Photographer Interviews

Photographing a Family’s Nine-Year Journey from Iraq to Ohio

July 3, 2017

By Martha T. Moore

Holly Pickett was a stranger herself, an American newly relocated to Cairo who didn’t speak the language and had few contacts, when she met a family of Iraqi refugees in 2008. Haider and Shaimaa Bahar had fled Iraq two years before, to escape the violence of the Iraq War and seek medical help for their son, Karar. At four years old, he was nearly blind.

Pickett wanted to illustrate the experience of refugees, and asked if she could photograph the Bahars. Their “yes” led to a documentary project that lasted nine years and followed the family from Cairo to Columbus, Ohio, and from refugee status to U.S. citizenship.

But Pickett could not get the Bahars’ story published until this year, when Donald Trump, newly inaugurated as president, ordered a ban on all travel from Iraq and six other Muslim-majority countries. Suddenly, the story was timely, especially because Haider Bahar, who works as a pharmacy delivery driver, had voted for Trump on the basis of the candidate’s promises to bring back jobs to Ohio.

Titled “Before the Refugee Ban,’’ the story appeared in March in The New Republic. Stephanie Heimann, photo director for the magazine, says she had been “challenged, flummoxed” by how to represent the changes wrought by the Trump administration.

© Holly Pickett

In the final image of Holly Pickett’s long-term story about a family of Iraqi refugees, Haider Bahar, who voted for Donald Trump, watches the new president hold up his executive order banning travel from predominantly Muslim countries, including Iraq. © Holly Pickett

“We’re a monthly magazine and things were moving so fast. The first seven days [of Trump’s presidency] it was already whiplash, and I wanted a photo essay, a narrative that would be relevant in a month,’’ Heimann says. “I woke up in the middle of the night and I remembered this story.’’

Pickett’s rep, Lori Reese of Redux, had shown Heimann the Bahar photos in 2015. In January 2017, Pickett flew to Ohio on assignment for TNR and captured the essay’s final image: Haider Bahar, with his infant son Mustafa at his feet, watching Trump on television holding up the signed executive order imposing the travel ban. (That ban, and a revised version that followed in March, have both been struck down by the courts and were facing appeal at press time.)

“That last chapter of what is a nine-year reportage is the one that is the shocking chapter,’’ Heimann says. “It’s the betrayal in some way of the beliefs of this family—of what they would find when they got to America—by a new administration.’’

It was an ending that could hardly have been foreseen when Pickett met the Bahars in Cairo, where she arrived in 2008 to freelance after five years as a daily news photographer for The Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Pickett’s first ambition in Cairo was to cover something related to the Iraq War, “because that was the biggest story of my generation.’’ Then she learned that the U.S. was granting few visas for Iraqi refugees to resettle here—which she thought was just “wrong.”

She met the Bahars through a lawyer helping refugees. At the time, the family was running into debt and there were few resources for Iraqi refugees in Cairo. “They had a lot of worries with their little boy and they were dealing with a lot of trauma,’’ says Pickett. But they were immediately open to allowing Pickett into their lives.

“It’s such an honor when someone trusts you with their story, and trusts you enough to open up,’’ she says. “It’s really generous and it feels like a big responsibility also.’’

Pickett shot the Bahars everywhere she could: in Cairo, in Alexandria on a rare vacation, leaving Egypt for the U.S., in their sparsely furnished Ohio apartment, at Karar’s new school. In 2009, when the Bahars had been granted asylum in the U.S., Pickett photographed them leaving Cairo, then scrambled to get to Columbus, Ohio, so she could photograph the family when they arrived.

“I had no idea they would get to go to the U.S. when I started it,’’ Pickett says. “I had shown the work [and] no one wanted to [support] it and no one wanted to publish it, but [editors] were like, ‘Stay with it!’ It’s one of those kind of annoying things.’’

© Holly Pickett

Shaimaa Bahar at home. It’s an honor when someone “trusts you enough to open up,’’ says Pickett. It also “feels like a big responsibility.’’ © Holly Pickett

She did stay with it, photographing the family in Ohio over the next seven years, often on her way to or from visiting her own family in Montana. She was in Ohio when Shaimaa and Haider, separately, became U.S. citizens. Her photograph of Haider’s joy after the citizenship ceremony was so compelling that “we probably edited the whole entire story [around] that photo,’’ Heimann says. “That was the key image,’’ along with the last photo of Haider watching Trump on TV.

Over time, Pickett says the focus of her project broadened from Karar to the entire family. When they moved from Cairo to the suburbs of Columbus, Pickett says, “I worked a lot harder trying to show the sense of place also. Because this is a story about places, and places where you find your home.’’

During those years, Pickett was also traveling throughout the Mideast and Africa, photographing the Arab Spring uprisings, the aftermath of bombings in Gaza and refugees from Syria. She shot those stories for publications including The New York Times, TIME, Stern, The Guardian and the Washington Post.

But she was frustrated at not being able to find anyone willing to publish the Bahars’ story. The photographs moved through the refugee timeline: the depressing apartment in Cairo, the hastily packed and oversized suitcases being trundled through the airport, worried parents working low-wage jobs in Ohio, and children growing into American teenagers with a taste for fast food. Pickett wanted to publish the story in print first, not online.

“You can’t really promise [your subjects], that something will come of it,’’ she says. “You hope that by publicizing someone’s story, or drawing attention to someone’s story, that people will care. Or they’ll think about it, or they’ll investigate, or they’ll question.’’

Just as The New Republic was publishing the Bahars’ story this spring, Pickett arrived in New York City, where she now lives. “It is a bookend. It feels good,’’ she says. The Bahars “definitely changed my life. They changed my career. This constant presence of this family just reminded me of so many things that refugees go through, and it kept me really tied to [events in] Iraq.’’

The difficulties of Iraqis have now been overshadowed by the hardships of refugees from Syria. Pickett says lessons she learned photographing the Bahars stayed with her when she photographed Syrian refugees.

“They [the Bahars] were refugees. They weren’t in a tent, but they were struggling,’’ she says. “There are so many untold stories that you don’t see because you kind of have to look harder for people of different experiences. A lot of what I learned [was] about…trying to photograph them in a way that was true to who they were, but also told a story, but didn’t re-traumatize them. Just to know when to listen. Just put the camera down and listen.’’

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