Iraq: Angels of War

*Reprinted with permission from PeaceNews

Over the past 35 years, the people of Iraq have had little peace.

The country has been the central theatre for the Iran-Iraq War, with an estimated 1 million deaths, the Gulf War and International Sanctions Regime, where up to 1 million people died, the Iraq War, with an estimated 115,000 deaths, and now the war against ISIS.

However, one photojournalist was fed up with how the media portrayed his homeland.

Jamal Penjweny comes from a border town in Kurdistan, and has worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic. But he was frustrated with the media’s focus on devastating images of Iraq. Jamal wanted to show that his country is capable of more than just violence.

So he created an exhibition called Angels of War.

It’s a stunning reminder of the tenacity of Iraqi people, and of the hope that doesn’t make into mainstream images of the war-torn region.

In the series, ordinary people are depicted with angelic wings – an attempt, Jamal said, to show the people of Iraq that angels are all around them, in the everyday people they encounter.

Jamal told us that after speaking with accused terrorists in custody several years ago, he was inspired to create the exhibition.

He said he wanted to counter the ideology of reaching paradise through suicide bombing – he wanted to show people who might be tempted by extremism that they are already surrounded by angels.

He also wanted to show the wider world another side of Iraq.

“We have art, we have culture, we have life. I want to show people the other side of the war,” he said.

Juliet den Oudendammer from Art Represent said the London gallery is excited to host such an insightful exhibition. Her favourite piece is an image depicting a young child looking through metal bars.

“You see this little boy in a complicated situation, with a really complicated story at the beginning of his life already, and because he has those wings it shows that even in a bad situation, there is always hope,” she said.

She said art offers a different view of conflict, and people’s experience of it.

“We can show a different perspective, and start a dialogue between what the media is saying is happening in these countries, and what is actually happening to these people who are a lot of the time very far away from the politics, or the fighting or actual conflict,” she said.

“Art can motivate people, to gather behind a movement or to pay attention to issues that aren’t ‘sexy’ enough to be portrayed in mainstream media.”

2 thoughts on “Iraq: Angels of War

  1. 43574955 Rin Shimada – Written Critical Blog

    Angels of War – A Beautiful Iraq

    For the short essay I have chosen to do a blog review. The Vision Machine is a fascinating website, and I was particularly interested in the article ‘Iraq: Angels of War’ by Roger Stahl (2016 : 1). This was a reprint of a news report from PeaceNews, which focused on photojournalist Jamal Penjweny and his exhibition of photographs featuring everyday Iraqi citizens with bearing angel wings. Jamal’s ultimate goal was to put the Iraqi people in a different light, both to the locals who may be temped by extremism, and the Western world who have a negative view towards them. This was a very fascinating article and was quite thought provoking, and I find the focus on the power of photojournalism to be extremely interesting.

    As quoted by Jamal himself, “we have art, we have culture, we have life. I want to show people the other side of the war”. There is no doubt that the images portrayed of the war are mostly of disaster, ruin and catastrophe, and there is no escaping the negative light that the country of Iraq as a whole has been put in. This has frustrated Jamal immensely, and undoubtedly many other fellow Iraqis. He took it upon himself to slowly change the negative perception of the Iraqi people. This is why he photographed everyday Iraqi citizens, including men, women, and children, wearing angel wins. This is undoubtedly to symbolise their innocence and goodness, and their separation from the evil that has corrupted Iraq though extremism. Undoubtedly the western media has always put all their focus onto the Islamic State, and the evil that corrupts them, without giving much mention to the everyday people who are caught in the middle of the conflict. Mainstream media has a tendency to completely disregard the ordinary, innocent citizens who have been implicated unfairly, despite being the ones who are suffering the most. Furthermore, this may allow those who are thinking that extremism is the only way to survive that there are other options, and they are not entirely plagued by badness. There is no doubt that photo journalism is a powerful tool, and this blog has shown that Jamal has harnessed its power to show the beauty of Iraq.

    The intersection between images and politics has been a very popular topic in IR, as visual politics can be extremely influential. There is undoubtedly great support by the field of IR regarding the effect of visual politics and the media, and as stated by Roland Bleiker, “Images play an increasingly important role in global politics”. As stated by Manheim and Albritton, “Social scientists have long recognized the importance of images and symbols in public information campaigns” (1983: 642). Images have the ability to completely change the public’s view of a specific event or conflict, and the power of visual politics is something that political leaders and states are grappling to harness. An example of a powerful image with immense political force is the iconic image of a young naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack during the Vietnam War (Hansen 2015:265). Even today, if we were to have to think of only one image to represent the Vietnam War, for a large percentage of society, this image would be the one. This ideology regarding the power of images is exacerbated even more today, as seemingly everything in today’s society is digitised, and “the world has witnessed an explosion in visual technology and media” (Kirkpatrick 2015: 200). It is impossible to separate a conflict from the media coverage that surrounds it.

    The literature surrounding this area is undoubtedly in agreement that images hold a significant amount of power, and harnessing this can make a great change in perceptions of an event or conflict. This clearly corroborates with Jamal’s goals, as Jamal believes very strongly in the power of images such as his own in influencing global politics and norms. There is very little criticism that I can muster regarding the quality of the blog. It was a genuine, honest article from the point of view of someone who was directly involved in the conflict. Furthermore, this article was well written and was undoubtedly fascinating enough to hold my full and undivided attention for the whole duration that I was reading it. However the article was quite short and didn’t touch on some things that I was curious about. For example, he said that this project was inspired by a meeting he once had with accused terrorists in custody, but he does not elaborate on how this actually inspired him. Was he inspired by the strong spirit of wrongly accused terrorists, or was he horrified by their point of view and feeling obligated to deter others from doing the same? However apart from that, this was a great article, and the images truly were beautiful, as seen in the videos, and there is little criticism that I can provide. The only recommendation that I can provide is to elaborate more on the actual project that he is working on, and maybe show more images if possible in the video. However, I do acknowledge that this is a transcript of a news video, and thus out of the hands of the publisher of this blog
    Without a doubt, the influential power of images in conflict and politics is undeniable, and is continue to evolving more and more with our modern society. It is truly inspiring that Jamal has decided to dedicate his talent towards supporting his nation and contributing to the war effort by using his talent to dissuade his fellow Iraqis from joining the Islamist movement. Furthermore, the positive side of Iraq is not something that is often given the spotlight in mainstream media. Jamal insists “We have art, we have culture, we have life. I want to show people the other side of the war”. I thoroughly enjoyed this blog and believe that it is a brilliant contribution to his country and to the world of art. As Juliet Juliet den Oudendammer from Art Represent said, “even in a bad situation, there is always hope,”. I believe that by continuing to show the sheer beautify of humanity through these powerful, symbolic images, it can allow us to unite and pave the way for a greater future for all.

    • References
      Bleiker, Roland. 2015. ‘Pluralist Methods for Visual Global Politics’. Millennium: Journal of International Studies 43(3): 872-890.

      Hansen, Lene. 2015. ‘How images make world politics: International icons and the case of Abu Ghraib’. Review of International Studies 41(1): 263-288.

      Manheim, Jarol B. and Robert B. Albritton. 1983. ‘Changing National Images: International Public Relations and Media Agenda Setting’. The American Political Science Review 78(1): 641-657.

      Stahl, Roger. 2016. Iraq: Angels of War. Accessed 16 October 2016. Available at

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