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13 Photos by an Exiled Iranian Photojournalist of People Caught in Conflict in the Middle East

Inside the Iranian Communist party of the Komala’s camp in the Sulaymaniyah province, a group of men and women peshmerga who have recently finished their military training are testing their guns in late 2012. All photos provided by Maryam, and used with permission.

Inside the camp for Komala, the Kurdish branch of the Iranian communist party, in Sulaymaniyah province, a group of men and women peshmerga who have recently finished their military training test their guns in late 2012. All photos were provided by Maryam Ashrafi and used with permission.

Maryam Ashrafi is an Iranian living in exile in Paris. She left behind a country rife with human rights and ethnic struggles to journey to different parts of the world and photograph the stories of people living in crises.

Ashrafi's portfolio spans Iran, Iraq, Turkey and protests in Paris. Her latest project took her to Iraqi Kurdistan to document the stories of female Kurdish peshmerga (armed fighters) in their training camps. The following is an interview conducted by Global Voices with Ashrafi about her photojournalism, with a selection of 13 photos she chose to share as she explained her work.

Global Voices (GV): Can you still travel back to Iran? If not, please explain what the situation is for a political photographer like you.

Maryam Ashrafi (MA): Following my recent projects, I have found it quite unsafe to travel back to Iran. As hard as it was for me, a while ago I made the decision to fully dedicate myself to stories I believe are worth telling and events that are needed to be captured. These projects never factored in the effect on my chances of travelling back to Iran, and these stories sometimes involve people fighting or demonstrating for human rights and issues that are not acceptable by the Iranian authorities. My last trip to Iran was during the last year of Mr. [Mohammad] Khatami's presidency [in 2005]. At that time I began to follow the stories of Afghan refugees and their lives in Iran. This was a project which was nipped in the bud when I was arrested visiting some Afghan families, which is why I have no photos to show from that project. When they realised I am a photojournalist living outside Iran, they automatically charged me with espionage and it took me a month of back and forth to the courts to prove my intention. That is when I decided to work with an NGO (named Persepolis) which helps drug addicts overcome their addictions.

Maryam captures a recovering addicts portrait in Tehran’s Perspolis drop-in centre in 2005. Of the photo, Maryam explains, “ She was forced to use drugs which she believed was her husband's intention to keep her dependent on him. It took her years to realise the road she was drawn into. Determined to stop, she ran away from her husband and asked for help. Persepolis was amongst the few NGOs in Iran that helped drug addicts overcome their addiction through a step-by-step recovery using methadone.”

Ashrafi captures a recovering addict's portrait in Tehran’s Persepolis drop-in centre in 2005. She explains, “ She was forced to use drugs which she believed was her husband's intention to keep her dependent on him. It took her years to realise the road she was drawn into. Determined to stop, she ran away from her husband and asked for help. Persepolis was amongst the few NGOs in Iran that helped drug addicts overcome their addiction through a step-by-step recovery using methadone.”

Also my other projects in Paris (especially those dealing with Iran’s Green Movement) and Kurdistan have made it harder for me to go back. There are many photojournalists living in Iran who are bravely capturing social and political issues still, but that is of course possible only to some extent, and with serious limitations. The best example of this can be the great amount of images and footage captured during the Green Movement in Iran by both professionals and amateurs, namely citizen journalists. This placed many lives in danger, leading some to flee Iran while others were arrested. This shows the incredible power of photography, and the threat those in power feel by it.

The Iranian ambassador in France Mehdi Mir Abu Talebi and his entourage as they are restrained by the French police at Neauphle-le-Chateau, on the outskirts of Paris, where the Ayatollah used to reside. The ambassador tried to confront the protesters on the day to commemorate the founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to France on January 31, 1979.

The Iranian ambassador to France, Mehdi Mir Abu Talebi, and his entourage as they are restrained by the French police at Neauphle-le-Chateau on the outskirts of Paris. The ambassador tried to confront the protesters on the day to commemorate the founder of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Khomeini’s return to Iran on Jan. 31, 1979, at the Ayatollah's former place of residence.

French police stand by as Iranians protests against the executions of 5 Iranian and Kurdish prisoners in Evin prison by the Islamic Republic of Iran in front of the Iranian embassy, in Paris on May 9, 2010.

French police stand by as Iranians protest in front of the Iranian embassy in Paris on May 9, 2010 against the executions of five Iranian and Kurdish prisoners in Evin prison by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

GV: According to a France 24 report, you participated in protests against the Iranian embassy and their diplomats in Paris in 2010. Do you believe there's anything exiled Iranians can do to improve the situation for human rights inside the country?

​MA: I was partaking in the protests in Paris as more of a photographer. And yes, I do believe the role of those living outside Iran is really important. At some level, we in the diaspora are a great support to those inside Iran, but more than that, we can send a message to the world and show them what is befalling Iranians, and what people are struggling with and fighting for. Sometimes issues related to human rights cannot freely be spoken about inside Iran. This becomes the responsibility of those who are living outside Iran.​ This is perhaps the best way the world can understand the Iranian government and people are two different things. The system in Iran doesn’t represent the nation as a whole.

Iranians gather in Paris on June 12, 2010 to mark the first anniversary of the Green Movement, on the day the government was accused of rigging the 2009 Presidential elections.

Iranians gather in Paris on June 12, 2010, to mark the first anniversary of the Green Movement, on the day protests erupted against the government's election fraud.

GV: Can you tell me how you came upon the topic of female Kurdish peshmerga?

​MA: The stories of Kurdish people is not new. Throughout history they've endured calamities and injustice, and that goes beyond the Kurds of Iran, but in Syria, Turkey and Iraq too. ​What drew me to this subject was the role of women within Kurdish parties, where they fight shoulder to shoulder with men.

Maryam captured Kurdish peshmergas learning to use their guns inside the military training camp of the Komala party of Iranian Kurdistan in late 2012. Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan.

Ashrafi captured male and female Kurdish peshmergas learning to use their guns inside the military training camp of the Komala party of Iranian Kurdistan in late 2012. Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan.

Their battle, I believe, is even harder compared to their male counterparts,​ as they are not only fighting for their basic rights as Kurds, but also as women in rather male-dominated societies. My interest in their story came in two layers. First to know their role and part in political parties like the Komala [an Iranian communist political party] or PJAK [Party of Free Life of Kurdistan], and on the other hand to learn more about societies which push them out and make them join such groups. I wanted to learn more about their intentions, the problems they face, not only politically but also culturally, problems such as early age marriage, domestic violence, female circumcision, right to education and so forth.

Kurdish peshmergas during their politic theory training course inside the military training camp of Komala party of Iranian Kurdistan. This was during Maryam’s 2012 stay in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan.

Kurdish peshmergas during their politics theory training course inside the military training camp of the Komala party of Iranian Kurdistan. This was during Ashrafi’s 2012 stay in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan.

GV: You captured some intimate photos of these women. How were you able to gain their trust and get their permission to photograph them? And how long were you with them?

MA: I've made 4 trips to Iraqi Kurdistan between late 2012 and 2014, spending about two weeks each time with these women. During my last trip in June 2014 I met the Kurdish female Peshmergas of the 2nd Battalion who are the only female official branch of the Kurdish National Army.

As a female journalist, I was able to join them in their private moments, and gain their trust to share their stories. As they told me several times, we all fight for women and human rights. While their weapon was their guns, mine was my camera, so they said.

Portrait of Tina, a Kurdish woman Peshmerga inside the camp of Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran. Like many other girls her age, following the social pressure in Kurdistan she fled Iran to join the group. While fighting for Kurdish rights Tina explained to Maryam about learning about her rights as a woman. Taken in Kurdistan, near Erbil in 2013.

Portrait of Tina, a Kurdish peshmerga inside the camp of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran. Like many other girls her age, following the social pressures in Iran she fled to Kurdistan to join the group. While fighting for Kurdish rights, Tina explained to Ashrafi that she also learned about her rights as a woman. Taken in Kurdistan, near Erbil in 2013.

We connected with each other on that level. It was important for me to share only what they were comfortable to share given their conditions, duties and commitments. I believe their role and problems have largely been missing from news headlines and sometimes lost in everyday news. Having said that, I dedicated myself to a long term and in depth reportage of their lives.

Zilan, a female PJAK guerrilla binds her hair before starting her daily routines inside the camp located in Qandil, Kurdistan in 2012.

Zilan, a female PJAK guerrilla, binds her hair before starting her daily routines inside the camp located in Qandil, Kurdistan, in 2012.

GV: What sense did the women give about the dangers of life on the battlefield?

MA: These women saw their role in the Peshmerga as a way to assert their equality with men in society in general. For them fighting is not only with a gun. Part of their responsibilities lie in informing their societies about the rights of women. They work with the media through their television and radio programs to inform women about their rights as women. During the time I spent with them, these women were preparing to defend their lands from the Iranian regime and fight for Kurdish people's rights in Iran. On the other level, the Kurdish female Peshmergas of the 2nd Battalion were also ready to defend Kurdistan against ISIS, side by side with men who are fighting on the front lines these days.

Kurdish female Peshmergas of the 2nd Battalion during their daily military training.  The 2nd Battalion comprises exclusively of 550 female Peshmergas and is the only official female branch of the Kurdish National Army. This battalion is responsible for defending Kurdistan against ISIS, side by side with men who are fighting on the frontlines these days. Maryam captured this image in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan in July 2014.

Kurdish female peshmergas of the 2nd Battalion during their daily military training. The 2nd Battalion comprises exclusively of 550 female peshmergas and is the only official female branch of the Kurdish National Army. This battalion is responsible for defending Kurdistan against ISIS, alongside male battalions. Ashrafi captured this image in Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan, in July 2014.

GV: Do you struggle with what photographers often face when capturing individuals in crisis — that it is exploiting or victimizing subjects in condescending ways?

MA: I believe that is the case for many photographers, and I should admit there have been instances where I questioned whether or not photographing certain moments are appropriate. These moments are when I have to remind myself why I’m there in the first place, and why it’s important for those lives and situations to be captured​. Of course if I know my physical help and reaction is more appropriate or needed, that's when I put down my camera to help.

Maryam captures Syrian children at a UN refugee camp in the Iraqi Kurdistan Arbat camp, July 2014.

Ashrafi captured Syrian children at a UN refugee camp in the Iraqi Kurdistan Arbat camp, July 2014.

The moment that comes to mind is when I started watching two Syrian girls from a distance. The older girl was trying to make a shelter for her little sister. At some point she gave up and when I approached them she was curious, presuming as a grown-up I could help her. My intention was to show their condition in the Arbat refugee camp, but then I thought to myself what is more important to them at this very moment? Me staring at them with my camera or joining them during their game? I joined them.

GV: What kind of impact do you hope your work to have on the subject matter you cover? Is there a particular project you have worked on that has affected you the most?

MA: I believe that photographs are capable of creating awareness for events and situations afar, and help towards social change as the problems of each society are illustrated. For example we can no longer stay ignorant and pretend we don't know what effect the Syrian conflict has on it's people. The photos I took of Syrian refugees in Turkey and Kurdistan were meant to demonstrate this.

Portrait of a young Syrian refugee in Istanbul, February 2014.

Portrait of a young Syrian refugee in Istanbul, February 2014.

Out of the 600,000 Syrians who have fled the unrest in their country and have taken refuge in Turkey, 100,000 went to İstanbul and are living in places with poor, unsanitary or dangerous conditions. Although some of the Syrian refugees have been sent to the camps in different parts of Turkey, many still prefer to live in big cities, in the hope of finding work and better conditions for their families. The future of their children is uncertain and fragile. Similar conditions intensified for Iraqis with the invasions of ISIS. 

By being a witness and sharing my photos from these situations I hope to make people think deeper and take action, while questioning what’s missing within mainstream media.

Maryam captured Zahra, an Iraqi girl who fled Mosul with her family a few days after ISIS took over the city. They are among as many as a million internally displaced people throughout Iraq. Captured on June 23, 2014 in the Khazer refugee camp for Iraqis, in Kurdistan.

Ashrafi captured Zahra, an Iraqi girl who fled Mosul with her family a few days after ISIS took over the city. They are among as many as a million internally displaced people throughout Iraq. Captured on June 23, 2014 in the Khazer refugee camp for Iraqis, in Kurdistan.

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