductive health, and mental/psychosocial support, MSF is now making use of the clinics with general healthcare being provided by local, Kurdish nurses.
The first two days were spent documenting work being done at clinics that were already part of MSF’s ongoing work in the region. The third day was spent in a very small village called Hutheima. It was MSF’s first visit to Huthemia and as such was a unique experience for me as a photographer and as someone seeking to gain a better understanding of displacement in the region. When ISIS took over in August 2014 the village was entirely emptied. Of the 600+ families that once lived in Hutheima only about 170 still call the village home; over 430 families have fled and never returned. Some people returned in January 2015 moving to areas behind the frontline in ISIS controlled areas or settling in in Baadre camp. Eventually individuals and families started to sneak away and return to Hutheima — others stayed behind. Despite ongoing hostilities, according to the mukhtar, things are slowly improving: security is stable, people are starting to work again, electricity and water are present though not regular.
Part of my time was spent photographing the doctors at work and part of it was spent listening to peoples’s stories. Those that I have met here and in Jordan have stunned me with their openness, their candor, their resilience and the grace with which they manage what are, by most standards, incredibly difficult lives. Among other things, what this experience has done is further ignite in me the desire and determination to find a way to continue to travel, tell stories - in images and in words - of people, issues and parts of the world where popular media either glosses over or does not report on. I have found sitting and spending real time with individuals, having tea, meeting their family and sharing a meal — earning a trust and forming a relationship that allows one to cross an invisible boundary — is what I find to be most rewarding both personally in a way that in some way fulfills what I see as a sense of responsibility to record and share the stories that are entrusted to us.
To be entirely honest, (with those still reading this post), I have had incredible moments that resonated with me to my core … and I have had entire days where I questioned everything — from humanity itself to my own worth as a photographer and journalist. Self-doubt can be suffocating. I often ask myself, Who am I to have the privilege of being allowed into the lives of so many? How do I do justice to that trust? The responsibility to ensure I share not only accurately, compressively and fairly but also with a degree of compassion is not one that I, or any other, should take lightly.
Choosing to look at those moments of frustration, the roadblocks (both literally and figurative in this instance) and situations where everything went opposite to plan (or where there was no plan) forced me well outside of my comfort zone which, while not the most fun at the time, is of great use if reflected upon and looked at for ways in which to learn and grow as a photojournalist and as a human being.
So, what’s next? I wish I knew more definitively. It’s in my nature — as an odd combination of “type” A and B — to want to have a plan while also demanding the absolute freedom to book a plane ticket at 3AM if the wind blows in that direction. To that end, I have found some comfort in a poem that I recently stumbled upon … for those of us (i can’t be the only one!) searching for a path that seems evasive if not non-existent, take some comfort in knowing that our path is made by walking.
Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.
Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again
Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.”