Emily Garthwaite is one of a new breed of photojournalists. Embracing social media and rejecting preconceived notions of what photojournalism is, Emily has positioned herself at the forefront of her field. In 2017 and 2018, the 25-year-old photographer from the UK walked the Arbaeen pilgrimage, telling the personal stories of the people she met, as well as sharing her own experiences daily via her Instagram stories.
Her disarming and honest nature have endeared Emily to hundreds of thousands of people the world over. In the case of this particular project, it has also helped her achieve a hitherto unimaginable level of access and insight into a story so rarely told. In an open letter to our editor Pete Littlewood, Emily shares her experiences on the road to Arbaeen.
I’ve decided to write an open letter to you. Although we’re yet to meet, we’ve had quite a few email exchanges. When you approached me to write about the Arbaeen pilgrimage, I knew I wanted to share my personal experience of it. Since 2017, I have become incredibly invested in a community who have welcomed me with open arms and allowed me to share their stories. While photojournalism is undoubtedly about neutrally and compassionately documenting the world around us, it also affects the photographer and, in my case, it has changed my life. I still feel the same about photography as I did when I first picked up a camera aged 15.
I am now 25 years old and have never known a time when Iraq hasn’t been a conflict zone. In the UK, I grew up with the media sharing photos of Iraq – of barren landscapes, fighters, bombs, and dust. I firmly believe a country is not defined by war, and yet, the Western media has, more often than not, focused on conflict in the Middle East. It led me to believe, as a young child, that the Middle East was a cruel place. It’s essential we cover the ongoing struggle that many Middle Eastern countries face, but it is equally important to highlight the beauty of these countries. In my case, I have been photographing Iraq.
In 2017 and 2018, I walked Arbaeen. Arbaeen is the world’s largest annual pilgrimage and yet little known to the rest of the world. Up to 25 million pilgrims walk in peace to the shrine of Imam Hussein [Prophet Mohammed’s grandson] in Karbala every year. The Arbaeen Pilgrimage marks the end of a 40-day mourning period following Ashura, the religious ritual that commemorates the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson Imam Hussein. Imam Hussein became a martyr during the Battle of Karbala [680CE] where he fought against the Yazid armies. Arbaeen is the largest number of people fed for free and the largest group of volunteers serving a single event in the world. Millions of pilgrims make the 75km journey from Najaf to Imam Hussein’s shrine in Karbala, while some walk 700km from Basra in Southern Iraq.
Arbaeen has been banned many times, including by Saddam Hussein, who believed the walk of peace could be weaponised and pilgrims would revolt against his dictatorship. It remains set against the tense backdrop of the Iraqi geopolitics and is a target for numerous terrorist attacks. In 2018 alone, Iraqi intelligence foiled over 300 Daesh related attacks. Arbaeen offers a positive narrative of resilience, solidarity and faith. Surprisingly, Arbaeen remains almost unknown to the world, and there continues to be widespread criticism of the media blackout surrounding it.
We regularly read negative news and rarely doubt it, and yet, when positive stories regarding certain communities come out, people question the intentions. I think about this every day. People deserve to see shades of grey, not black and white narratives. There are issues in every country around the world, but some seem only to receive negative press.
In 2017, an Iranian documentary team asked me to present a documentary on Arbaeen. I agreed almost instantly and within a matter of weeks found myself in Najaf, the home of Imam Ali’s Shrine, where the pilgrimage traditionally starts. This experience led me to return in 2018 with the documentary producer, Farzan Nikpour. He’s more than a colleague or friend – I consider him my second father. I call him Baba, which is Persian for father. There are many memories that we share, but it was the quiet moments of contemplation I will always remember. We walked through Al-Hillah, a rural region lush with date palm, and discussed faith and its many shades, and how, even though we were from different walks of life, ages, religion, experiences, we had a shared love of people.
Farzan and I decided to use the power of social media. I started to share Instagram stories from Iraq – we even live-streamed from people’s homes. I wanted people to join me on the journey, and to show them the other side of Iraq. We followed the power of positivity and arrived in Iraq without a plan. I think a lot of people thought we had arranged meetings and interviews, but in truth, we just spoke to everyone we met and doors [sometimes quite literally] opened. I would spend the night with Iraqi women and their children, while Farzan would stay with the men. By the time we reached Karbala and the Shrine of Imam Hussain, the videos went viral. More than anything, it showed me that people wanted to see good news.
Social media is a strange one. I keep my online voice clear, and open. I will not adapt to my audience, and I will not change my work or who I am. It’s a liberating feeling to be yourself, and I have, only in the past two years, found my voice. I am happy to lose followers if it means I keep my integrity. People should value their work more than the number of followers they have. I try to find joy in social media, and to make my account a positive space. I share my world online, and many intimate moments – and I do it on my terms. We must trust our instincts above all else. There are always challenging moments on assignments, but I show the beauty in my day and let the negatives dissipate.
There’s so much more I want to tell you, but I’d like you to know I will be proudly walking it again this year.