Earning a Trenchcoat in Iraq

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KABUL, AFGHANISTAN: Sebastian Meyer shoots video on the streets of Kabul as curi

Sebastian Meyer shoots video on the streets of Kabul as curious Afghan children look on. Photo: Hussein Fatemi

How do you become a foreign correspondent these days? In a time when most big media are cutting back and few jobs are to be found, one way is simply to take the plunge -- go to a place where interesting things are happening and start telling the story.  Here's how one wannabe morphed into a seasoned photographer, writer, videographer and co-developer of Metrography, the first photo agency in Iraq.

 


 

“You live in Iraq?  Really?  Why?” is a pretty common reaction when I tell people where I live.  But moving there was how I turned myself from a struggling press photographer into a real foreign correspondent.

It all started in the winter of 2008-2009.  That horrible winter that almost saw the end of journalism.  The winter when the economy was tanking so badly that it threatened to take all the news media with it.  Newspapers, magazines, TV, everything was looking bad.

I had been living in the UK since 2004, scraping by as a freelance press photographer, dreaming of foreign assignments in exotic sun-drenched counties while standing in the rain outside some poor guy’s house with the rest of the English press corps, flashes at the ready for the inevitable “door-knock” photo.

Once a week I’d get a portrait assignment from the Sunday Telegraph, and would summon all my creativity to try to find some sort of “interesting” way to shoot a CEO for the Business pages.  Needless to say, it rarely worked.

Even so, it felt like I’d come a long way to be shooting for the Telegraph in the first place.  I’d come late to photojournalism, in a roundabout way.

I grew up in New York and studied French Literature at Carleton College in Minnesota.  My junior year, while studying in Paris, I had a chance encounter with an American photographer.  Three times a week I would go to her studio, where she would let me process the black and white film I was snapping around the city.  One day she handed me the Magnum Degree book, asking me if I’d ever heard of the agency.  I hadn’t.  I didn’t even know what photojournalism was.

The moment I opened the book, I was spellbound.  I had no idea that photography like this existed.  I was hooked immediately and within a week had become obsessed, spending most of my afternoons and evenings in the European House of Photography instead of trying to pick up French girls around the capital’s cafes.

Two years after I graduated from college I got an internship at Magnum’s New York office.  I moved back home and spent the following 9 months bouncing between the Magnum offices and the studios of a handful of different fashion photographers, trying to give myself the photographic education I’d missed.

All this time I was carrying on a long-distance relationship with an English girl I’d fallen in love with the previous summer in Paris.  By August 2004 we decided that one of us was going to have to move, and since I had dual nationality (UK and US), it was going to be me.  Which is how I found myself moving into a flat in a semi-detached house in the pouring rain in Manchester that October.

My second day there, I took my pitiful portfolio to the offices of the local paper, the Manchester Evening News, where I impressed the picture editors more with my New Yorkness than with my photographs.  However, their deputy picture editor decided to give me a chance and handed me my first assignment the following day: to photograph a large TV screen in the center of town that was showing the breaking news of the beheading of Ken Bigley, the British civil engineer who was kidnapped and executed by Islamic militants in Iraq.

The next assignment came a day or two later.  The third one came about a week after that and over the next couple of months I moved from doing small assignment work to getting full-day shifts at the paper.

The paper was a local tabloid and I quickly became frustrated with the work, which was hardly the stuff I’d seen in the Magnum book.  This pushed me to do my first personal project, Manchester Canals, a photo-essay about the city that I shot while walking up and down the city’s old industrial canals.  It was an antidote to the tabloid material I was producing for the paper.

After 18 months, my romance had ended and I couldn’t take any more tabloid work, so I moved to London hoping for better assignments.  This was a tough move.  London is crammed with photographers, and the competition was fierce.  I managed to get a job here and there, and little by little I began to build a life for myself shooting news, features, business stories, and the occasional PR gig.  But this work was no more satisfying than shooting local Mancunian celebrities.  My frustration gave birth to my second personal project, Crackney, a story about addiction in my neighborhood in East London.

Then, out of the blue, I got a break.  I had done some pro-bono work for a young magazine editor, and in the fall of 2008 his father rang me to ask if I would be interested in a six-week assignment in Iraqi Kurdistan.  He invited me to his house for dinner in what I assumed was a way to charm me into accepting the assignment.  It was a totally unnecessary gesture; I would have got on the plane the following day if he’d asked.

Two months later I was on that plane.  While Barack Obama was being elected and the economy was falling apart, I was having the time of my life in northern Iraq.  For the first time in my photo career I was being paid to work abroad on a long-term story.

My friend’s father had been making documentaries about the Kurds since the '70s and had recently been asked by the Kurdish Regional Government to make a documentary about Anfal, the 1988 genocide that Saddam Hussein ordered against Iraq’s Kurdish population.  My friend’s father wanted to include stills in the film, which is why I was there.

While shooting the project, I was introduced to young Kurdish photographer, Kamaran, and we soon became very close friends.  At the end of the assignment he and I spent two weeks running around the region, shooting all sorts of stories together: refugees in the rebel-controlled mountains that border Iran; enslaved Bangladeshi migrant workers; anti-terror raids in the volatile city of Kirkuk.

But the fun soon came to an end when I returned to London and saw what had happened in the two months I’d been away.  Almost all of my clients had either replaced me with another freelancer or had fired their freelance photographers altogether.  It was bleak.

But luck struck again, and in May the following year I was asked to come back to Iraq and shoot for another six weeks.  This time, something else came up while we were working.  That June, Iraqi Kurdistan officially exported its own oil for the first time in its history.  The PR surrounding the event was enormous and I thought I could get a piece of it.  Through a lot of persistent e-mailing and calling, I was able to get a small photo contract with a Norwegian oil company that was drilling in the region.

Unlike the PR shoots and events I’d done in the UK, this was a serious corporate shoot that came with a serious corporate price tag.

Little by little, a pattern was appearing.  In the UK I was forced to scrounge around for small news assignments and PR work, all of which bored me.  In Iraq, I was surrounded by stories that fascinated me.  In the UK I was forced to compete with thousands of other photographers all desperate for work.  In Iraq, there were a handful of us and we were all friends.

It didn’t take long to convince myself to move: the semi-autonomous northern region was safe, fascinating, and competition was light.  Breaking the news to my parents was a little more difficult, but they understood.

It wasn’t easy going at first.  I didn’t have much money saved nor did I come with the backing of any organization.  I spoke maybe a dozen words of Kurdish, which mainly involved saying hello, ordering kebabs, and finding the toilet.  Certainly not enough to get my own apartment with electricity and running water.

Even if I had been able to get my own place, I would have offended every aspect of Kurdish hospitality.  I didn’t know until I showed up that it had been assumed I would be staying in the office Kamaran had set up for his new photo-agency.

Early in that year Kamaran had come up with the idea of starting Metrography, Iraq’s first photo agency.  To be honest, I thought it was a good idea, but I was so wrapped up in my own faltering photo career that I didn’t get that involved except for the occasional e-mail I’d help him write.

It wasn’t until I spent 9 months sleeping on the red pleather couch in the Metrography office that I realized what a truly brilliant idea Kamaran had come up with.  There was no network of Iraqi photographers.  No way for them to sell their work.  And no real way for them to get professional training.

As much as I was concerned with my own work and career, I found increasing enjoyment and satisfaction working with Kamaran to promote and educate Iraqi photographers.

Little by little in 2010, I began to help Kamaran put Metrography together, modifying and tweaking it from just a collective of his photographer friends, into an actual agency with a non-profit educational side.

My personal work grew as well.  I’d spent the year shooting stories and getting friends to put me in touch with their editor contacts across the globe.  Most of my pitches fell on deaf ears, but a few of them got through.  From contacts come contacts, and I began building a solid network of editors.

That March I got my first assignment for TIME magazine and got the front page of the Wall Street Journal with a photograph from the national elections.

Two months later I decided that I wanted to cover the US withdrawal from Iraq and organized an embed in Mosul, the last real hotspot of the Iraqi insurgency.  When I arrived I found that the US forces had almost entirely stopped combat operations and I had very little to photograph.  The story, however, was fascinating, and I was getting amazing material just hanging out with the troops.

So I decided I would write a piece, and through a friend, got the contact details of the Middle East editor at the Christian Science Monitor.  I had no previous writing experience, so she wouldn’t take the piece site unseen.  Over the next few days I put the article together and the day after I e-mailed it to Boston, she bought it.

That same day, I got an e-mail from a video producer at an online publication, asking if I’d be interested in making a short video for him.  Of course I would, and immediately I set about shooting the story.

In editing the piece, he and I disagreed so strongly about so many of the details that we had to go our separate ways, but I was intent on selling it and e-mailed some friends to see if they had any contacts for video editors.  I got addresses for the editors at TIME.com and Guardian Unlimited.

TIME turned me down, but to my absolute surprise, the Guardian took it without asking me to change a thing.

Based on that, I sold the Guardian a second video three months later while I was in Afghanistan embedded in southern Kandahar.  This video took a while to go up online and I was back in Iraq dealing with late summer power cuts by the time it went live.

A day after it was published, I was at my desk in the pitch black wearing nothing but a pair of boxers when my phone rang.  It was PBS calling from New York.  Would I be interested in selling them that piece from Afghanistan?  Of course I would.  After a brief conversation we agreed on a price, but it was only after hanging up that I realized I had negotiated a sale of a few thousand dollars in my underpants in the dark, living proof that precious little is glamorous in this business.

I was also beginning to see that having a big Rolodex is essential.  When I went to cover the rebellion in Libya this past March, I called and e-mailed every contact and friend I could think of, pitching around for work.  In the six weeks I was there I shot for The Washington Post, Esquire, De Volkskrant, Financial Times, Executive, and the Telegraph, which published my world exclusive in finding the US jet that crashed outside of Benghazi.

I dug out the TIME contact who had turned down my Mosul piece the previous May and sold him a story about the psychological effects of the conflict on Libyan civilians.  And while in Misrata, I shot and sold video footage to CNN, FOX, Channel 4 News, and ITV News.

But most important to me, this past June, I organized a groundbreaking photojournalism workshop for Metrography's Iraqi photographers.  I brought over three internationally acclaimed photojournalists as well as the international picture editor at TIME Magazine who gave our photographers a spectacular write-up on the TIME photography blog.

This fall I’m starting a long-term story about Iraqi Kurdistan that I hope to turn into a book and multimedia project.  I’ll be working on this in addition to doing assignment work and running Metrography.

When people ask me, “Why do you live in Iraq?” I can only answer, “How could I not?"

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