Alexandra Rose Howland discusses her impactful new book compiling images shot and collected in Iraq over four years

The project, titled Leave and Let Us Go, turns a humanist and personal lens onto the country’s people.

Date
11 January 2022

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Throughout Alexandra Rose Howland’s recent portfolio, the photographer has been actively delving into the lives of “the other”. She’s spent the past five years in the Middle East, during which she aims to challenge stereotypes often portrayed in the media and in turn provide the audience with a better understanding of the people who live there. Having first moved to Turkey in 2015, where she began her practice, she later moved to Iraq in 2017 to start documenting the conflict. And now, she’s released her latest body of work named Leave and Let Us Go with publisher Gost Books.

The book is a culmination of Alexandra’s work spanning four years in Iraq, attempting to form a comprehensive study into the lives of those in the country. When she first arrived in Iraq, for instance, she found the country to be starkly different from what she was expecting, shrouded by the narrative of the media – she decided to do something about it. “I first went to Iraq wanting to show the transition of life into conflict,” Alexandra tells It’s Nice That. “What does it mean to live within, next to, or in a country that is in the midst of conflict? By connecting Erbil, the closest major city to void capture by ISIS, to al Nuri Mosque in West Mosul where Al bagdad proclaimed the ISIS caliphate, the viewer is shown everything from the mundane moments of daily life, the vast openness of the country, and slowly the emergence of conflict. After completing this project, I decided to stay in Iraq and document the rest of the Mosul offensive.”

Over the course of making this book, Alexandra become increasingly aware of the “disparities” between what she was able to photograph and the reality she was witnessing on the ground. She recalls a moment when a soldier sat next to her, showing the pictures on his phone – “the kills, his wife, his children, his university, graduating day, his wedding night” – and she noticed how often she’d see this type of story. So, after asking to download the pictures, Alexandra started work on what would become a collection of around 350,000 images and videos from more than 50 people across Iraq. “From selfies to photos of loved ones to videos on the frontline, this work presents us with a candid look into the life of Iraqi people as seen through their eyes,” she explains.

GalleryAlexandra Rose Howland: Leave and Let Us Go. Published by Gost Books (Copyright © Alexandra Howland, 2021)

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A found photo from the phone of Sarmed Kalel Ahmed (b. 1985, Mosul), a member of the Iraqi Police Armed Forces, giving the victory sign. A selfie from the phone of Wedyan Jalal (b. 1999, Karbala)

Coupled with Alexandra’s honest, documentary style of photography, is the purposeful inclusion of smartphone imagery, not to mention emojis that have become synonymous with the world of instant messaging. In one image, the subjects – who appear to be soldiers with guns in their hands – have their heads replaced by the *laugh crying face*, *cool shades* and *blushed*. Meanwhile, someone reaches their arm in front of the lens with a smartphone in tow. Like some sort of inception, the image has instantly been democratised and made accessible to the world; most will recognise an emoji or a smartphone. “Photography has already been democratised as a result of the smartphone and social media,” says Alexandra. “But that doesn’t mean all of the images being created hold the same impact. In many ways, because there are images everywhere and because the visual language is no longer held by a select few, creating work that has impact, that has relevance, that recognises this shifting landscape is much more challenging.”

Instead, Alexandra believes that an artist and photographer’s mission is less about the understanding of a camera, and more about what you’re trying to say – the conversations you’re sparking. For her specifically, it’s about connecting with the audience through a series of modern cadences, like the selfie, the emoji and snapshot, or the pixelated image taken on your phone. It’s a powerful technique that means more people can relate to the imagery at hand, therefore humanising and spreading awareness of the reality in Iraq. “Despite it being images from a country caught in seemingly endless conflict, you can place yourself within it,” she says. “This entry point of the work enables the audience to engage with it in a way that much of the previous documentation of Iraq doesn’t allow for. Images of conflict, or war, of refugees, have been so over published that the public no longer has any lasting empathy for these situations.

“I hope that this work contextualises that conflict,” she concludes, “the fact that it’s real people being impacted by the decisions of our governments, that it’s families being permanently shifted and yet despite this people are still getting married, having kids, or going to school.”

Alexandra's Leave and Let Us Go is available at Gost Books

GalleryAlexandra Rose Howland: Leave and Let Us Go. Published by Gost Books (Copyright © Alexandra Howland, 2021)

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Soldiers guard the main entrance of Mosul University, one of the largest educational centres in the Middle East. After taking control of Mosul in 2014, ISIS shut down the university, reopening it after a few months but limiting the academic fields to just medicine, dentistry, nursing and pharmacy. The rest of the campus was largely turned into a military and weapons production base for ISIS; the chemistry labs were used to create chemical weapons. Much of the campus was dismantled during the ensuing operation to retake Mosul and a large portion of the books and resources were either looted or destroyed—a major loss as it was considered one of the most important collections of books in the Middle East. By March 2017, the campus was reopened to students despite much of it still in a state of ruin © Alexandra Rose Howland

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Frontline of West Mosul. A combination of selfies from the phones of Fatima Farooq (b. 1994, Karbala) and Heshu Ahmed (b. 1993, Kirkuk) © Alexandra Rose Howland

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Found photo from the phone of Zainab al-Adeeb (b. 1998, Baghdad). An Iraqi Armed Forces officer takes a break in a house that was recaptured by ISIS fighters during the Mosul offensive © Alexandra Rose Howland

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A Federal Police soldier takes a break from his post © Alexandra Rose Howland

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Alexandra Rose Howland: Leave and Let Us Go. Published by Gost Books. Photo from the phone of Ahmed Muhammad Shahatha (b. 1990, Qayyarah), a soldier with the 9th battalion of the Iraqi Army. Selfie from the phone of Fatima Farooq (b. 1994, Karbala) on the day of her graduation from dentistry school (Copyright © Alexandra Howland, 2021)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla was an editorial assistant back in June 2017 and has continued to work with us on a freelance basis. She has spent the last seven years as a journalist, and covers a range of topics including photography, art and graphic design. Feel free to contact Ayla with any stories or new creative projects.

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