Jamal Penjweny and the Power of Photography

Throughout the course of a conflict, it can be difficult to focus on anything other than the violence and fighting itself, especially when that attracts much of the media’s coverage. However, it is extremely important to pay just as much attention to the citizens of that country where the violence is taking place, and how that conflict is affecting their everyday lives.

Someone who understands the importance of this very well is Jamal Penjweny. Born in 1981, Penjweny is based in the city of Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. An photographer, artist, and filmmaker, he has spent that past ten years documenting the effects of the war on Iraqis all over the world. His work has been featured internationally, shedding light on the lives of Iraqis as they continue to live in the shadow of the war.

Capturing the lighter side of Iraq between 2006 and 2010, Jamal Penjweny’s series “Iraq is Flying” has been exhibited in the United Kingdom, the United States, Brazil and China.


Much of Penjweny’s work focuses on the average Iraqi, and how many Iraqis still feel the effects of the war every day. One of Penjweny’s most acclaimed works is his photography series “Saddam is Here,” which he debuted in 2010. This series features Iraqis in normal settings—sometimes their homes, their place of work, even in the hospital—hold a picture of Saddam over their own faces. The purpose of this series is to demonstrate how Iraqis are still living with the legacy of Saddam, years after he was deposed. Saddam, like any charismatic leader, had the ability to divide society—some loved him while others loathed him for his cruelty.

Penjweny explains:
“Saddam is here. The Iraqis can’t forget him, even now that he’s dead, because some of them still love him and others still fear him. He was a kind of god, at once cruel and generous. A “good father”, but a criminal too, who urged the Iraqis to kill and be killed at the same time. His shadow hangs over all of us.”

Penjweny’s photo series “Wish” features Iraqis holding pictures that represent their childhood dreams that they weren’t able to realize, including a man who took karate lessons and then became a Mullah. This photo series shows how we are all limited by our surroundings and resources, and aimed to give people one moment captured in a photograph when their dreams could become a reality. In addition to his many photo series, Penjweny has also released several short films, including “Forgotten Women,” a powerful piece which depicts women who have lost their husbands and sons in the war, and how they carry the memory of these men and the pain of loss with them every day. Penjweny’s art shows an Iraq which many people have never seen or even considered, and it sends a powerful message not only about the current status of everyday life in Iraq, but also the resilience of Iraqis to endure years of strife and continue to seek a brighter future.

Here at EPIC, we strongly believe in the power of photography. That’s why we’re currently in Penjweny’s hometown of Sulaimani implementing a 9-week project that uses photography to empower a group of students at American University of Iraq – Sulaimani (AUIS) to picture the change they want to see in the world.  The project, PHOTOVOICE IRAQ: Picturing Change, uses an empowering research methodology known as “photovoice.” Throughout the project, the students will use cameras and personal narratives to explore what they see as the most important issues to them and people they care about. Then, they will photograph and write about the positive change that they hope to see within their lifetimes, and how they see themselves being a part of that change. To follow the progress of PHOTOVOICE IRAQ: Picturing Change and see what the students produce, you can subscribe to our email updates.

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