When the girls photographed bombed buildings, they did it with a pragmatism and candour that reveals the true extent of the effect of their
The city of Ramadi has been in a state of reconstruction and recovery since 2015, when the battle to recapture it from IS militants left sprawling decimation in its wake. Over 80% of the city was flattened in destruction that the UN described as “worse than any other part of Iraq” and among this was The Al-Rajaa School for Girls, which was on the front line of the fighting and sustained extensive damage. However, despite being a victim of the conflict, the school remained open and has become a symbol of fortitude and hope.
Within months of Ramadi’s recapture, The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) undertook the task of rebuilding the school, while the girls and their teachers continued to attend every day. They set up makeshift classrooms in safe areas of the school grounds, but other parts of the complex remained potentially life threatening. ICRC’s first assessment of Al-Rajaa revealed explosives and weapon contamination. The entire second floor was inaccessible and rockets were found on the ground.
It serves as a testament to both the horrific normalisation of conflict and the enduring desire to learn.
The school was officially reopened on the 8th October 2017 and its 600 students and teachers finally returned to their classrooms, led by school director, Zainab Faisai, “when we raised the flag in the school, we said ‘Al Ramadi is alive despite all the conditions, all the wars and all the pain’. We washed away our pain and we started looking forward to the future”
The ICRC, however, was determined not to let the school become another distant name in a war torn region and wanted to document the world in which these girls and young women live and create a wider understanding, not only of the drama of conflict or hyperbole of war, but the day-to-day lives of young people as they strive to better themselves under the most challenging circumstances.
Award-winning Iranian photographer and Canon Ambassador, Mashid Mohadjerin held a four-day workshop at the school and, armed with equipment and translators, gave a group of girls a crash course in photography and visual storytelling. She introduced them to a world of photography, photojournalism and the power of images, then showed them the most effective and compelling ways to snapshot and frame their own worlds.
“Some of them felt really strongly about telling their own story,” said Mashid “but others were quite shy and didn't think their stories were interesting enough and that's where I needed more time to convince them that actually, their story is important.“
It seems faintly ridiculous, given that during her time with the girls at Al Rajaa, Mashid stayed exclusively in the school or in her room – she wasn’t allowed to go anywhere else for her own security. Yet, for the girls, whose devastated environment has been broadcast around the world, this is simply their home. Each girl was given a camera and asked to use what they’d learnt.
The results are stark in their simplicity and ordinariness.
It is almost impossible for most of us to understand how it feels for a child to live under the shadow of war, but even when the girls photographed bombed buildings, they did so with a pragmatism and candour that reveals the true extent of the effect of their experiences.
Maryam Raheem Jassem, aged 17, who chose to photograph her little sister, understands how powerful images travel, “I like photography because photos tell things that we cannot say. I can show the problems of people, their concerns and everything inside them. There are people who cannot describe their problems, so through photos we can see everything. Then people can see.”
“Photos reflect something for people to see, things thy may have never seen before,” agrees 16 year old Noor Al-Huda Luay Fadel, who captured powerful melancholy in a simple domestic scene of a family in poverty.
Differences in culture and language can be additional barriers to understanding, empathy and, ultimately, change. The camera removes these obstructions and introduces the girls to a level playing field, where they are simply, and perfectly, just kids. Who live, learn and play as their city slowly rebuilds.