The best way to photograph a culture is to first understand it. This is what makes Alexandra Avakian such an effective photojournalist: For nearly two decades, she has traveled the world from Mississippi to Iran studying, documenting and immersing herself in various Muslim cultures. For Avakian, her new book, Windows of the Soul: My Journey in the Muslim World, is a stunning visual recollection of the things she has seen. For the rest of us, it's an intimate introduction to a richly diverse Muslim world.
Children mourn Ayatollah Khomeini outside his house in a north Tehran suburb in Iran, June 1989.
Unsupervised children play in Shati refugee camp in Gaza, July 1993.
Nigerian United Nations troops from Operation Restore Hope arrested these Somali snipers allied with warlord Muhummad Farah Aidid's militia. Mogadishu, Somalia, February 1993.
A man sells fish as an Israeli soldier jumps from his truck to chase Palestinians who had been throwing stones in Gaza City, July 1993.
Israeli settlers burned this Palestinian farm at dawn near Khan Yunis, Gaza, November 1993.
A boy aims his slingshot at Israeli soldiers in the Nablus casbah, which was shut down by striking shopkeepers. West Bank, March 1998.
On Khajou Bridge, an engaged couple enjoys a chaperoned visit out of sight of morality police on the other side of the bridge in Isfahan, Iran, March 1998.
Women of the Mahbouban family weave a rug for export in Heris, Iran, a town known for the quality of its carpets. September 1998.
Khial Ali, 17, a Kurdish bride at Zarivar Lake. Marivan, Iran, September 1998.
Masked women take a break after shopping at the weekly open-air market in Minab, Iran, November 1998.
Razanne dolls are a Muslim-American alternative to Barbie. Dearborn, Mich., February 2002.
Lateef Muhammed, 76, relaxes in New Medinah, Miss., as his granddaughter and wife are reflected in the mirror. New Medinah, located near Sumrall, Miss., and founded by African-American Sunni Muslims in the 1980s, is a village of more than 20 families. November 2002.
Janeth Hammid and her children stand in the ruins of the mosque in Savannah, Ga., which was torched by an unknown arsonist. September 2003.
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Avakian has arguably seen the worst: war, poverty, repression, death. A regular contributor to National Geographic and a member of Contact Press Images, she has also been published in The New York Times Magazine, Life and Time, to name a few. Even from a young age, she was drawn to stories of struggle, revolution and conflict. In her words:
I had been fascinated by revolution and civil war and longed to learn more about the lengths to which people go to change their living conditions and achieve basic human rights. I was less interested in ideology than in the human capacity for bravery in the fight for freedom.
Her photos take us from Gaza to Iran, from Somalia to Pennsylvania. A young boy in Morocco, arms crossed, maybe 9 years old, smokes a cigarette with a smirk as others play foosball; a Sufi worshiper wails on his knees after having swallowed glass shards — a gesture of religious penitence; children glow in evening light as they play in a rusty, abandoned car at a refugee camp in Gaza. Avakian has traveled the world working on many different kinds of stories, but has found herself often drawn back to the Middle East.
Some of her photographs are difficult to look at — images of famine, bloodshed and loss. But putting herself in such situations, Avakian says, was facilitated by a certain sense of mission. She writes that many Americans "see only brief news reports, which tend to prominently feature violence and anger. While my own photographs contributed to these quick news bites," she continues, "there is much more to the story." Her work tells that story, because although some photos are difficult to look at, many others show quiet moments, both happy and sad, that humanize what for many is just a news story. One might say that Avakian is as much an anthropologist as she is a photographer.
D.C. readers will have a chance to see Avakian present her work tomorrow at the Middle East Institute. Read more about the event.