"The Best Art In The World"
By VICTOR SLEDGE, July 2021
Younes Mohammad is an Iraqi Kurdish fine art photographer based in Ebril who was recently named the 1st Place Winner of the Boynes Emerging Artist Award for his series, Open Wounds. The series captures war veterans and their injuries in the veterans’ homes against a plain black backdrop. However, Open Wounds goes beyond what one might typically associate with war photography.
Open Wounds is about the effects of war, beyond physical wounds, that linger throughout the lives of the soldiers and their families for the rest of time. Although the series focuses mainly on the soldiers, Mohammad also took photos of their entire families to contextualize war’s impact at home as much as the battlefield. In fact, that could be just the beginning of it.
“It’s not just about them,” says Mohammad. “It’s about the long-term pain that will stay with this family for a generation.”
There are other battles that take place within the soldiers’ own psyches and their households after they return home. Mohammad’s art shows the emotional, mental and familial wounds that remain after combat are just as devastating as the physical wounds.
“First, I was thinking of only the wounded people as the subjects, but I realized there were other subjects as well,” he says. “Their wives, for instance. Nobody talks about them. I can hug my kids. I can work with my son. For their kids, it’s different.”
As a photojournalist and translator on the frontlines of the war against ISIL, Mohammad himself suffered physical and mental injuries. After his work during the war, Mohammad came back to realize that he had changed.
His relationship with his family had become rocky, and he noticed himself being a bit more isolated. After working with a therapist, who diagnosed him with PTSD, he did the work necessary to overcome it. That experience gave Mohammad a bigger picture of the aftereffects of war.
“I was on the frontlines as a journalist, not as a fighter, and for two years of my life, I was in treatment,” he explains. “So, I can only imagine what happens to those that are fighting.”
Although Mohammad started as a photojournalist, he eventually made the switch to being a fully artistic photographer after working during those times. As an artist, his work as a photojournalist, although still artistically sound, didn’t have the longevity he hoped to maintain with his work. With the nature of news cycles, the work of photojournalists has a very short shelf life.
“I would take a picture of a wounded soldier on the frontline,” he says, “and after one or two hours, people ignored it. But when I make an artistic picture, people cannot ignore it.”
Mohammad wanted to produce work that would speak for years to come. Artistic photos during times like war have the power to depict not only that moment of conflict, but also capture the zeitgeist of the people involved for years after that. While capturing the moment as a photojournalist may last for a few days, capturing the spirit in peoples’ feelings and emotions in that moment will last forever, and that’s what Mohammad does.
Mohammad calls this approach to photography “sense-ography.”
His sense-ography takes what could have only been a news photo and turns it into a powerful piece of humanistic photography. In Open Wounds, his subjects aren’t seen only as wounded soldiers, though that is the initial visual impact of these photos. Mohammad’s work reminds us that these veterans are also fathers, brothers and husbands, and they exist outside of war. With a black backdrop, he creates these polarizing photos that force you to grapple with the person living with these injuries and levels you. It’s a humanistic reckoning that feels overdue in the way that soldiers, particularly non-American combatants, are represented. This approach allows him to enter these sensitive scenes and create work that prioritizes the subject, the depth of their emotions and their innate human dignity.
Mohammad knows that this work with veterans does not exist without a strong level of trust between him and his subjects. Not only does his work and the way he represents the veterans on camera speak to his human-centric approach, but before the camera comes out, Mohammad makes it clear that his goal is to share these veterans’ stories with the world, not to exploit their pain.
For example, he remembers one veteran he visited, who at first refused to let Mohammad take photos of him. Mohammad was only allowed to come to the veteran’s house to share a meal. Once Mohammad arrived and started to explain his intentions with Open Wounds, he was granted permission to photograph the veteran.
“I explained that I wasn’t a journalist looking to make myself famous or make money from his story,” he says.
For Mohammad, these photos are much more than potentially trending snapshots online. He aims to leave a lasting impression on his subjects, his country and the outside world. Mohammad’s work champions the feelings and emotions of his subjects in a way that will be relatable not only currently, but also in the future. Mohammad’s focus on his subject’s emotions gives his work the longevity that he felt is missing in photojournalism.
“One of the most important elements in my work is showing what my subject is feeling at that moment,” he says. “When people come back to my archive in ten years, I want them to understand what we go through and how we feel. I want to show them the direction of human feelings.”
To Mohammad’s artistic credit, his gaze also speaks to the beauty of a country and its people separate from war. In his series, Lockdown Diary, his photos have a sense of leisure,peace, and behaviour familiar to us all experiencing quarantine lockdowns, all of which speaks to the versatility of his eye. While he is able to tackle very sensitive, traumatic events, Mohammad also has a way of highlighting everyday life in Kurdistan, stripping back the layers of preconceived notions the outside world may have on his country. That’s an artistic benefit of his humanistic sense-ography. Focusing on the people -- not their circumstances -- frees him from the boundaries of being mislabeled as a wartime photographer and lets him prioritize capturing the beauty and spirit of the people around him.
After all, even Open Wounds isn’t about war. It’s not about injuries or suffering.
“We are showing this pain to say how beautiful peace is.”
By “we,” he means himself, the brave, vulnerable veterans he photographs, and their families. Mohammad’s subjects are as vital to his work as he is, and it takes a shared understanding of the power his art can have to make art as impactful as his.
Mohammad’s work is about using art to recognize peace and coming to terms with the very real human toll when it is ignored. His work helps the world remember that under every army uniform is a human made of flesh and blood that existed before and will exist after war. He forces the viewer to look past their normal associations with soldiers and wounds to focus on the unifying parts of experience that exists in these veterans. He reminds us that at the center of it all is a human being, and in that way, Mohammad isn’t a wartime photographer, he’s a humanist first.
You can view Mohammad’s work on his website and follow him on Instagram @younesagha. WM
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.