Just one look
I can remember the first time that I walked into the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and saw this portrait of Vincent van Gough.
(Left: Vincent van Gough, self-portrait, 1889. Copyright, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France)
He painted it in 1889, and it is believed to be his last self-portrait before his suicide in 1890. Having visited his grave as well as the wheatfield where he shot himself, those piercing blue eye had a profound effect on me. I do not know if you’ve experienced this feeling before, the sense that someone (or even something) that you see in a picture is reaching through time and space, grabbing you by the gut and pulling the breath right out of you.
I always come away from such encounters very unsettled, unable to shake the feeling that the person or place that I have seen is trying to tell me something, wants (demands?) something from me.., something gravely important that may or may not be clear to me.
I had a similar experience, multiplied by the power of 10, when I went to Iraq for the first time in 2014. Among the many people and scenes to take in, I was struck by how absolutely wretched the conditions were for the Yezidi refugees. Forced by ISIS from their traditional homeland in the Sinjar, thousands of Yezidi were living on the streets, under the bridges and in the abandon buildings of Iraq’s northern cities.
(Above: Amira. Lalish, Iraq. Copyright © Jeff Gardner, 2015)
“There are some pictures that you can look at for weeks and never think of again. There are other pictures that you look at for a second and then think about for a lifetime.”
In May of 2015 I was again in Iraq, and while there, I met this extraordinary Yezidi girl, Amira.
Before I tell you her story, let me tell you a little about the Yezidi. The Yezidis (sometimes written as Yazidi), are perhaps Iraq’s oldest religious group, and have lived in the Sinjar region for thousands of years. According their calendar, it is the year 6,766, which suggests that they have had an awareness of themselves for at least 4000 years before the coming of Christ.
In 2016, Yezidis can be found scattered throughout Turkey, Armenia, and until the recent civil war, Syria. But for centuries the largest Yezidi community has been in Iraq’s Sinjar region.
An expansive and fertile plain in western Iraq, the Sinjar is dominated by Mount Sinjar which rises up some 4,800 feet and has often been a safe haven for the Yezidis in times of trouble. When ISIS invaded the region in August of 2014, some 6,000 Yezidis, including Amira and her family, fled up the mountain. In response, ISIS militant surrounded Mount Sinjar and attempted to starve and dehydrate their victims to death. Although the siege was eventually broken by Iraqi troops in December of 2014, hundreds of Yezidis died of thirst while on the mountain.
Those who were caught by ISIS in the initially attack along with those who tried to sneak down the mountain were either shot or, as in the case of Yezidi women and girls, captured and sold as sexual slaves.
Amira was lucky, very lucky.
I met Amira while taking photographs in the Yezidi holy city of Lalish, Iraq. She was the cousin of one of my Yezidi friends, and as she watched me work, I could not help but notice an intense curiosity mixed with sadness reflected in her eyes.
At nine years of age, she had seen more than most of us will ever see in our lifetime. After getting permission from her mother to photograph her, I asked Amira if she would sit for a picture.
Her reaction was a mixture of surprise and fear, since her experience had been that when strangers take an interest Yezidi girls, Yezidi girls disappear.
Asking her to sit down on some nearby steps, I lit the whole scene with one gold reflector. She turned her feet in and tried to hide the rest of herself behind her hair – her discomfort was so clear that I stopped taking pictures after only a minute or two.
When I got back to the states and sat down in my studio with her picture I was again struck and, with just one look, grabbed and had the breath pulled right out of me. The whole scene spoke volumes to me about the suffering and humiliation that the Yezidis have endured.
And yes, I had second thoughts about having taken the photograph.
Concerning pictures, the Spanish artist Joan Miró (1893 – 1983) once wrote the following:
“There are some pictures that you can look at for weeks and never think of again. There are others that you look at for a second and then think about for a lifetime.”
I have nothing to add.