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A sister tries to feed her two years old brother, who lost one eye when hit by a bullet in Baghuz, Syria. Image Credit: Afshin Ismaeli‏
Afshin Ismaeli

Sharjah: Award-winning Oslo-based war photographer Afshin Ismaeli, one of the 53 featured photographers for the upcoming Xposure International Photography Festival in Sharjah, said photojournalists’ work is becoming harder in conflict zones.

In an exclusive interview ahead of Xposure, which begins on Thursday at Expo Centre, Ismaeli, 34, told Gulf News it is not just the dangers of war making their work more perilous.

“It is becoming increasingly difficult to work as a journalist or photographer in most of the countries we are working in. Press freedom is being increasingly curtailed. I believe it is an important job, and I like doing it. It is important to be with the people who suffer during conflicts and tell their stories,” he said.

‘Incredibly terrifying’

Ismaeli continues to cover the lives of refugees and migrants, most notably from Syria and Iraq. He has also worked on photographic essays in Iran, Greece, Bosnia, and Turkey, where, he said, he was “imprisoned and tortured by the government in 2016”.

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Wives and children of Isis fighters who surrendered themselves to Syrian democratic forces (SDF) have been transported to secure area in Baghuz, Syria. Image Credit: Afshin Ismaeli

“It was incredibly terrifying because I had heard that they were threatening to kill me.”

Despite being “traumatised” during the course of his work in conflict zones, Ismaeli has had no second thoughts about his job.

Finding comfort in conflict

“This work can change your life. Many photographers have lost their lives in war zones. There are photographers and reporters who become unrecognisable due to trauma. I too was traumatised and suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I feel more comfortable in places that people find frightening than with my family, where life is secure and easy,” said Ismaeli, a contract photographer for Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten.

Ismaeli, who has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Oslo, started working as a journalist in Erbil, Iraq, in 2005. He moved to Oslo, Norway, in 2008 to begin a career as a freelance photographer.

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Al-Hol camp for displaced Syrians, between the Iraq and Syria borders. They lost their parents during fighting’s in Baghuz. Image Credit: Afshin Ismaeli

Since then, Afshin devoted his time to documenting wars, conflicts, and humanitarian issues. In Iraq and Syria, he covered military campaigns against Daesh. In 2017, during the coverage of the war in Mosul, Ismaeli was injured.

Safety first

Ismaeli often has to place himself in harm’s way to get the right shot, but warned that “safety always comes first. What is crucial is to remember that there is no story on earth that is more important than your life”.

Ismaeli said photography, to him, is more than documenting news – it is about trying to make a difference in people’s lives. “By photographing, try to bring awareness and educate people, which might bring change and help to the people you photograph… I’m trying to get to the unique stories, untold stories and it’s often in war zones.”

His work has been published in several Norwegian newspapers, The New York Times, BBC, Forbes, RTP, and other media outlets. Ismaeli has won a number of awards, including ‘Honoured International Reporter of the Year’ (2017 and 2018) and ‘Reporter of the Year 2018’ from Schibsted company.