Rising photographer-filmmaker Mustafa Al-Sumaidaie lifts the veil off native Iraq

Old Friends by Mustafa Al-Sumaidaie
6 min read
27 May, 2022

“I was 10-years-old,” says Mustafa Al-Sumaidaie, recounting the humble beginnings of his career which, more than a decade later, has matured and transformed him into a rising star within Iraq’s contemporary filmmaking scene. 

Sumaidaie’s fortuitous encounter with photography began in 1999 when he restored his father’s broken camera. The then 10-year-old purchased a film canister with pocket money he had squirrelled away and shot his first-ever roll of film.

The results, as he described them, were underwhelming. Images were grainy and blurred with the exception of one which encouraged him further along the path of filmmaking. 

"Sumaidie lifts the lid on Iraq’s urban and architectural beauty, hidden gems, and natural wonders that Iraqis – though not all – take for granted"

Sumaidaie described the rush of exhilaration that photography filled him with, and despite his family’s unabashed criticism of his amateur endeavour, he continued. He photographed intimate family occasions, before becoming the de-facto camera repair guy in his neighbourhood.

Photography was a hobby and never a career choice for Sumaidaie. Architecture had been his initial calling which he was forced to abandon as war dug its nails into Iraq’s urban and social fabric.

“It was the height of Iraq’s sectarian conflict,” he recalled, “and my father had just passed away. As the eldest in my family, I had to prioritise work over studying, and never quite caught up.”

Overnight, Sumaidaie became the sole caregiver for his nuclear family. The decision proved critical to his career and eventual success.

During these testing times, Sumaidaie poured time, energy and money into the craft, learning and growing more adept. He eventually found work in the commercial sector, alternating between filmmaking and film-editing. 

The year was 2016 when I first encountered his work. I was enamoured by a short film Sumaidaie made called Al-Mutannabi Street that articulated the revival and survival of Baghdad’s eponymous street.

It was disfigured eight years earlier in a callous car bomb explosion which tore through Baghdad’s beloved Shabandar Cafe –Mutanabbi street's beating heart.

The video weaves in and out of streets paved with books, Chai Khanas and their animated clientele, delectable food stalls, market dwellers, and not least, the infamous Qishla clock tower, which guards the area from above. 

The film set the tone for much of Sumaidaie’s later work. Guided by an unquenchable curiosity about the way people live and think, his eclectic portfolio features candid photographs of Iraqi subalterns and not least, coveted places where no tourist has set foot.

His filmmaking prowess is best demonstrated in an EU-commissioned film that documents life in the war-shaken, Western province of Al-Anbar, two years after military operations against IS ended.

A Smile in a minute is another close contender which introduces a colourful cast of ordinary civilians whose stony expressions turn into infectious smiles. 

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A personal favourite is Baghdad in 90 degrees — marked out by its dizzying abstractism. It depicts Baghdad as a 3D spherical globe which rotates perpetually as Sumaidaie wanders through its streets and across its historic bridges.

As for his photographic collection, a drone-captured image of a water buffalo swimming in sandy-yellow marshes in Maysan – leaving a plume of grey dust in its wake – remains a crowd favourite. Its appeal stems from the difficulty in reading the image, with audiences puzzling over whether the buffalo is coursing through sand or water.

As the conversation turns to the aesthetic of his work, Sumaidaie identifies his target audience as local Iraqis. He admits that he follows no repertoire, but relies heavily on spontaneity.

What is also apparent, is that Sumaidie is evidently guided by his nationalist sensibilities or rather a pride and appreciation for his country.

In harnessing the power of photography, Sumaidie lifts the lid on Iraq’s urban and architectural beauty, hidden gems, and natural wonders that Iraqis – though not all – take for granted.

“If the roof of your home was cracked, how could you not notice?” he says, using the analogy to critique society’s shortsightedness and undiscerning eye. 

By depicting Iraq in a way that defies its public persona as the Hobbesian jungle of the east, Sumaidie is commonly thanked by Iraqis for challenging the stereotypes in wide circulation both inside and outside of Iraq. 

Every month, the roving photographer lands in a new destination, each of which he describes as “uniquely Iraqi”.

“In my own way, I’m promoting domestic tourism,” he says with conviction with social media offering a substitute travel brochure. 

His message is that all Iraqis should recognise the enviable landscapes they can access. “All they need to do,” he says, “is travel." He adds that “aspiring Iraqi photographers are commonly misadvised to leave Iraq and scour the world for coveted shots.”

He tells me that this advice is misplaced, and leaves disgruntled youth dreaming of migration even more disgruntled, due to the travel and financial restrictions they face. 

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Although landscape shots are a key fixture in Sumaidaie’s work, equally visible are ordinary Iraqis – a subject he admittedly favours. He explains that his “community-focused” approach is about more than offering corrective portraits of Iraq. “I am careful in my photography to also demonstrate the way communities live, worship, and come together.”

He explains that his ability to switch between all of the spoken dialects in Iraq (northern, western, southern) has helped him in building trust with communities.

“People warm up to you immediately,” he says. “You can’t stroll into an area, and start pointing your camera at people. It’s intrusive and keeps people’s guard up, particularly when photographing females.”

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Sumaidaie admits that encounters with myriad communities have also altered his own views and biases.

Contrary to “kalam al-Nas” [hearsay] about the supposedly “violent” Anbar province, Sumaidaie said that he was humbled by its people’s hospitality and both surprised and educated by the active role he saw Anbari women performing.

He shared a similar story about the Lalish-based Êzidî community, enchanted by their rituals and spiritual practices, as well as the little-known Orthodox Christian town of Hamdaniya. 

As I trawl through the mosaic tiles of Sumaidaie's Instagram account, my eyes feast on images of uncharted landscapes – from Zakho to al-Faw – enchanting wildlife, farmland, and the communal practices and rituals.

Like a roving stage light, Sumaidaie’s lens tours destinations, old and new, lifting the veil on his native Iraq. The country we see in his work feels unfamiliar and unrecognisable from that depicted online and on TV for the last two decades. It teaches us that the country is far greater than the sum of its crippling trauma, and the scars and fractures of war.

Nazli Tarzi is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq's ancient history and contemporary political scene