For most of us, the first things which come to mind when thinking about Iraq are war, violence, terror, refugees. Not for French photographer Charles Thiefaine. In his viewfinder Iraq is so much more than that. It is a big palette of people who deal with the same bullshit, the same struggles, the same daily existential questions, the same love stories, and the same joys as all of humanity.
Despite being constantly surrounded by war and atrocities, Charles and his camera are set to document other aspects of Iraqi lives, so he can show how they are not merely victims. These are people who are hoping for a brighter future, who share moments of joy and love, and who are fighting to make their life better every day, just like we all do.

Thiefaine’s latest documentary project, Tahrir, disobedience can be seen as part of the Circulation(s) 2021 exhibition in Paris. We’ve sat and talked with him about his work and life in Iraq, right before he boards his flight to Yerevan, Armenia, to inaugurate the same exhibition there.
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You initially began studying Architecture in the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, before reorienting to journalism. Why did you decide to make this move?
Well, at first, when I stopped my Architecture studies, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I just knew I didn’t want to be an Architect at that point. I began photographing and bought my first camera to photograph different 3D models of projects, but the subject in itself didn’t appeal to me. After that, I travelled around South America for some time, and that was when I got interested in stories. I wanted to tell people’s stories, a desire which led me to Journalism.
Interesting. I think journalism or documentary work should typically provide us with an objective form of delivery, while photography in itself represents a rather subjective form of expression, even artistic. How do you combine the two extremes and ultimately connect them in order to achieve an informative work on the one hand, and at the same time an appealing one as well?
Initially, I did separate my photo-journalism work and my personal projects. In journalism you have a very specific topic – you need to tell about an event that happened, you have editorial constraints, you have the pseudo-objectivity that you must respect – all this is part of my work in Iraq.
But, in addition to that, I have my personal projects as well, where it is much more subjective. I don’t really combine the two. I do them separately. But I do think that even in more subjective works, you have photos full of information that can be interpreted sometimes in different ways, perhaps even as journalism. So, I think that sometimes these two worlds can combine naturally by themselves, although I do keep the two separated in my work.
So, your documentary work primarily shows the instability in the Middle East and the virtually perpetual war which is going on there. Where did your desire come from to want to document specifically this volatile region?
To be honest, it happened rather by chance. At first, I was sent to cover a story in Sinjar, in the north of Iraq. I was then doing an internship with a French newspaper during my studies, and the story we covered of the Yezidis who wanted to create their own brigade to fight ISIS in their region, which really intrigued me. With time, I discovered that there was an infinity of stories there that waited to be told.
After finishing my journalism studies, I settled in Erbil to cover more closely the war in Mosul, and really, at first, during my first year there, I exclusively focused on journalism and news. Then, slowly, I started to move towards documentary work.
I was pretty tired of the violence which I was covering, and I wanted to show other sides of this place and people. I began working on more personal projects, spending more time with local families and with local youth, to show how despite the war which surrounds them, they are still able to find ways to live a normal life, a good life.
Of course, the war and the violence are part of their daily lives, but in my personal projects, in contrast to the journalistic work, I try to focus more on these other aspects of their lives.
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You are constantly on the road between Paris and Iraq. Take us to those moments when you land in Iraq for the first time. What is going on inside your head when you first leave the airport there?
Well, it was shortly after the attacks in Paris in November 2015. I knew a few people who were inside the Bataclan Theatre when the attacks happened, and others who were either injured or killed there, so, naturally, it was stressful for me. Many people told me not to go there. Everyone was very afraid, including me, of course.
As a European guy who feeds on the local media, I think I had many prejudices of what I was about to encounter in Iraq, prejudices which slowly disappeared during the days and the weeks following my arrival and my encounters with the locals. So I was pretty scared at the beginning, but then I began to feel more comfortable after spending more time with the people there.
So, let’s talk about your current exhibition, Tahrir, disobedience. It seems like a very powerful scene to capture, especially considering the 600 casualties and 20,000 people who were injured during these protests. What is the main message you wish to send through this series, especially to people who are looking at these photos from the outside?
First, there is, of course, the context, meaning that it was a violent territory where all this happened, but my main focus was on the corporal behaviour of these young people, who tried to do something to create a better future for themselves. I wanted to show that each one of them – their body, their behaviour – was facing violence in their own way. For example, there is one photo in the series, where within it you can see many different behaviours – some people are enjoying, some are afraid, some share camaraderie and help each other...
For me, all these behaviours represent different ways to fight the violence around them. So, I guess my main message would be that, even though the situation was fucked up, the streets and the barricades were a way for these young people to express themselves with their bodies. They could express their wish to be free – free to work, free to have the minimum they deserve to survive – and their wish to have a better future.
In the introduction to the series, you describe how despite the horrific situation, you still managed to find joy in the protesters' eyes and minds. To someone who looks at it from the side, it seems mind-blowing – how a situation like this, with so many casualties and injustices, can cause joy? – could you share a specific moment of joy that you’ve encountered during these long days on the streets of Baghdad?
The protesters who controlled this area in the city wished to show an example of how they’d like to see the city. By cleaning the streets, by painting the walls, they wanted to show they can do the basic things, which their government failed to do for them. There were moments of joy when people were painting the walls on the streets. Some people built a makeshift library. Some lawyers came and gave assistance and information. There were many family moments there.
I really didn’t want to cover all that happened in this area and time from a journalistic point of view. Instead, I wished to focus on the moments when these young men were facing the violence. And in these moments, you can see a mix of emotions, ranging from fear to joy.
In journalism, when you get an article and facts along with the photos, it is hard to portray these emotions – it portrays the people purely as victims. And yes, maybe they are victims, but they also show their ability to fight and protest for a better future which they want to achieve.
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I also want to touch on some of your other projects. In your series territory, which focuses on Iraqi Kurdistan and its people, there was one photo that especially caught my eye – a photo of a young man, with a conversation between you two in the bottom of the frame. By reading these words, it seems like during your time in the region, you have established genuine friendships with the people of this restless area. Can you share the meaning of these connections and how do they affect your work?
I think that after spending some time in this country, after getting to know local people, your desire about what you want to show changes, and it is different from what you thought when you only arrived at the place. When you get attached to the people, you want to show more, to show moments of intimacy and not only moments of struggle and war.
This guy, Meethak, is whom I collaborate with every time I go to Iraq. We’re like bodies, always together, we always do stuff together, and during the time we have known each other, he has told me a lot about his life, his family’s stories, his desires and aspirations, these connections are very meaningful to me.
My work, I guess like any other photographer’s work, is the sum of the many emotions and experiences which I go through, and for me, it is very important that it will not betray what I really think about the Iraqi people. For example, when I do a journalistic report and show a certain event that involves violence and war, I immediately want to balance that by showing another aspect of Iraqi life, so people who follow me won’t think that life there is only around war. If they would think this is the case, I would feel bad, as it will not truly represent the whole story.
It is easy to think that it is all about the war when, actually, it is so much more than that. Another very intriguing series is the Youths, Syria. I’ve noticed that all of the photos in this series, except one, are of documents with photos of people – kind of a photo within a photo. What is the story behind these lost documents and how did you come across them?
These photos were taken in 2018 in Raqqa, the former capital of ISIS. I was there only for 10 days, covering a story where we followed a Kurdish unit and their work.
One day, we went to a destroyed university in the city, and while walking around the destroyed building, I came across this huge pile of documents. It affected me immediately. I was thinking about how we don’t know where all those people are. How they are probably spread all over – some are dead, some are in Europe, some are perhaps still here, not far away – and for me, everything was in these documents. The fact that they’ve subscribed to the university shows the past when they couldn’t even imagine what would happen to their city and their lives. It also shows the present, when all their info and broken dreams are found in this huge pile of worthless papers in the middle of the destroyed area.
I did many photos during these 10 days in Raqqa, but, eventually, these were the ones that really stood out for me, much more than the images of people I took on the streets.
It is a very powerful series. Many questions arise when looking at these photos. You know, there is a substantial discussion these days, especially in the so-called modern-western hemisphere, regarding cameras, surveillance, lack of privacy, etc. From your experience, how do people react to you with a camera in a region like Iraq? Does it ignite fear and suspicion in the eyes of the people who live there? Or rather an opportunity and curiosity?
Well, you can always face different situations and reactions. I did have some issues in the past when I photographed people too quickly on the streets, but that happens. With time, I learned there was a way to better approach people for a photograph. By exposing my camera and asking them if that is ok, most of the time people don’t have a bad reaction and go with it. But it is interesting that you’ve mentioned opportunity.
In Internally Displaced People camps, for example, there are many NGOs coming to document and photograph the people. When I visit those places and I tell people that I’m not from an NGO and that I unfortunately couldn’t really help them, they are still quite open and I think they regardlessly hope that it could help them in some way.
As for the more intimate work I do with the people whom I get to know more closely, I think they really like the fact that I am there to show other aspects of their lives and not only the violence which surrounds them. So, I think they rather enjoy it.
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Can you describe the process through which you go, when you decide to create a documentary series? How do you choose the topic you want to focus on?
It really depends on what I feel at a certain time, and what I discover at that moment. For example, in Tahrir, disobedience I didn’t really have an idea what I will do when I was planning my trip from Paris. Then, when I arrived and saw the behaviours of the young men on the streets, it really impacted me. Sure, there were families there, women and children, but I was more affected by the young generations clothing, by the way, they moved and acted while on the barricades. I found it more personal.
On the other hand, in the series Ala Allah for example, I knew even before I got there what I wanted to show through it, and I went to Iraq on four or five different occasions for this project specifically. Every time I returned to France, I had realisations about what else do I need for it, what was missing to make it more impactful, more intimate, and more just for the Iraqi people. So, as you can see, it changes. There is a different duration for each project. For one it can take me only a couple of weeks, and another could last months and multiple visits.
Your photos and words have been published by some of the biggest media outlets in recent years. What is in store for the future?
My main wish is to keep having the time to develop my personal projects. With that said, it is still important for me to participate in journalistic work as well while keeping in mind that it is not enough to talk only about that in regards to this country. I mean, it’s important to cover the news and talk about what happens in an objective way, but it’s also really important to show there are other stories there as well.
One interesting project I’ve done lately, which will be published soon, is about a famous local wedding video maker from Sadr City. This Baghdadi suburb is quite well-known for its contempt for the west, but it was important for me to show how people in this neighbourhood also have normal lives there. This project allowed me to kind of combine these two worlds of journalism and documentary work, because it did touch the people’s personal lives outside of the violence, and at the same time it will be published in a media outlet.
Do you have any other specific projects you are working on these days?
Another project that I’ve been working on for 2 years already – a really important one to me – is about Meethak, the guy we mentioned earlier. He has a very turbulent life, with many episodes which happened to him and his family.
I want to document him and his life, but also our relationship between him and me. I began filming him as time went by, documenting our conversations about various topics and struggles in life, and I find it fascinating.
Like I was saying, it will be a long-term project because the first photos I took of him were when he was young, and today you can see how he became a man, and he now has longer hair and a beard. I find this evolution to be intriguing.
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