“How long have you lived in Mosul?” I ask him.
“My whole life.”
“So, you were there for … everything?”
Ali Yousif al-Baroodi’s photographs tell a story that destruction tried to erase. They faithfully capture life in his hometown of Mosul, the northern Iraqi city seized by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Da’esh) in 2014 and liberated three years later. They restore history and preserve it.
Al-Baroodi calls his work “Mosulography”—an attempt to document the ravages of recent events, but also the splendor and timelessness of a region known as the cradle of civilization. Mosul’s famous gypsum alabaster; elegant arches that have withstood missiles even as charred buildings, skeletons exposed, crumble around them; the jade dome of the nearly demolished Al-Nuri mosque where ISIS proclaimed its caliphate four years earlier; children on bicycles on the Old Bridge; a concert in front of the very building from which ISIS would hurl its condemned; a literary festival—these are the signs of life and endurance that are among his subjects.
“Ali has a third eye—the lens of his camera,” says Ameen Al-Jaleeli, Al-Baroodi’s colleague and fellow lecturer at the University of Mosul. “He sees what others do not.”
Unlike the war photographers who come and go in the Middle East, usually appearing only for moments of intense conflict, al-Baroodi is a citizen photographer, entirely self-taught and with deep stakes in his place of birth. His first encounters with photography proved propitious.
“I remember walking by Saddam’s palace compound back in 1999 and reading a ‘No Photography’ sign,” he says. “Many years later, after the [U.S.] invasion, I met a photographer and asked him if I could look through the viewfinder of his camera. When I acquired my first camera, those memories came rushing back to me.”
Photography under ISIS was also strictly forbidden, though the group itself was notorious for rendering its atrocities in high-definition, Hollywood fashion.
“It was dangerous to even carry a camera, let alone use it,” says Al-Jaleeli. “Many people lost their lives for doing so.”
Al-Baroodi has few pictures from this time. One in particular stands out. It is a photo of him and his young nephew, recently shared but dated January 7, 2017, approximately six months before the liberation of Mosul. Al-Baroodi is unshaven, a stark visual reminder of the extent to which ISIS micromanaged the lives of those under its domain. Other, similar posts detail his life in retrospect under the terrorist group. He recounts harrowing near-death experiences, escorting his injured brother to a hospital, running under gunfire, days where clean water and food were uncertainties. But his posts punctuate a timeline that otherwise radiates hope.
Al-Jaleeli describes the phases in his colleague’s work, from the symbolism present in his photography under ISIS to al-Baroodi’s current phase in street photography and documentation.