Acclaimed British American artist and photographer Alexandra Rose Howland travelled along the 88km highway which connects the cities of Erbil and Mosul in northern Iraq. She captured what she saw in a series of stunning, single-collage panoramic photographs. These were exhibited in galleries in Baghdad and London and will also be displayed in the Cellarium Gallery at Westminster Abbey as part of our Voices of Iraq premiere event. In this exclusive interview, Alexandra talks to us about her odyssey along the Mosul Road and the juxtaposition of normalcy and horror in war-torn Iraq.

A bride in Qayyarah sits with her groom and family as celebrations carry on around her. Following the ceremony, her new husband will bring her to West Mosul where she will live with him and his family

1). You went to northern Iraq to take photos. What was the most shocking and the most normal thing you saw there?

Many people in the West seem to have the perception that Iraq, or largely any place in the Middle East, is far from their reality, which is simply untrue. Iraq is a different speed of life, a country and a people that have faced challenges unfamiliar to those in the West. One of the goals of my work is to challenge this misperception, to try and make evident the similarities that exist rather than focusing on what separates us.

2). Why should the conflict in northern Iraq matter to people in the West?

This conflict is largely a result of Western disruption in Iraq and the Middle East. It is because of our actions within the country that it was brought to this point. It is also one of the primary causes for the mass migration Europe saw starting in 2015. And it is a situation which has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. If these aren’t reasons enough to pay attention, I’m not sure what would be.

Civilians fleeing the fighting in Mosul seen near an Iraqi Army checkpoint on the outskirts of the city

3). Mosul was the de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate. Did you feel this when you were there or is it an illusion?

I was in East Mosul at the end of July, walking down one of the main roads and my translator started telling me different moments he remembered while living under ISIS control. He pointed to the corner saying his friend had his hand cut off there. He looked across to one of the tallest buildings on the stretch and said a family member had been thrown from the top. He joked about which telephone pole would be best to be hung from.

The memories that those who lived under ISIS hold on to are more terrifying than one could imagine without having lived it themselves. What’s important to continue talking about is how these communities can mentally and emotionally rebuild given the trauma they have lived through. Whether commonly leaned-upon dark humour or more structured formats of reconciliation, such as the tribunals seen in Rwanda, community dialogue, PTSD counselling etc – I believe it’s crucial that this be a principle part of the conversation now.

4). Photography is often used to assert a particular narrative. Do your images of northern Iraq do this?  

The photographic narrative that comes out of conflict zones is often a very particular one. The same story line is repeated too often in my opinion. Intent on doing something different, I relocated to Iraq in January 2017 and began documenting the environment caused by the fight against ISIS. I created a single collaged panoramic image of the 88km between Erbil and the Al Nuri Mosque in Mosul, connecting the capital of the ISIS Caliphate with the nearest city outside of its control.

My project, Mosul Road 88km, seeks to reference photographer Ed Ruscha’s Sunset Strip while layering cultural atrocity, preconceived notions of regions, and personal subjectivity in a land ravaged by foreign intervention. This work attempts to show that being in a war zone does not always mean being in war and that normalcy continues next to horror.

Construction workers clear the road outside what is left of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri

5). Do photos of war belong in a gallery or in a newspaper?   

The power and role of images of conflict is shifting. It is no longer rare to see such images – whether it’s in the news, in print, on social media – on a regular basis. As an audience, we must adjust to what we take in and as a photographer, I have a responsibility to attempt to present my work and subjects in a way that intersects with what has become normal. The gallery, for me, functions as a way to present important topics in a new way, not as a way to separate the work into a white box. As long as these choices are done with consciousness and intention, finding alternative ways of presenting and talking about critical subjects can only have a beneficial outcome.

Find out more about Alexandra Rose Howland by visiting her website www.alexandrahowland.com 

and Instagram page @alexandrahowland

Supporting our work in the Middle East

We are raising money for our Nineveh SEED project which will provide long-term jobs and investment to beleaguered communities in northern Iraq. To make a donation now visit the donate page on our website (there are numerous options for how to donate). Or you can send us a cheque made out to ‘FRRME’ to: FRRME, PO Box 229, Petersfield, Hants, GU32 9DL, United Kingdom. To support our future work, please consider leaving a legacy (more info about that here). Thank you!