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2018 Year in Review // A Look Back in Pictures and Words by Maranie Staab

2018 passed in one long, beautiful blink of the eye.

It's been a while since I last wrote and I’m keen to share a few highlights with you. 

I spent the month of March in Vietnam, the first half with a group of American Veterans, documenting their first return trip to the country since serving in the war and the latter researching the generational legacy of conflict as seen through the ongoing effects of dioxin (Agent Orange). Nearly six decades after the launch of Operation Ranch Hand, second- and third-generation Vietnamese are still suffering the debilitating effects of Agent Orange, and the births of an afflicted fourth generation are being reported.

Some of that work—The Generational Legacy of War: the story of Phuong Nguyen—was recognized by CPOY (College Photographer of the Year)

In July I packed up my life in Pittsburgh and moved to Syracuse, New York. Graduate school was never part of the plan, but I was fortunate to receive the first Ed Kashi Fellowship to attend Syracuse University, where I'm currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Visual Communications. 

Having wrapped up my first semester, I look back on those first six months as some of the most challenging yet rewarding of my life. We are not always granted peace with our decisions but being at Newhouse has felt “right” since day one. I've had the opportunity to push pause on the often hectic freelance life and immerse myself in all things visual, amidst a talented and dedicated community of similarly-minded people. Self-taught, I’ve never had this type of immersion and could not be more grateful as I continue to learn about myself and the craft.

My first assignment was a self-portrait; I was and continue to be drawn to the cemetery near my house.

One of the most meaningful connections I’ve made in Syracuse is to a little girl, 6 years of age.

I met Kaylee less than a month after moving to Syracuse, and spent weeks taking pictures of what I thought was a story of a little girl’s battle with childhood cancer. Several months later it became evident this was not "just" the story of a child with cancer but rather one of family dynamics as they navigate Kaylee's diagnosis, treatment and life once declared cancer-free. 

Spending time with Kaylee has taught me the value of long-term work, and has made clear that time and establishing trust are perhaps the most important elements in creating intimate images. The more time I spend with Kaylee and her family the more I understand the importance of both.


Pushed to grow beyond still images ...

I created my first short videos, two of which I'll share here:

the first is about Kaylee and the other is about, but also for, my mother.    

#KAYLEESTRONG

#MOMENTARY

In October I was fortunate to have a print in the Social Documentary Network's 10th Anniversary Exhibition held at the Bronx Documentary Center in New York City. [photo credit: Matthew Lomanno]


Of note: 

  • The Atlantic published my images from Mosul in a piece detailing the civilian death toll in the fight against ISIS. 

  • I returned to Pittsburgh for an exhibition showcasing work done in partnership with Neighborworks and was recently invited to participate in a group exhibition on the documentation of forced migration.

  • Airwars, a non-profit transparency project and authority on the effects of conflict violence on civilian communities utilized numerous images to illustrate their ongoing work in Iraq.


Winter 2018/2019

I spent my winter break working and living in Bajed Kandala, a Yazidi displacement camp in Iraqi Kurdistan, a few miles from the Syrian border. I went with a desire to better understand—who was this persecuted ethno-religious minority beyond the often simplistic narrative of a community largely reduced to their victimhood? 

Beginning with an attack by the Islamic State in Sinjar, Iraq, on August 3, 2014 the most recent data asserts that nearly 9,900 members of the ethnic and religious minority were killed or captured in a matter of days. Today, more than four years later, nearly 200,000 Yazidis remain displaced; of that, approximately 9,000 call the Bajed Kandala camps home. I went as a volunteer with Joint Help for Kurdistan, an NGO with an all-volunteer staff comprised of displaced Yazidis that live within the camp. The JHK team serves their community during the day and returns to their tents at night.

Can you imagine being confined for over four years to a place whose perimeter you could walk in less than 30 minutes? A fenced enclosure, the Bajed Kandala displacement camp has limited entry and exit points ... when this little lady opted to cut loose for a bit I could hardly blame her. As I watched her run off I found myself thinking how rarely I recognized the privilege of my own freedom.

Can you imagine being confined for over four years to a place whose perimeter you could walk in less than 30 minutes? A fenced enclosure, the Bajed Kandala displacement camp has limited entry and exit points ... when this little lady opted to cut loose for a bit I could hardly blame her. As I watched her run off I found myself thinking how rarely I recognized the privilege of my own freedom.

One of the many consequences of displacement--whether due to conflict, poverty, environment, politics or other--is the disruption of education for children and young adults alike. While in Mosul last year I remember meeting men and women, similar in age to myself, who had no choice but to abandon their studies when ISIS took hold of the city. For the Yazidis displaced from Sinjar in August 2014, the story is similar: despite efforts from NGOs and individual volunteers, education halted as people were forced to flee, and has yet to resume the regularity or attendance that existed in Sinjar. In the Bajed Kandala camp only one school operates and the majority of educational efforts are being made by volunteers and other displaced Yazidis living within the camp.

A Yazidi Wedding:  The marriage of Amera and Samir took place just outside the Bajed Kandala camp. Several hundred from the community attended the traditional celebration, dancing throughout the day and evening. When night fell everyone returned to the camp and tents they've called home since 2014.

A Yazidi Wedding: The marriage of Amera and Samir took place just outside the Bajed Kandala camp. Several hundred from the community attended the traditional celebration, dancing throughout the day and evening. When night fell everyone returned to the camp and tents they've called home since 2014.

The most rewarding aspect of my time in Kurdistan was teaching a photo workshop to a group of young women. Over the course of several days we covered photo basics and focused on the importance and validity of their own, unique way of seeing the world. It is one thing for me to take pictures of a community; it's another to empower those in the community to participate in constructing their own narrative. Due to a gracious donation I was able to travel with a printer and we held a modest exhibition of their work. It may be difficult for many to imagine holding a photo print for the first time but for these young women it was magic--to see their eyes light up and shine with renewed confidence was priceless.

I left Syracuse on Christmas Eve, bound for Kurdistan, uncertain of what the coming weeks might bring. In just shy of a month Iraq shared with me much of its pain as well as its beauty. I was welcomed into the lives of many and witnessed examples of hope and resilience by those who’ve suffered immensely. Perhaps it is this contrast, as well as a lack of nuanced understanding of the country, that continues to draw me back. It’s my third consecutive year spending time in this part of Iraq, and if stars and finances align, I'll return again this summer.

Back in Syracuse, I’ve started to go through several thousand frames and struggle for the right words, should they even exist. A density and intensity of experience is had when in such a place and it’s a bit like whiplash when one returns to a society of comfort, excess and relative disconnect. When that feeling subsides though what remains is profound perspective and renewed appreciation for the life and opportunity I have -- it’s a privilege to be a witness and it's more important than ever we continue to tell the stories that matter, whether they be in Iraq or our own backyards.

For those interested in more recent work and following along, please find me on Instagram & Twitter.

Wishing everyone a peaceful 2019—may this be our collective best year yet.
Maranie