Photographer Sebastian Meyer is somewhat new to the trade. He's been shooting since 2004, and has been in Iraq since 2009. But he's already trying to change the industry: "I personally, as someone who photographs here, am kind of tired of how foreigners see Iraq."
So he teamed up with Kamaran Najm to form the first Iraqi photo agency, Metrography. Meyer says the idea came when Najm, a photo editor and native Iraqi, had no central place to find pictures. Today, the agency represents some 60 Iraqi photographers. Surprisingly, there's now no shortage of photographers; if anything, the problem is a shortage of work.
Iraqi photographer Pazhar Mohammad tells the story of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city in northern Iraq with a grisly past and an uncertain future. His portraits show Iraqis who have been injured or who have lost loved ones.
The reality is that there's just not a huge demand for local photography within Iraq. The average price per picture in an Iraqi news magazine is about $8, Meyer says. Most people rip them illegally from the Web anyway.
"The thing I'm very focused on is reminding people that Iraqi photographers don't just have to photograph Iraq," Meyer offers. "American photographers work all over the world. Just because we're an Iraqi photo agency doesn't mean that our photographers are limited to photographing Iraq."
The odds are stacked against them, though. It's hard enough to survive as a photographer these days, let alone as an agency, to say nothing of an agency in the Middle East.
Plus, in a world flattened by the Internet, how relevant is nationality, really? Do you have to be from a place to really get it? Meyer would argue in the affirmative: "I know some brilliant photographers who have an amazing gift at getting close to someone ... but when you speak the language, there's an intimacy that comes out in the images that you don't see in a lot of foreign stuff."
The for-profit aspect of assignments and commissions is only half of Metrography. The other and arguably more important half, Meyer says, is about training: "What we're really about is teaching photographers how to tell stories."
Take Binar Sardar, for example. She had little experience when she showed up to one of Metrography's summer workshops. Now she's in the position to turn down a mentorship offer from renowned photojournalist Stephanie Sinclair. Not that she wants to turn it down; another unfortunate reality, Meyer explains, is that most of these photographers still have full-time jobs — and can't afford to leave them.
Sardar, being a woman, is an exceptional case. The large majority of Metrography photographers are men, which comes as no surprise. "The biggest problem we face is that journalism isn't considered a particularly classy kind of job," says Meyer. "The other issue, obviously, is gender, where a lot of women aren't allowed to work in the country — especially [if] they'd have to go out and talk to a lot of people."
But Sardar's doing it, at least on the side. As a working woman, she takes an interest in working women. One of her projects tells the story of an Iraqi policewoman.
So what's the photography culture like in Iraq? "I think a lot of people just like photography — just like we do in the States," Meyer says. His goal is to provide Iraqis with tools to establish a local viewpoint, and to get eyes on it.