Los Angeles Times
May 5, 2007
Pg. 1 Column One A Baghdad photo shop whose orders once celebrated life now does a brisk business in memorial collages and images of carnage.
By Edmund Sanders, Times Staff Writer
Baghdad — FROM his cramped storefront in central Baghdad, Mazin Farouq gets a clear picture every day of what's going on in his country. Actually, he gets dozens.
Farouq, 37, runs a photo lab in the Iraqi capital, and he cherishes printing images of smiling subjects and celebrations. Graduations. Weddings. A baby's first steps. Even the occasional racy shots of a frolicking couple.
But these days most of his orders are daily reminders of Iraq's bloody civil war: memorial portraits of "martyrs" or grisly prints of the latest carnage — car bombings and torture victims.
The tiny photo shop is an open shutter onto Iraq's woes, and Farouq has reluctantly plunged into a somber new specialty.
"Almost all my work now is focused on martyrs," he said. "This job is my mirror to know what is going on in my country. And things are getting worse."
He held up a picture of a little girl with a stuffed animal at her feet and scanned the image into a 10-foot-long photo processor.
"This one just came in today. She was killed by a car bomb with her parents." He shook his head. "The photo is brand new. It was taken just a couple of days before she died."
He used to dote over each picture, sharpening contrast, adjusting light and finding the perfect tint for green grasses and blue skies. Now he's fixing the reds in a pool of blood.
The change, he said, began last year, with the increase in car bombs, death squads and gun fights. Instead of the usual orders to develop film shot at birthdays, get-togethers and soccer games, distraught family members poured into his shop carrying snapshots of recently killed relatives and requesting Farouq's help in creating memorial portraits.
At first the requests struck him as odd. Before he knew it, they became the mainstay of his business.
Some mourners seek simple enlargements to display at funerals. Others prefer elaborate collages, mixing pictures of the deceased with images of Islamic shrines or scenic landscapes. Some request a black sash draped over the top corner, others prefer colorful backgrounds of flowers, waterfalls or clouds. Most are finished with the victim's name and a short Koranic verse.
After the funeral, the computer-generated portraits usually end up in the family home. "They hang the pictures on the wall to help them remember," Farouq said.
He works closely with Samir Abdul Munim, a Baghdad sculptor who now earns his living restoring damaged photos and, more recently, also creating memorial collages.
"With the increase in people dying, this work has increased, too," he said.
IN a studio above Farouq's shop, Munim scrolled through background options he offers customers. Shiites often request famous shrines, such as the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, or painted portraits of martyrs, such as Imam Hussein, the 7th century hero who was Ali's son and the prophet Muhammad's grandson. Sunnis lean toward scenes from Mecca.
One recent job started with a snapshot of a 3- or 4-year-old boy wearing an orange basketball tank shirt. He is seated proudly atop a plastic tricycle, his scraped knees hugging the sides.
Using computer clipart, Munim transported the child into a Disney fantasy world far different from the Baghdad he lived in. Mickey Mouse dances by a white picket fence. Donald Duck hangs from the handlebars while Dumbo soars overhead. "The Happy Martyr" reads the caption.
Munim doesn't know the boy's age or the circumstance of his death. It's too painful to delve.
"I don't ask about the details," he said. "I don't want to know."
Portraits may reflect the personalities of the deceased. A sunset might be used for a person who was not particularly religious. A person from Najaf might be pictured in front of one of the city's famous shrines.
Sometimes parents bring in military photos of sons killed in action, but ask that the uniforms be replaced with civilian clothes. If a religious person died before being able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca, the family may use the background collage as a way to symbolically fulfill that wish.
"It's a way of honoring those who have died," Munim said.
Memorial collages began to appear in Iraq in the 1990s, but were relatively rare. At first, they were created by cutting up photographs with scissors, arranging the pieces atop one another, and then taking a new picture. The portraits improved dramatically after the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein, when designers got easier access to new computers, digital equipment and software programs.
Farouq fell into the photo-processing business almost by accident. As a young Christian growing up in the southern city of Basra, he was imprisoned for three months by Hussein's regime for refusing to serve in the military. In 1991, during the Persian Gulf War, his family moved to Baghdad when their home was destroyed by cluster bombs.
Farouq took odd jobs, working in a food factory and selling soap and perfume from a street stand, until a neighbor encouraged him to apply for an opening at a photo lab. By 2004, he had saved enough money to open his own business with some partners. (One of his partners is an Iraqi photographer who works for The Times' Baghdad Bureau.)
At first, Farouq's business boomed, despite the rise in violence after the U.S.-led invasion. Hussein's downfall had brought an end to economic sanctions and a surge in spending as Iraqis bought imported electronic goods, including telephones, satellite dishes and, fortunately for Farouq, cameras.
NESTLED off what was once Baghdad's busiest shopping avenue, Farouq was well positioned to take advantage. His processing machines ran 24 hours a day, and sometimes he was so busy he slept at the shop. He earned enough to get married, to a childhood friend from Basra. Last month they had their first child.
But like many other small- business owners in Iraq, Farouq found that life got harder as the U.S. occupation wore on and civil war began. By last year, sectarian fighting and government-imposed curfews had begun to cripple commerce. Business dropped 75% in 2006, he said.
Farouq still works six days a week, but the only steady business that doesn't involve death and destruction is the booming demand for passport photos. "Everyone is trying to leave Iraq," he said, shrugging.
He acknowledges that the memorial portraits can be depressing, but he doesn't dare turn customers away.
Nor does he reject clients who bring him rolls of film with gruesome images of explosions, fires or corpses. Most are victims or their relatives, seeking to document their suffering in hope of filing compensation claims with the U.S. military or Iraqi government.
Rarely do clients warn Farouq about the content of the film, he said, perhaps fearing he might reject the work. Usually it's not until he's inserted the amber negatives into his machine that the appalling images come into focus.
One recent job involved pictures of an Iraqi driver shot in his car by U.S. soldiers. Relatives said the shooting was a mistake. Another family needed evidence that their apartment building had been destroyed by a car bomb, but amid the pictures of debris was a decapitated body, an image that still haunts Farouq. The worst were pictures of a man tortured and killed with an electric drill.
"There are so many horrendous pictures," he said.
AT first, the images moved him to tears or turned his stomach. Now they've become oddly normal.
"It breaks my heart, but these things are becoming common."
The new reality of his work has been hard. Farouq once related closely to the happiness of the photos he processed. Now, with the images having turned gruesome, he tries to leave his work at the shop, seeking comfort at home with his wife and newborn. Like many Iraqis, he's trying to save money so he can leave the country. He hopes to open a photo lab someplace less stressful.
"I worry how this is affecting my psyche," Farouq said. "These images are imprinted on my mind."