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Highway to Conflict: A Photographer Maps Out One of Iraq’s Deadliest Routes

“You think of Mosul and you think of a dangerous warzone, when actually 90 percent of it is open green fields, beautiful landscapes, dogs playing, kids out,” the artist says

Alexandra Howland, “Construction workers, 36°20′33.85″N 43°07′36.24″E” (2017). Construction workers clear the road outside what is left of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri. (All images courtesy of Alexandra Howland)

Seated atop a Land Cruiser with her tripod, a camera, and a blanket over her head to protect her from the hallucinogenic heat, Alexandra Howland takes a photo every three seconds along Iraq’s Mosul Road.

“Linear connection is very atypical of a conflict zone,” says the British-American artist, who moved to Iraq in early 2017 and, over the course of a year, documented Mosul Road — a 55-mile stretch between the Kurdish city of Erbil and the destroyed Al Nuri Mosque in West Mosul, once the center of ISIS Caliphate. “Normally you can’t drive into a frontline in two hours, then leave and go back and have a drink.” It is this dichotomy that Howland hopes to unpack in her recent work, Mosul Road, 88KM.

The work is a series of collaged panoramas, which the artist assembles by digitally sewing together individual freeze frames from moments captured along the road. In one, a fisherman stands with his rowboat on the Tigris River, the ruins of Old City Mosul in the distance. In another, a market on the side of the street in Erbil stays open late, its sign illuminated by a string of neon lights. “A lot of my work is about stepping as far back as I can in order to give a broader understanding,” Howland explains.

Alexandra Howland, (Red Dress) 35°47′54.57″N 43°17′12.98″E (2017). A bride in Qayyarah sits with her groom and family as celebrations carry on around her. Following the ceremony, her new husband will bring her to West Mosul where she will live with him and his family.

Having studied Fine Art and International Relations at the University of Southern California, Howland was initially inspired by the panoramic vision of Ed Ruscha’s landmark 1966 book Every Building on the Sunset Strip. She photographed Mosul Road in its entirety as the conflict in the region evolved, seeking to showcase its humanity and to challenge preconceived notions of what the landscape around a conflict zone really looks like.

Howland’s pieces echo this tension in the way they are assembled: the photographs are positioned atop and slightly offset from one another. The effect is both cohesive and fragmented, calling the viewer to pause and revisit each individual frame; to leap from a windshield peppered with bullet holes to a family carrying buckets of water. Howland’s method of sewing creates a reality where images overlap and break. A telephone line becomes dissected; the spaces where the skyline meets the city become confused, redundant.

Alexandra Howland, “(Overview) 36°20′43.74″N 43°08′14.16″E” (2017-2018). A Federal Police soldier looks out over what is left of Old City West Mosul.

“It’s so chaotic here, and there are so many different layers to what’s happening,” Howland explains. She situates this complexity in her works’ aesthetic, leaving each image unmanipulated, rather than blending them into seamless panoramas. “Because it’s not perfect here, it shouldn’t be represented to be so.”

The project’s evolution overlapped with the Battle of Mosul, a nine-month-long military campaign lead by the Iraqi Government forces, in which they retook the city considered one of the Islamic State’s last main strongholds within Iraq. As ISIS continued to lose ground, Howland moved with the troops in West Mosul, street by street, house by house — while the next street over remained in ISIS’ control. The process was slow, as Howland documented Old City Mosul, including Al Nuri Mosque, as it was being liberated. Most of the project, however, was conducted without military escorts. She moved around freely and worked with locals for transportation and translation assistance.

Alexandra Howland, “Qaraquosh: 36°15′23.96″N 43°22′19.3″E” (2017) Children work in the trash fields collecting cans, plastic and food for their donkeys. Kicked out of the Christian town of Qaraquosh when ISIS took over, these kids and their families fled to Mosul for safety, living off the sale of their sheep throughout the time of ISIS. They have recently returned back to Qaraquosh and resumed their normal work.

“You think of Mosul and you think of a dangerous warzone, when actually 90 percent of it is open green fields, beautiful landscapes, dogs playing, kids out — like a normal highway that you would find anywhere,” she says. “It’s a huge expanse and because it’s so big it becomes really redundant and really monotonous. Which is part of what I love about it.”

After her initial documentation, the artist returned to the road to create more intimate pictures of the individuals along her original route. In collaboration with the British Embassy Baghdad, which aims to garner awareness during this post-conflict era in the country, Howland shot portraits of random people she met on the street with her translator. While eastern Mosul is slowly coming back to life, the west side remains completely destroyed. Howland interviewed each of her subjects, offering further insight into this critical moment in Iraqi history.

Alexandra Howland, “(Boys in truck with mattress) 36°21’21.72”N 43°17’20.52”E” (2017-2018). Civilians fleeing the fighting in Mosul seen near an Iraqi Army checkpoint on the outskirts of the city.

The transcribed interviews expose the material and emotional damage the locals have endured, as well as their resounding tenacity. From Zeyneb, a Muslim trash picker: “It is not good, this job. We are looking for food and grass for the sheep, and cans to sell. It’s been a year now we have been coming.” From Sundis, a woman displaced by the conflict: “I just need someone to give me a tent outside the camp and a toilet.”

Howland also incorporated audio from the side of the road, as well as objects found throughout her travels — Qurans that had been given to the brides of ISIS; prayer beads left in the middle of the road; recordings of construction, fighting, gunshots. Mosul Road, 88km has thus evolved into a multi-sensory diorama, disrupting stereotypical connotations of war through a mapping of space and identity. Throughout this process, Howland accumulated approximately 40,000 photos of Mosul Road. She continues to approach the archive as a work in progress, and is considering potential ways to display the strip in its entirety.

Alexandra Howland, “(Family Fleeing) 36°19′13.45″N 43°06′41.68″E ” (2017-2018). A family carries buckets of water with them back to their home within Western Mosul. As most of the city has been entirely destroyed, residents who have chosen to remain inside Mosul as the conflict continues, are left without easy access to water or food.

Alexandra Howland’s Roads from Mosul was exhibited in the Bargehouse Galleries (Oxo Tower Wharf, Barge House Street, South Bank, London) in May, and will be exhibited in Baghdad and Mosul in the coming months.

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