The Memory Mosaic – A Visual Archive of a People from Kurdistan

Memory is dynamic; it moves through time and space, media, groups, and generations. The photographic work of Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas serves as a basis for analyses on the fragmented and interconnected quality of photography and memory. Next to Meiselas’s own photographs, her project Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History presents pictures and other material artifacts by those who have lived in or traveled to Kurdistan over the past 140 years. The social engagement of contributors, distributors, and viewers forms a multimedia archive of interwoven narratives. Instead of »a« history of the Kurds, the project reveals a fragmented mosaic of memories. This article starts with an old photograph that was carried through the course of time and opens up the general question: How and why does a photograph survive?

What do you see when you look at this photograph?

You see a black-and-white photograph of a woman in a desert landscape, dressed in a dark skirt and a light sweater; on her feet are sneakers. She is wearing a turban-like headpiece. Cartridge belts hang across her torso and hips. In her right hand she is loosely holding a rifle. This is what you see at this particular moment. Nothing less, nothing more, than the materialized imprint of a visual trace. Does her posture and gaze seem confident? Perhaps. The photograph sadly »tells« us nothing.

Sometimes, my students used to talk about photographs as »carriers of the past.« Although I would be glad to find this power in photography, this romantic idea slightly shifts the ontology of photography: Pictures do not carry any stories, narratives, information. It is the viewer who does this. But what a photograph can do is to initiate stories, narratives, information – for whom it may concern.

»Pictures do not carry any stories, narratives, information. It is the viewer who does this.«

This is the difference between visuality and visibility. The visuality of the photograph shows us exactly what we encountered seconds ago: A picture that we can see and identify as such, a trace of light on a chemically treated paper. But it is bordered by the material frame. To enter narratives behind a photograph you need to break the frame and access the visibility outside of it. Questions like Who is this woman? Where does she stand? Who photographed her and why? cannot be answered by seeing the picture. If you want to see in the sense of understand, you have to contextualize. Let us have a careful look, again: The photograph has marks and creases and some parts are missing. Recognizing its materiality opens up the frame of it. It does look old and literally »used.« Suddenly there is a new level of questions: How and why did this photograph survive? [1]

At this point, I would like to introduce you to Susan Meiselas and her archive project Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. Meiselas, an American photographer and member of Magnum Photos, got to know about the second Gulf War 1990/91 in the first instance through newspapers, television, and radio. While the world’s attention, channeled through mass media, focused on the flight of the Kurds, she centered her attention on the places where the refugees came from. Her interest opened a diametric perspective: Instead of looking out of the country, focusing on the future of the Kurds (What will happen to them after their flight?), she faced their homeland and their past (What is their home and what led to their flight?). [2]

It might sound paradoxical, but looking at the Kurds’ past shows Meiselas’s interest in their present life. It was a mandatory step to understanding the state of affairs through a discursive lens.

Her photographic journey consequently began at an end: For her first visit to Iraqi-Kurdistan, Meiselas worked as a forensic photographer for Middle East Watch, documenting Kurdish mass graves in the destroyed village of Koreme. But the unearthed bodies and skeletons were separated from any context for her: »I felt strange – photographing the present while understanding so little about the past.« [3] Those graves under the earth were the silent and invisible remains of the Anfal operations 1988–1989. From the Middle East Watch Report 1993: »Anfal […] was intended to make the Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan and their rural way of life disappear forever. Only such an intent can explain the precise, neat, and thorough destruction of the already empty Kurdish villages […].« [4] By photographing the mass graves, she consequently backlit Kurdish history through their deaths and disappearance.

Back then, Meiselas visited a little photo studio in Paveh, Iran. The window of the small shop displayed typical photographs of weddings, newborns, and families. And one photograph of impaled heads of beheaded Kurds on long spears. Meiselas asked the owner of its origin and if he knew more about the horrific scenery. But he did not. Meiselas writes in her journal: »The studio owner, a Kurdish man, knows little about these events, yet he keeps the picture as a symbol of his people’s suffering, as a piece of the past, as evidence of a history.« [5]

The photograph does not reveal a concrete story. It rather stands for a broader type of suppressed Kurdish history. Facing the fact that showcasing this photograph is a highly political sign against a »grand narrative« in which the Kurds are little mentioned (e.g. they do not have a national archive in the Middle East [6] ), the medium reveals a »social reality.« [7] [vii]This means that visual content gets shaped by its cultural context. Moreover, pictures are an integral part of social reality since they are a »concrete symbol of a complex cultural field.« [8]

Many other travelers like Meiselas passed through Kurdish territory over the past decades. Some of the written books found their way back to Kurds, some of whom Meiselas visited: »Dusty books, sparsely illustrated, long out of print, were taken off back shelves in their homes and proudly shown to me as treasured accounts.« [9] The pride of their culture being mentioned in books underlines what Peter Burke calls the »social history of remembering.« [10] He outlines: »To understand the workings of the social memory it may be worth investigating the social organization of forgetting, the rules of exclusion, suppression or repression […].« [11] However, these suppressed cultures form counternarratives. 1992, Meiselas writes in her journal: »Teaching Kurdish history and language is illegal in schools throughout Turkey and Iran. So stories passed down within families carry much of what is known about the past, preserving it for generations.«

The social framework of the family functions in two ways: It preserves, and it excludes. To become dynamic fragments of a collective memory, the family’s frame has to open in order to connect those memories with other readers, receivers, and creators. [12] It was Meiselas’s aim to connect the lived experience of different individuals and collectives who have a historical consciousness of the Kurdish culture.

»The social framework of the family functions in two ways: It preserves, and it excludes.«

Her role in this process consequently shifted: Instead of taking her own pictures, she took images and narratives of others and »collected« photographs by reprinting them. In contrast to a colonial possession, Meiselas became with her cooperative approach a part of the social outgrowths of memory culture: »I felt immense pleasured sitting with families, first peeling off a positive image […], then watching with my host as the negative appeared in the tray of sodium solution. Their precious originals stayed with them, but they allowed us to make copies to take away.« [13] By sharing the act of collecting with the contributors, it became a participatory act of social gathering. »These were privileged moments: to be invited inside, to listen to the storytellers, then to eat and sleep on their floors. Everywhere we were strangers, yet we were welcomed with trust as soon as people understood that they were contributing to a collective memory.« [14] Her collecting consequently became an act of repatriation, a sign of respect and endorsement of their history. A visual archive of a people from Kurdistan.

View of »Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History« by Susan Meiselas. Photo credit: Sophie-Charlotte Opitz

In 1993, Meiselas recognized the danger for Kurds to carry pictures over any border. »Even a family portrait can be considered subversive if interpreted by officials as an expression of Kurdish identity and thereby linked to a national movement. Of the nearly half million Kurdish refugees now living in Europe, I wonder how many of them had to leave their photographs behind.« [15] In addition, Turkey closed the border with northern Iraq and Meiselas could no longer work in the region. She continued to work with the Kurdish exile community. Moreover, people started to send her packages with pictures, letters, and other documents – fragmented records of their history. Since then, Meiselas organizes workshops with Kurdish people living in the diaspora. They create thin booklets of their lives and memories. Drawings, collages, and texts become records of memories of their home, families, friends and ancestors as much as about their flight. These booklets then become a part of the exhibitions by pinning them on a wall painting of the Middle East and Europe. They function as a »medial externalization of organic memories« as Astrid Erll explains with regard to material memory artefacts and »what is later used as historical sources.« [16]

Next to taking her own photos as a forensic photographer, collecting and reprinting pictures, and working with the exile community in workshops and exhibitions, the medial externalization became a central part of a webpage called akaKurdistan. On the landing page of akaKurdistan you can read: »The site, a borderless space, provides the opportunity to build a collective memory with a people who have no national archive.« [17]

The website is tripartite in the following sections: Explore / Identify / Add:

  • You are invited to explore the existing archive of images by other contributors who share narratives of their memories with you.
  • You can look at the »Unknown Image Archive« and try to identify those pictures.
  • You can contribute your own story to the website in adding pictures, sound files, and text.

Meiselas’s act of widening the visual history of a suppressed culture into cyberspace creates not just visibility for individual stories but also a display for shared memories. Back in akaKurdistan’s initiation year in 1998, cyberspace was considered as a »safe« place [18] Cyberspace and real place corresponded with each other. The nonphysical platform functions as an encounter for physical photographs connected to narratives of people and places. Media and material therefore entangle and partly adopt the respective qualities of the other.

»The incompleteness functions as an invitation to participate and the right to contribute.«

Looking at all four parts at once, this project shows how the many different photographs, documents, travel journals, newspaper articles as well as handwritten memories and excerpts from diaries, intertwine personal records with public reports, private exchange with official explanations. The included materials (and I here mean memories as well) with their fragmented style not only accept but foster the incompleteness of collective memory. The incompleteness functions as an invitation to participate and the right to contribute. Nevertheless, without the social interactions between the collectors and those who supported, collaborated, and contributed to this project (and still do!), the archived objects and images as Meiselas writes »like scattered bones, […] would have remained disconnected from the skeleton of the narrative […].« [19]

Let’s have another look at the first picture. During Meiselas’s stays in Kurdish regions, she noticed that men and women carried photographs of this particular woman in their wallets and pockets. People explained to her that she was Margret George, a leading Assyrian Christian Peshmerga fighter who became a symbol of the Kurdish resistance. However, she is hardly mentioned in any historical reports until today. Through the social act of carrying those pictures in their wallets, the narrative of Margret George endured. We now understand that »[w]e have the object, but it exists separated from the narrative of its making.« [20]

When I worked on this article, I made a fascinating discovery: Margret George’s life will be made into a movie. Her nephew George Edwards announced its production. I was so excited by this that my first reaction was to send an email to Susan Meiselas, telling her about my discovery. She immediately responded and told me that she would do further investigations on the film. Again, through my own research and social interaction with Meiselas, different fragments of Kurdish memory culture were connected and new investigations initiated. But like Meiselas’s project, my analyses are just fragments evolving from different stories, perspectives, and thoughts. Like one tiny stone I put my research into a mosaic of fragmented narratives propelled by the social and always moving life of memory.


  1. Jump Up Susan Meiselas: Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History. Chicago 2008, p. xvi.
  2. Jump Up Ibid., p. xv.
  3. Jump Up Ibid.
  4. Jump Up MIDDLE EAST WATCH and PHYSICIANS FOR HUMAN RIGHTS: The Anfal Campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Destruction of Koreme. New York 1993. Available at:
  5. Jump Up Meiselas: Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, 2008, p. xv.
  6. Jump Up See also:
  7. Jump Up Tom Holert: Imagineering. Visuelle Kultur und Politik der Sichtbarkeit. Munich 2000, p. 30.
  8. Jump Up W.J.T. Mitchell: Picture theory. Chicago 1995, p. 18.
  9. Jump Up Meiselas: Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, 2008, p. xv.
  10. Jump Up Peter Burke: Varietes of Cultural History. London 1997, p. 46.
  11. Jump Up Ibid., pp. 56–57.
  12. Jump Up Susan A. Crane: »Writing the Individual Back into Collective Memory,« in: The American Historical Review 5, 102, 1997, p. 1382.
  13. Jump Up Meiselas: Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, 2008, p. xvi.
  14. Jump Up Ibid.
  15. Jump Up Ibid.
  16. Jump Up Astrid Erll: Kollektives Gedächtnis und Erinnerungskulturen. Hampshire 2011, p. 44.
  17. Jump Up
  18. Jump Up Susan Meiselas: »Journey from the Field to the Archive. Kurdistan. In the Shadow of History,« in: E. Seeger & K. Hasenpflug ed.: Das Archiv der Erinnerung. Aspekte des Archivarischen als Ausgangspunkt in künstlerischer Fotografie. Ludwigsburg 2016, p. 23.
  19. Jump Up Meiselas: Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, 2008, p. xvii.
  20. Jump Up Ibid., p. xvi.