Ronak Ahmed Ali (Left) and Abir Majid (Right) are two of the people photographed by Jaafar Alnabi for the upcoming exhibition, Home of Memories وطن الذكريات, at the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts. Credit: Courtesy of Jaafar Alnabi

Photographer Jaafar Alnabi slowed things down for a recent series of portraits of Iraqi Americans who make Minnesota their home. Instead of a digital camera, he used film and shot the images with a vintage model that has a crank and a viewfinder on the top.

Those tools, he says, bring his subjects to life, illuminating the experiences of people whose stories in many ways mirror his own.

Four portraits by Jaafar and four by another Iraqi American artist, Ahmed Alshaikhli, will be shown at the Banfill-Locke Center for the Arts beginning October 10. Part of Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project’s Iraqi Voices series, the show is curated by CarryOn Homes, a Minnesota collective of artists from around the world.

The exhibition, titled Home of Memories وطن الذكريات, is accompanied by written excerpts of interviews in which the subjects share stories from their lives. It will run until December 12.

Jaafar is portraying lives that in many ways have been much like his own. His family left Iraq in 1991 in the wake of the first Gulf War, and then spent five years in a refugee camp. Born in the refugee camp, Jaafar moved to California in 1996 and Minnesota a year later.

“I pretty much grew up in Minnesota,” he said. He attended Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he studied filmmaking. Speaking by phone from New York City, the 26-year old Jaafar said he still has strong ties to Minneapolis, and spends time in both cities. “I’m very much Minnesotan,” he said.

Jaafar worked with IARP previously, when the organization used his design for a poster for a theater production. Then, last year, Jessica Belt Saem Eldahr, who was executive director at the time, reached out to him about the portrait series.

Storytellers were chosen to reflect the diverse regions of Iraq, its ethnicities and religions, as well as the professions of Minnesota’s Iraqis. They include artists, medical professionals, a businesswoman, and a lawyer.

IARP was established in 2005 to promote communication and understanding between Iraqi Americans and the broader community. It became an official nonprofit in 2007, and since then has used the arts—including theater, film, literature, and visual art—to create a platform for the 2,000 Iraqi voices in Minnesota, most of them in Fridley, Coon Rapids, and Brooklyn Park, to share their stories.

Collaborating on the project was Hiba Al Hasnawi, an IARP board member who has been involved with the organization since 2009 in both Iraq and Minnesota. An AmeriCorps Vista Leader in several St. Paul public schools, Hiba joined the board earlier this summer and conducted all of the interviews with the storytellers.

Jaafar says he listened and observed Hiba talking to the subjects in order to pick up details he could incorporate into his own work.

“I showed up to the interviews so I can know the person I’m photographing,” Jaafar said. “I got to talk to them as well.”

Then Jaafar, a recent convert from digital to film, got to work with his Mamiya C330 professional S camera and 120 Kodak Portra film. He finds the quality of images to be better on film. “The natural elements of the photographs are a lot better because of the dynamic range of colors and light,” he said.

In some cases, the interview would inform how he photographed the subject. “I decided how I wanted to photograph the person based on what they told me,” Jaafar said. “I was trying to capture that in a way that is artistic and beautiful.”

For example, one of his portraits was of business owner Ronak Ahmed Ali, who had said during the interview that her favorite memory of Minnesota is when she bought Sandy’s Sewing Den, her sewing and alteration shop. “Her biggest passion is her work,” said Jaafar. He arranged to photograph her at the shop, located in North St. Paul.

Another subject, Abir Majid, met Jafaar in a park near his home in Golden Valley. “He goes to the park about once a week,” Jaafar said. “It’s his favorite place.” Jaafar also noted that Abir had a prayer book with him, and learned the reason he left Iraq was to escape religious persecution. That detail informed the way that Jaafar photographed him. In the publicity image for the show, Abir lifts his face heavenward, surrounded by trees.  

Abir has been in the United States for 41 years. A member of the Bahai faith, Abir was 26 years old, had already been in prison a couple of times and beaten once, when he fled Iraq. His parents were serving the seventh year of a life sentence at the time.

“Separately, my two sisters and myself left over a period of six months,” he said. While he didn’t have much hope of getting out, his chemistry degree landed him a job in a paper mill that was going to open in Baghdad. The job required him to do training abroad, in Tunisia, Scotland, and West Germany. While in Tunisia, Abir found a way to leave his group. He made his way to Turkey for a week before journeying to Rome.

That was in 1978, and his parents were released from prison a year later, though they were not able to leave Iraq until shortly before Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1991.

Abir said he felt a connection with Jaafar, though he is much younger. “He is a pleasant young man,” Abir said. “He was telling me he was born in a refugee camp. His family was also persecuted.”

Putting family in the photo

Another one of Jaafar’s subjects was his older sister, Eynas Alnabi.

“It was actually really fun,” Eynas said of the experience. “As his sister I see the amazing projects he does. To stand in front of him and have him take the pictures, I was like, ‘Hey, this is the first time we are working together.”

Jaafar had taken portraits of his parents previously, for a different IARP exhibition. According to Eynas, Jaafar photographed them in their back yard in Minneapolis, wearing their traditional Iraqi clothing.

A graduate of St. Catherine University, Eynas works in the health care field and is a mom. She herself has been involved with IARP as a volunteer. She has led discussions at the Guthrie when the organization was a partner in a performance there. She was approached by the organization to tell her own story as an Iraqi refugee.

“I was 4 years old when we left Iraq,” Eynas recalled. “Most of my childhood was spent in a refugee camp.”

Eynas was excited about the project because she feels it’s important for the communities to hear stories of where their neighbors come from. “Immigrants have a bad image,” she said, “but really there is a struggle, there is a story, there is a history behind all of that to build a new life.  It is important for the community to get to know their neighbors.”

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist. You can find her dance writing at the Star Tribune, and other writing at places like City Pages, Minnesota Monthly, the Southwest Journal, and...