Metrography is an Iraq-based photography agency with an ambitious goal: to become the main provider of Iraqi imagery. But, it has a long way to go, says founder Sebastian Meyer, who has launched a series of workshops to train his photographers. Olivier Laurent
After Iraq was invaded in 2003, demand for images of the country skyrocketed. Wire agencies, newspapers and magazines sent their best photographers to cover the conflict but, as the situation turned violent in 2005, editors were relied on local photographers. Today, these Iraqis are the main source of breaking-news images from the country. Now a new agency is looking to help them move into feature photography.
Metrography is the first and only Iraqi photography agency to cover all 18 of Iraq’s governorates, from Basra to Zakho, says Sebastian Meyer, the British photojournalist who’s helped set up and run the agency. “I first went to Northern Iraq in late 2008 on commission from a British filmmaker, who wanted to do some stills for a documentary. That was at the very beginning of the financial crisis, which hit all of us in early 2009.”
By mid-2009, Meyer was living in London and had lost so much work he didn’t know what he was going to do. “But this filmmaker commissioned me again to go back. I met some Kurdish photographers while I was there – I really got on well with these guys, especially a guy named Kamaran Najm, an Iraqi Kurd from Sulaymaniya. Najm came up with the idea for the agency. I was excited about it.” The agency hopes to represent Iraqi photographers’ work, and
help them develop their skills for today’s global photography market. “They have been doing amazing work for a long time, but it’s all been breaking-news stuff,” says Meyer. “We needed an agency where people can come to look for Iraqi photographers to do feature stories, portraits and things that aren’t just wire stories.”
Meyer and Najm gathered 65 photographers, from all over Iraq. “We used our contacts in the country, talked to wire services and NGOs,” says Meyer. “We scanned by-lines. Our photographers speak Arabic, Kurdish, English, Assyrian, and Turkmen along with local dialects.
While Metrography is doing well, it isn’t always plain sailing. “Our photographers have rarely worked outside of breaking news,” he says. “They don’t necessarily understand how to shoot feature stories, that they might not be paid upfront and what is copyright.”
Recently, Metrography received a request from Arabian Eye, a visual content provider based in Dubai, looking for tourist-style images from Basra. “We called our guys there and asked them if they had anything,” says Meyer. “One answered, ‘Yeah, yeah. I’ll send them to you in a couple of days when I’ll be at my computer.’ I said, ‘No, I need it in the next four hours. You need to email them to me now.’ So he asked: ‘How much am I going to get for this?’ I didn’t know – it could have been $2000, or nothing if Arabian Eye chose not to use his images. In the end, I didn’t get any pictures from him. It was hugely embarrassing, because as an Iraqi photography agency, I couldn’t produce a picture from Iraq.”
When Meyer related this incident to VII Photo’s Stephanie Sinclair, she suggested he organise a workshop for his photographers. Within 24 hours, Meyer had secured funding from IREX, an international nonprofit organisation that promotes positive lasting change globally by helping local individuals and institutions develop quality education and independent media. The first of Metrography’s workshop took place in June, with 25 Kurdish and Iraqi photographers attending talks and seminars held by photographers Newsha Tavakolian, Kael Alford, and Anastasia Taylor-Lind, as well as Patrick Witty, the international picture editor of Time. “The goal of these workshops is to bring up the level of professionalism – for our photographers to understand not only how to shoot features, but how to market themselves,” says Meyer. The workshop also has a two-day section on ethics and developing story ideas. “We’re not just talking about Photoshop
ethics, but also about captioning and setting pictures up – something very common there. But, we’re not being accusatory about it. They just didn’t know about it before. We’ll also be discussing how you develop a relationship with your subject.” The goal is to prepare local photographers for the global market, says Meyer, because he’s got big ambitions for the agency. “I see Metrography going really far. Right now, we just represent Iraqi photographers; in the future, we’d like represent Iraqi photographs. We want to become the go-to source for Iraqi imagery – be it stock or assignments.” And while it still has a long way to go, and Meyer needs “business-minded people to help develop the agency”, it’s already made a good start. “The way we decided to approach it is to get our photographers up to speed first and then start promoting them,” he tells BJP. “If we start promoting them when they’re not ready, we’ll end up with egg on our faces.”