BAGHDAD- A photograph of Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi meeting in his office with an ill Iraqi girl in need of medical care has sparked a broad virtual debate – not about the prime minister or his policies, but about his photographer, Jamal Penjweny.
The photographer, with his remarkable, Hollywood-like photos of Iraq’s new premier, has sparked debate among Iraqis on social media about the unique messaging, attracting both critics and admirers.
Penjweny, a globally renowned Kurdish visual artist, has won international awards.
Born in a refugee camp at the Iraqi -Iranian border in 1981 during the Iraq-Iran war, Penjweny grew up to the sound of weapons. As he grew older, he became fascinated by the work of journalists and photographers who came to the camp to cover stories about the war and refugees and their suffering, and decided to pursue the same career path.
“I used to watch photographers and journalists flock to the camp, and I would tell myself (that) one day I would become a photographer like them,” Penjweny said in an interview.
However, he would encounter many obstacles, as the Kurds’ suffering did not end when the Iran-Iraq war stopped in 1988. Further regional conflict broke out, eventually forcing Penjweny to discontinue his studies.
In 1999, late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmed took Penjweny with them to Sulaymaniyah and helped him finish his studies there. He was 17 years old at the time, and soon bought his first camera.
“After moving to Sulaymaniyah, I bought a camera and started taking photographs of statues and sculptures that I carved. I learned the art of sculpture since I was eight years old,” Penjweny said.
When the Iraq war broke out in 2003, Penjweny went to Baghdad and other regions of Iraq to take photos for newspapers and international news agencies. His photo-journalism on the Iraqi conflict appeared in international news publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Geographic and the World Press Photo Magazine.
After 2009, however, Penjweny grew frustrated with how the media was covering Iraq and decided to move away from photo-journalism and dedicate himself to his artwork. He hoped to show another side of Iraq – one that displayed the life and future of the country rather than simply the war, he said in an interview with artrepresent.com.
“My work always begins spontaneously as I am not simply an unbiased observer,” he said. “I am a part of the reality that my work represents.”
Penjweny said that Kadhimi is a close friend and asked him to come on board as his photographer after he became premier. “He (Kadhimi) called me and asked me to return to Iraq from where I was staying in Europe, to work with his government,” Penjweny said.
The photographer returned to Baghdad to take the job and vowed to do everything he could for the premier for one reason: “The Prime Minister is a competent person and the new government deserves support,” Penjweny said.
“It is imperative to work at a global level to restore the prestige of the state and show that to the world,” he added.
Penjweny has taken several photos that have sparked controversy on social media. One exceptional shot taken from the ground shows Kadhimi raising his hands in prayer at the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala.
The photo spread widely among social media activists and bloggers, with some accusing Kadhimi of hypocrisy. However, Penjweny said he wanted the photo to “be a response to everyone who exploits religion in anti-stateism, starting with ISIS and not ending with militias and parties, and everyone who wants to fabricate sectarian and civil war under the cover of religion. The message was that faith is a special relationship between a person and God.”
An Iraqi by the name of Mazen Al Yazid wrote on Twitter: “Penjweny believes that it is not possible for every ordinary Iraqi citizen to meet with the prime minister face to face. Therefore, the images that reach him must reflect the powerful and prestigious personality of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi who is able to effect change, because the media is the mirror and window to achieve this.”
Asked about another photo that shows Kadhimi inside a helicopter looking at the port of Umm Qasr in Basra, Penjweny said “the message was that all these outlets and facilities belong to the state only, and not to the corrupt who want to enrich themselves on account of someone of Iraq.”
“Every photo has a message even if the interpretation of that message differs from one person to another,” he added.