Mustafa Al-Sumaidaie was one of millions of Iraqis born into occupation and sectarian chaos. Rather armed with a lens, Mustafa’s photographs and films honestly depict the urban and architectural beauty of his homeland.
“I was 10,” says Mustafa Al-Sumaidaierecounting the humble beginnings of his career which, more than a decade later, has matured him into a rising star on the contemporary Iraqi film scene.
Sumaidaie’s chance encounter with photography began in 1999 when he restored his father’s broken camera. The then 10-year-old boy bought a cartridge of film with pocket money he had strewn about and shot his very first roll of film.
The results, as he described them, were disappointing. The images were grainy and blurry except for one that encouraged him to pursue the path of filmmaking.
“Sumaidie lifts the veil on Iraq’s urban and architectural beauty, its hidden gems and natural wonders that Iraqis – but not all – take for granted”
Sumaidaie described the rush of euphoria that photography filled him with, and despite his family’s shameless criticism of his amateur endeavors, he carried on. He photographed intimate family occasions, before becoming the de facto camera repairman in his neighborhood.
Photography was a hobby and never a career choice for Sumaidaie. Architecture had been his initial vocation, which he was forced to abandon as the war drove its nails into the urban and social fabric of Iraq.
“It was the height of the sectarian conflict in Iraq,” he recalls, “and my father had just passed away. As the eldest in my family, I had to prioritize work over school, and I never really caught up.
Overnight, Sumaidaie became the sole caregiver for his nuclear family. The decision proved crucial to his career and eventual success.
During these testing times, Sumaidaie invested time, energy and money in the craft, learning and becoming more skilled. He eventually found work in the commercial sector, alternating between directing and editing films.
The year was 2016 when I first encountered his work. I was seduced by a short film directed by Sumaidaie which is called Al Mutannabi Street who articulated the rebirth and survival of the eponymous street in Baghdad.
He was disfigured eight years earlier in a ruthless car bomb explosion that ripped through the beating heart of Baghdad’s beloved Shabandar Cafe on Mutanabbi Street.
The video weaves its way through book-paved streets, Chai Khanas and their bustling clientele, delicious food stalls, market dwellers and, not least, the infamous Qishla Clock Tower, which watches over the upper area.
The film set the tone for much of Sumaidaie’s later work. Driven by an insatiable curiosity about how people live and think, his eclectic portfolio features candid photographs of Iraqi underlings and, most importantly, coveted places where no tourist has set foot.
His cinematic prowess is best demonstrated in an EU-commissioned film that documents life in the war-torn western province of Al-Anbar, two years after military operations against ISIS ended.
A smile in a minute is another close contender that features a colorful cast of ordinary civilians whose stony expressions turn into infectious smiles.
A personal favorite is Baghdad at 90 degrees — marked by its vertiginous abstractism. It depicts Baghdad as a perpetually spinning 3D spherical globe as Sumaidaie roams its streets and historic bridges.
As for his photographic collection, an image captured by a drone of a water buffalo swimming through the sandy marshes of Maysan – leaving a plume of gray dust in its wake – remains a crowd favorite. Its appeal stems from the difficulty in reading the image, with the audience wondering whether the buffalo is running through sand or water.
As the conversation turns to the aesthetics of her work, Sumaidaie identifies her target audience as local Iraqis. He admits that he does not follow any repertoire, but relies heavily on spontaneity.
What is also apparent is that Sumaidie is obviously driven by his nationalist sensibilities or rather a pride and appreciation for his country.
By harnessing the power of photography, Sumaidie lifts the veil on Iraq’s urban and architectural beauty, its hidden gems and natural wonders that Iraqis – but not all – take for granted.
“If the roof of your house was cracked, how could you not notice it? he says, using the analogy to criticize society’s myopia and blind eye.
By portraying Iraq in a way that defies its public persona as the Hobbesian jungle of the east, Sumaidie is generally credited by Iraqis for challenging widespread stereotypes inside and outside the country. Iraq.
Each month, the traveling photographer lands in a new destination, which he describes as “uniquely Iraqi”.
“In my own way, I promote domestic tourism,” he says with conviction, social media offering a replacement travel brochure.
His message is that all Iraqis should recognize the enviable landscapes they can access. “All they have to do,” he says, “is travel.” He adds that “budding Iraqi photographers are often advised against leaving Iraq and traveling the world in search of coveted shots.”
He tells me that this advice is misplaced and leaves disgruntled young people dreaming of migration even more unhappy, due to the travel and financial restrictions they face.
Although landscape photography is a key part of Sumaidaie’s work, ordinary Iraqis are just as visible – a subject he is certainly fond of. He explains that his “community-centered” approach is not limited to offering corrective portraits of Iraq. “I take care in my photography to also show how communities live, worship and come together.”
He says his ability to switch between all the dialects spoken in Iraq (north, west, south) has helped him build trust with communities.
“People immediately warm up to you,” he says. “You can’t walk into an area and start pointing your camera at people. It’s intrusive and keeps people on their toes, especially when photographing women.
Sumaidaie admits that encounters with a myriad of communities have also changed her own opinions and prejudices.
Unlike “kalam al-Nas” [hearsay] of the so-called “violent” province of Anbar, Sumaidaie said he was touched by the hospitality of its people and both surprised and educated by the active role he saw the women of ‘Anbari.
He shared a similar story about the Êzidî community based in Lalish, enchanted with its rituals and spiritual practices, as well as the little-known Orthodox Christian town of Hamdaniya.
As I walk through the mosaic tiles of Instagram account of Sumaidaiemy eyes feast on images of uncharted landscapes – from Zakho to al-Faw – of enchanting wildlife, farmlands and community practices and rituals.
Like a traveling stage light, Sumaidaie’s lens travels to destinations old and new, lifting the veil on his native Iraq. The country we see in his work seems unfamiliar and unrecognizable compared to that depicted online and on television over the past two decades. It teaches us that the country is far greater than the sum of its crippling traumas, scars and fractures of war.
Nazli Tarzi is a freelance journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq’s ancient history and the contemporary political scene.