There is something about the photos of Kurdish Iraqi artist Jamal Penjweny that recalls cotton candy and bare feet on pavement: the feeling of childhood freedom.
Penjweny, now a renowned photographer and filmmaker, started his career as a sculptor and painter. Throughout the last decade, Penjweny covered news stories, from illegal weapons trade to the posthumous presence of Saddam Hussein in Iraqi society. Yet it’s his other projects that truly set him apart from the other photographers in the region.
Penjweny claims that his work started with the intent of reporting life on the ground in Baghdad and at the very border of the country. He adds that over time, his work began to develop itself, “expressing long-lasting concepts which transformed my work more into an art project rather than mere documentation.”
Some of the characters in Penjweny’s photographs feel like they just came out of a film by Jean-Pierre Jeunet – brimming with stories that make your imagination grow like plants after long-awaited rain. He describes his art as a form of magical time travel: “In my village, growing up we didn’t have electricity; so when I was a child, I brought all the old people to my house to tell stories about life and its beauties. That is where I got all the beautiful images in my mind and all of my art comes from that.”
As a photographer, Penjweny has a unique sense for his inner child – playful and dreamy. That is why his art, particularly photography, is so unconventional and imaginative. In his project I wish, Penjweny brings to life the childhood dreams of Iraqis, specifically dreams of sports stardom. The man in the mountains wanted to become a champion swimmer, yet was born in a place with no swimming pools. The Mullah posing with the Bruce Lee photo once took karate lessons. Similarly, the gasoline salesman with a donkey and a Ferrari photo always wanted to be a race car driver.
“From a successful tennis player and basketball star, to a celebrated martial artist and decorated Olympic athletes, each image represents a wish to become something greater,” says Penjweny. Unfortunately, all were met with setbacks in the form of physical injury or poverty.
Regardless of their context, Penjweny still wants to present their stories because “life is not like animation, you cannot paint anything you want. I made this project to give one moment when dreams can become reality, so each person can act out their dream even if they cannot fulfill it in real life.”
Penjweny’s other project, Iraq is flying, also captures a unique moment of freedom and dreamy reality. Viewers have rarely seen the themes of flying and jumping in such a striking way as Penjweny approaches it. The concept is simple: he asked people to jump and forget about everything for a moment, capturing them in mid-air above the burdens of the ground. Once again, it shows how Penjweny reaches back to childhood simplicity. In I wish and Iraq is flying, Penjweny isn’t just a photographer; he provides a unique moment for his protagonists. It is an act that nearly everybody enjoys, regardless of their age, religion or nationality.
Penjweny, who originates from a Kurdish village a few kilometers from the Iraq-Iran frontier, insists: “At the border, ‘the state’ becomes meaningless; identities and languages mix together, and we find ourselves as women and men sharing a common life story that defies sex, colour and nationality.”
His work aims to combat stereotypes and serves as a reminder of one basis all human beings share. It is not enough to be an unbiased observer, Penjweny concludes. “As a part of society, an artist ought to challenge policies that aim to segregate individuals in pre-defined identities and confront their fears instead.”
Article edited by Laïla Von Alvensleben.