A Camera Changed This Photojournalist's Life

According to Ahmed Najm, sometimes the answer to a glittering career is dropped into your lap, but that doesn't mean it comes easy

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When Ahmed Najm was a child playing in the streets of Kurdistan, he never envisioned a career that would win him international acclaim as a photojournalist. Growing up with five elder brothers, photography school was never an option. Indeed, in Kurdistan—a region of Iraq—there were no photography schools.

Ahmed Najm
Ahmed Najm

Under the watchful eye of the dictator Saddam Hussein, he was growing up in the 80s and 90s in Iraq which was difficult. There were no investments in the arts, no universities to learn how to report what was happening lest it gets leaked to the outside world. Free, individual thinking was frowned upon, and if Najm had been old enough to take the pictures he is now world-famous for, he would likely have disappeared in the night along with the estimated 250,000 people who ‘vanished’ in the hands of the secret police.

In a world where human rights were all but a distant memory, Najm followed in the footsteps of his elder brother Kamaran. The two went out into the war-torn areas of Iraq in the early 2000s and recorded what they saw there. They documented the various conflicts that led to the dictator’s downfall, and somehow, they got those photos out to the rest of the world amid the turmoil.

How war was photographed in the early 2000s

Just after the fall of Saddam, Iraq had a handful of quiet moments before ISIS moved in to take part in the fighting. Over the next decade, war broke out all over the country. Kamaran would be heading north, south, east and west to get the biggest scoops.

In the early noughties, photography in the war was about capturing the biggest, brutalist, most intense skirmishes. Westerners wanted to know who suffered the most, where the bombs were going off, and the death toll measured the validity of your story. Kamaran and Najm made deliberate efforts to put this to rights, eventually breaking an account of the war’s human toll to CNN in 2012.

Since there was no school to teach them, both learned photography, the hard way…through trial and error. It is this effort that triggered them to start their photography firm. In the early 2010s, the Metrography Agency was formed, a collection of professional photographers in Iraq that we’re able to get to the heart of the story, and the first of its kind ever to exist.

Tragedy struck Najm’s life in June 2014, when elder brother Kamaran disappeared on the job. It is thought that he has captured by ISIS. He has not been heard from since. In tribute to his brother, Najm turned a floor of the studio at Metrography into a museum dedicated to his brother’s hard work to report the truth… to reflect the human cost of the wars in Iraq, instead of just weighing the worth of a story based on how gruesome it was.

Together, the two have left a legacy for photojournalists around the world. Tragedy has spurred Najm on to have the acclaimed career he now enjoys, but given a choice, he would still choose his brother back. In the meantime, he follows in his footsteps, carefully documenting and recording only the truth… in the most human of ways.