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Travel

Sebastian Meyer Founded Iraq's First Photo Agency

Setting up a reliable source of local photojournalism in a country that has suffered from war and unrest for decades ain't easy.

by Grey Hutton
May 29 2012, 3:00pm

Sebastian Meyer is an American photographer who left London for Iraq in 2009, where he and fellow shutterbug Kamaran Najm started Iraq's first photo agency, Metrography. Now with 60 photographers on their books, Metrography has risen from nothing to become a reliable source of local photojournalism in a country that has suffered from war and unrest for decades. Sebastian has covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, and he has been honored for his work on multiple occasions. He won an Exposure Award in the category of Documentary and Photojournalism for the photos he took in Libya, and this year he was selected as one of Magenta’s Flash Forward: Emerging Photographers. Sebastian took some time off from dodging bullets and snapping photos to speak with us about his agency, living and working in Iraq, and ducking bombs in Libya.

VICE: Let’s start with Libya. What brought you there in the first place?
Sebastian Meyer: I was on assignment in Baghdad during the Egyptian revolution and it was really difficult to be stuck in Iraq. I would get up at 5:00 every morning and go out and shoot all day. Then I would come home and watch the day's events in Egypt unfold on Al-Jazeera. I wanted to be there so badly, but I couldn't drop my assignment. By the time I finished, Mubarak had stepped down and the revolution in Libya was underway. So I drove from Baghdad to Sulaimaniyah, which is where I live. I picked up about $7,000 in cash from an assignment I'd done in late January, stuck it in a smelly sock, and got on a plane to Cairo. There I met up with the Washington Post and drove into Libya.

How long were you there?
Altogether I was in Libya for a month and a half. I didn't want to leave when I did, but I had a presentation to give in Minnesota in early May. I thought about canceling, but in the end I made the right decision to leave. I was very tired and getting sloppy. Libya was an incredible story to cover. The access was amazing; the story was fascinating; and, best of all, the story managed to hold the world's attention. It was also really dangerous and at times absolutely terrifying. 

What's the scariest predicament you found yourself in?
I was in Misurata when I went out with the ambulance crews to the front lines in the center of the city. There were rockets and mortars and cluster bombs landing everywhere. The ambulance crew's job was to stay put until they were needed, so we just sat there while bombs rained around us. There was nothing to photograph, nothing to do, nothing to take my mind off of what was going on. I just had to sit tight and take it all in.

Can all 60 of Metrography's photographers shoot on assignment? What’s the story behind the other photographers? What are their backgrounds and how did they get into taking photos?
No. Only about ten of our photographers shoot at a high enough standard to be used on assignments. Our photographers come from all sorts of different backgrounds. Some of them had fathers who were photographers. Others just picked up a camera as a hobby and then started working for the wires during the war. We have a few photographers who graduated from different fine arts institutes. Many of the younger photographers have been refugees and the older ones served in the Iran/Iraq war. It's a really remarkable mixed bag and everyone has a story to tell.

How did you go about finding these guys?
It's all word of mouth. All the wire guys know each other, so in some cases it has been easy. In general, though, it's been a struggle. It’s been especially tough finding guys in the more dangerous or remote areas: Anbar, Mosul, and some of the southern areas. Women photographers are especially hard to find.

How many women photographers do you have?
We've got two female photographers and they're both excellent. Julie Adnan has been published in National Geographic. Both Julie and Bnar create really unique work. Firstly, and most obviously, they're able to access 50 percent of the population that the rest of us can't. Secondly, they really confuse a lot of men here by just being women photographers. It's very disarming. In general, their photographs feel more intimate than most of what the men produce.

What other obstacles do you all face when trying to work in Iraq on a day-to-day basis? Do you have to always watch your back?
The biggest difficulty is the general paranoia about journalists—and especially photographers and videographers. The government is paranoid, the security forces are paranoid, and the people are paranoid. We spend a lot of time cajoling and convincing people to let us take pictures. In terms of security, where I live in the North, life is safe. However, the rest of Iraq is not so safe. So yes, you become accustomed to having a heightened awareness when you're in those areas. That being said, I can now quite easily pass as Kurdish and not draw too much attention to myself. So when I'm out shooting in central Iraq, I'm not worried that I'll be targeted as a foreigner.

Is your situation more profitable now because most of the press have left Iraq, allowing you to sell more pictures? Or do fewer people care about Iraq now that the war is over?
People certainly care less about Iraq now that the US military has left. On top of that, people are pretty fatigued with the never-ending barrage of horror stories coming out of Iraq. So it's not as easy to sell stories now as it was before. But as you point out, there's not a lot of press here anymore. So the competition isn't as high. To be honest, the real reason I live here is not because it's such a smart business decision—although it was at the time I moved here—it's that I find this place absolutely fascinating.

What’s so fascinating about it? 
It’s the extremeness of this place. Everything that's big is enormous and everything that's small is tiny. There's very little middle ground. Add on the fact that history here is lived as if it was the present, and you've got a remarkable place.

How is history being lived today in Iraq?
Right now in the north, the Kurds are in the act of creating their own country, which is something they've been dreaming of for centuries. In the south, the fight is between the Sunni and Shia, which is almost 1,500 years old and is being fought out today as if it were still the 7th century. Then add the diversity of religions, the overblown hospitality, the devil-may-care attitude, the music, the oil, the tribal structures, and you've got just an amazing place to find stories.

Will you still be living in Iraq once the country is stable again?
I don't really know. As the country stabilizes, there'll be more commercial work available and that would be a good reason to stay. Istanbul and Cairo are excellent hubs where a lot of journalists are based. Perhaps Baghdad will be such a hub in the future.

Your powerful audio recordings from the frontline give the viewer a more comprehensive and intense understanding of the picture. Do you feel that this is important in an age where people are becoming desensitized by an overwhelming exposure to dramatic imagery?
Yes, I feel really strongly about this. In fact, I'm starting to rethink conflict photography altogether. I don't think a still image is strong enough any more to do the job it needs to. If photographs of war aren't terrifying, then we're not telling the story right. My feeling is that we all have become complacent to images of war and it's my job as a journalist to tell a good enough story so that we all pay attention again. Adding audio is one way I'm trying to do this.

But don't you think that this added responsibility could hinder your main focus as a photographer? 
My audio recordings are amateurish at best. Any radio journalist would be ashamed at the quality of what I do. But as you see, I can't focus on both. So I just strap a recorder to my hip and then go out shooting. In an ideal world I'd work alongside a radio journalist and we could make amazing collaborations.

Do you see the future of professional photojournalism dying out as high-quality equipment becomes more accessible?
I was never around for the “glory days” of photojournalism. I think the business was already dying when I joined it. I don't think necessarily that it's because everyone has a camera, although I'm sure that's part of it. I think it's because photographs have lost value due to the internet. Photographs make sense for magazines and newspapers, but if you're reading everything online, why stick with a still image? Why not have a video? Look at the BBC website. Three years ago almost every story had a photograph to go with it. Now it's a small video clip.

SULAIMANIYAH, IRAQ: Mohammad Abdul Samad, a Bangladeshi migrant worker, throws a dead cat into the back of the garbage truck.

SHEKHAN, IRAQ - January 22: Baba Chowish, the keeper of the Yezidi temple, Lalish, on January 22, 2011 in Shekhan, Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan has been tipped by newspapers and magazines to be a new travel destination in 2011.

LONDON, UK: Chris helps his girlfriend, Mona, smoke crack in their shared room while they watch "Friends" on TV.

AJDABIYA, LIBYA: Rebel fighters play football on the front lines during a lull in the fighting.

BENGHAZI, LIBYA: A patient at the Benghazi psychiatric ward flashes the "V" sign that had become the symbol of the Libyan uprising.

BENGHAZI, LIBYA: A patient at the Benghazi psychiatric ward suffering from conditions brought about by the violent conflict.

MOSUL, IRAQ: A suspect sits, handcuffed, on the ground in the courtyard of an Iraqi police station.

MOSUL, IRAQ: At approximately 10:20 on May 13th, 2010 a suicide bomber detonated his car bomb in front of a US Army vehicle. There were no causalities, but three soldiers were seriously wounded.

ZHARI, AFGHANISTAN: Shah Wali, an Afghan soldier, wades across a canal in a smoke screen during a patrol in southern Pashmul.

MOSUL, IRAQ: At approximately 10:20 on May 13th, 2010 a suicide bomber detonated his car bomb in front of a US Army vehicle.

ASHURA, IRAQ: A US soldier burns his classified operation orders before his platoon goes out on patrol in Ninewa province.