When it comes to his photography, Wesaam Al-Badry knows he is walking in the footsteps of giants.
Photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, the father of modern photojournalism who adopted a documentary approach to image making in place of earlier practices in abstract and social-realist painting. Or Alfred Steiglitz, who set out to prove photography was as artistic a medium as painting and sculpture, then moved away from traditional painterly prints to capture contemporary life with his most famous image, “The Steerage.” Or Dorothea Lange, who took the social realism of photography even further with one of her most famous images, “Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California.”
Al-Badry, who is 28, left his home in southern Iraq in the early 1990s when his family fled, first to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, then to the United States. By age 7 he was the man of the family, replacing a father who had left, responsible at too early an age for protecting his mother and siblings.
“I never had a childhood,” he said.
At one point, he traded some marbles, movies and a shirt for a pair of sneakers and a camera with no film. He later told a reporter that the camera saved him, enabling him to express himself and, in turn, helping him adjust to American culture. Cartier-Bresson, many years earlier, had called photography “an expressive necessity,” likening it to reading and writing. For Al-Badry, it became nothing less.
Now it has become something more.
Al-Badry wants to use his photography to make a statement about crimes against humanity, to give voice to the voiceless, to elevate the subjects of his work to a place where their stories are told on the world stage—to use his photographs to make change for the good.
A series of his photographs—“Portraits of Iraqi War Women”—will anchor the first Refugee Art Showcase, open during the month of May at Lincoln’s Lux Center for the Arts. Al-Badry’s work will be joined by that of others from Lincoln’s refugee community: Faris Pirali, a Kurdish painter from northern Iraq; Elham Taheri, an Iranian photographer, and several high school students. The exhibition is sponsored by Nebraska Mosaic, a project of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications that works to provide news and information for Lincoln’s growing refugee population.
The 35 mm Leica camera spawned the modern photojournalism revolution. In the mid-1920s publishers in Germany and France began publishing series of images, rather than one frame, to convey major events or aspects of life. Henri Cartier-Bresson was one of the first artists to move to the medium of photography to tell the story of contemporary life. The camera, the extension of Cartier-Bresson himself, was light, portable and discreet.
Cartier-Bresson, one of Al-Badry’s inspirations, was known to never be without his camera. A newspaper story from the 1950s told of him going out at midnight to have a drink at the bar with a fellow photographer. When asked if he planned on taking pictures, he replied, “No, but I am never without my Leica.”
The Contax G2 rangefinder camera, a slightly more recent model, achieves a similar clarity to the Leica. Al-Badry used this camera to make a series of portraits of Iraqi women. Like other fine art photographers, Al-Badry is interested in the technical attributes of image making.
“I wanted to make the process a bit harder for myself,” he said. This model of camera makes clear, detailed images in black and white. The rangefinder has an added level of difficulty because you cannot see exactly what you are shooting. The viewfinder does not look through the lens, so you don’t know exactly what you’ve got until you get into the dark room, he said.
Along with a classic camera model, Al-Badry also used a remarkably small amount of film in his 2011 project, “Portraits of Iraqi War Women.”
“I used 11 rolls of film,” he said. “Most photographers shooting this type of portrait would go through about 50 rolls.”
Al-Badry explained that he is conscious to limit his resources. He challenges himself to get the best image from a limited number. The idea of reduction is contrary to the current digital culture, which encourages a seemingly limitless supply of images. He also is adamant about using traditional methods of development for exhibitions. Digital technology has transformed the manner of image making. Al-Badry does not want to exploit those tools.
With a photograph development niche, he said he feels like he has accomplished something.
Photography, in its most basic form, is a means of storytelling.
The field of photography is full of characters with a strong eye for artistic composition—applied to all kinds of arenas.
Richard Avedon and Irving Penn juxtaposed careers as high fashion photographers with their own creative ventures. W. Eugene Smith is one of the premiere photo essayists of the 1950s, telling the story of World War II in a series of images. Sebastiao Salgado, James Nachtwey and Ron Haviv are some contemporary photojournalists capturing the atrocities and beauties of life in the 21st century. Like many of his colleagues, Bill Brandt spans the gap between documentary and fine art photography.
Time will prove whether Al-Badry is worthy to be counted among them.
His work falls into the vague middle between documentary and fine art photography. He is not the classic photojournalist, one who must remove his bias and aesthetic inclinations from the image. He infuses some of the images with his own devices to achieve his message. Photojournalism objectively reports the facts of life. Fine art photography is measured by a different standard.
Al-Badry has divergent interests. On his website today he has collections of documentary images of distinct socioeconomic groups, portraiture, still-lifes and explorations into photography techniques. He has ideas for a photography series of nudes and plans for a documentary. It’s hard to put him into one definition of creative expression.
Above all, Al-Badry said he hopes to create a social dialogue about human rights through the public forum of art museums and galleries.
“I stick around long enough to let you tell your story through my images,” Al-Badry said.
Cartier-Bresson had a similar tactic to portraits. The length of time it took to make a portrait varied, depending on how long he felt he needed to understand the people, in order to capture the essence of their personality.
Al-Badry chose to stage the Iraqi women isolated from any context. He photographed them in front of a white backdrop. He encouraged them to bring one thing that reminded them of home, but beyond that, he wanted to capture the resilience of the women’s character outside of any associations.
“Each of these women is a book,” he said. Their life stories, the tragedies they have faced, are emotional and grist for the raw curiosity of American viewers. But he said he didn’t want to distract from who they are.
For each of the refugee women, Al-Badry said, two worlds have collided: The former and the now. And they are very different. He explained that he was afraid that any other compositional choice in their portraits might infuse a middle ground into the situation.
“We shouldn’t meet in the middle on human rights issues.” Al-Badry said.
There is right and wrong. Acceptable and unacceptable.
These women should not be caught in the crossfire of this debate, he said. Al-Badry’s presentation does not confuse their roles. They are who they are, in black and white. His purpose is to show their strength. Even as some of the women’s faces express deep grief, they persevere.
Al-Badry’s subjects are important to him because he sees a part of himself in his photographs of the victims of poverty and war.
“These images are a connection to my past,” he said.
Reflecting on his past, Al-Badry said, “I know who I am.”
He is focused on refining his craft. He looks to the “photography greats” for inspiration and direction.
“Criticism breeds improvement,” Al-Badry said.
In critiquing Al-Badry’s work, local photographer and documentary filmmaker Michael Farrell said, “There is a space between what he intends to do with his images and what is realized. Once he brings those two together, they will be really good.”
He is in a unique position to have access to these types of subjects because he can identify with them. Al-Badry quickly builds trust with his subjects. Al-Badry has an advantage to infuse his images with a focused message. Al-Badry is traveling to Iraq this month to begin his next project; a documentary film of people living in the marshes and wetland areas of Iraq that were first attacked in the early 1990s; the same areas his family fled.
“He’s on to a good thing if he’s working to tell those stories,” Farrell said.