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The boy with the camera

The boy with the camera Photo: IOM


“Photography is a way of feeling, of touching, of loving. What you have caught on film is captured forever… It remembers little things, long after you have forgotten everything.” 

Sitting in the waiting room of Arslan Aljaf’s photography studio in January 2013, we glance around at all the smiling faces beaming out at us from photos hung around the room. Arslan sees our wandering eyes and takes a framed photo off the wall to hand to us.


“This is my mother and my younger brother, Rushdy, and I, soon after I first opened the studio last summer,” Arslan informs us as we pass around the photo of him standing proudly in front of his shop with an older woman and a younger man. 


“But the road to this happy moment was long and rocky,” Arslan says as he hangs the photo back on the wall. He pauses for a moment, tracing his finger along the figures on the photograph, before turning back to us. “My father died when I was young. It was hard growing up without a father, and hard for my mother to support my brother and I. My mother had to work as a cleaner and maid just to buy food for me and Rushdy. I helped out by selling cigarettes and newspapers on the side of the road. As I grew older, I started doing manual labor to earn a bit more money.”  


To escape from the grim reality, Arslan grew interested in photography. “I remember my dad always had a camera in hand and liked taking photos of Rushdy and me. He had an old Kodak camera, and he taught me how to use it and how to frame the pictures just so.”


“When I was 18, I found a used camera in the markets near our house. I begged the shopkeeper to save it for me, and returned two weeks later for it after I’d saved up the money.” Arslan went home and immediately began taking photos. Gradually, he taught himself photography techniques, practicing on friends and neighbors. Never going out without his camera, his friends and neighbors began teasing him, calling him the boy with the camera.


As a wedding gift for a cousin, Arslan photographed the celebration and made a photo album for the couple. A few months later, he was approached and hired by his cousin’s friend to photograph his wedding.


Slowly, Arslan began to build up a small side business photographing weddings and events. News that Arslan was a good photographer spread through his home city Bakuba. “It supplemented my income. People used to invite me to their weddings and family celebrations to produce photo albums. I loved doing what I was passionate about. But I never had the means to turn it into a full business,” Arslan recalls. “I never had the money to open up my own studio and never even dared to dream that I could afford to study photography, yet alone at the Academy of Fine Arts in Baghdad.”


By this time the war in Iraq had begun. Baquba became a dangerous place for everybody, especially for minorities. Arslan and his family debated fleeing north. As members of Baquba’s Kurdish minority, they found themselves the targets of multiple threats from insurgent groups. 


“We didn’t want to leave our home, our friends. We thought we were invincible. Until one night in March 2006 when there was a shooting on our street. A cousin of ours was killed just because he had the ‘wrong name’. We didn’t know if we were going to be next,” Arslan continues. “We decided we couldn’t take the chance, so that same evening we grabbed some documents and clothes and fled north in a panic.”


They escaped to Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdish region in northern Iraq to stay with cousins, who also had little but tried to help. Arslan and Rushdy looked for work in Sulaymaniyah, occasionally landing odd jobs as day laborers. “But with so many others seeking refuge in the town, it was hard to find work. Our cousins tried to help provide for us, but they were barely able to support their own families.” 


Arslan soon realized that among everything else left behind when his family and he fled that night, he had left his camera. “I was lost, in a city that was not my home, struggling to survive. Without my camera, I felt even more vulnerable,” he recounted.


It was then that Arslan began to get sick. His mother had been diabetic most of her life and Arslan feared he would be diagnosed with diabetes as well. “The day the doctor told me I had diabetes, my life went dark,” Arslan recollected. “I didn’t know how I would support us if I couldn’t find work. We were barely making it, how was I supposed to also afford the expensive medications for my mother and now for myself. It was a long and bleak three years. I’d rather not remember it.”


In 2010, Arslan and his family decided it was time to return home to Baquba. The security situation was improved from 2006, when shootings were daily; but it was still far from being a safe city.


Their neighbors had helped look after their home while they were away, protecting it from illegal squatters and looters. “My first day back, I dug out my old camera and walked around the city to see what was still standing. It was wonderful to be home again.” 


But life back home was hard, and Rushdy and Arslan still had trouble finding work. Neither of them was trained in any skill and unskilled labor was low-paying and too manually stressful for Arslan, who was struggling to maintain control of his diabetes. A few people remembered Arslan as the boy with the camera, and they started hiring him again to photograph their celebrations. 


In 2012, a friend alerted Arslan to the IOM’s Community Revitalization Program. Arslan thought of his dream years ago of opening a photography studio, and applied for the program. After being selected, Arslan first attended a business development and service course and then received an in-kind grant to open his studio. He decided to set up shop in the basement of his home, converting it into a small photography studio and lobby. “The business development training was very useful. I’d never had the chance before to learn the basics of bookkeeping, and you really need that to run a business.  As part of the in-kind grant he received a new professional Canon digital camera, tripod, and umbrella for his studio along with a laptop and photo printer with paper and ink. 


Arslan lights up as he takes us on a tour of his studio. “With the shop I make enough money to support Rushdy and my mother. Thanks to IOM, my mother and I can afford our insulin. I’m also planning on investing some of that money in a video montage course next month, so I can add videography as one of my event services. People remember me from before the war as the boy with the camera, so I already have customers and steady business, even though I only started a few months ago. In fact, I have to be careful not to double-book myself!” he says with a smile.


As we prepare to make our good-byes, we pause to ask Arslan one final question. Looking around again at all the smiling faces on the walls, we ask Arslan which photo is his favorite. He responds, “Every photo is my favorite. Behind each photo is a unique story, and the photo is the happy ending.”


Additional Info

  • Agency: IOM