Leave and Let Us Go is the culmination of my photographic work across Iraq over the last seven years. For generations, the Middle East has been solely defined for the West by conflict and this work aims to challenge how geopolitical events and their impact are presented.

       Leave and Let Us Go began in 2017 during the Mosul Offensive with an 88km panoramic image of Mosul Road, the main thoroughfare connecting Erbil to West Mosul. Sitting on top of a truck, I took one image every three seconds and manually stitched each image together to create a visual of the landscape and daily life along a road that connected the heart of the proclaimed ISIS Caliphate to a city they could not capture.

        As I continued to cover the offensive I became acutely aware that what a foreigner views and photographs does not always embody the lived reality of locals. One day a soldier sat next to me and shared photos on his phone: His kills. His wife. His wedding night. His children. This interaction repeated with a myriad of Iraqis who wanted their lives witnessed, not just represented.  I began asking to download these first-person accounts; over the next three years, I built an archive of 350,000 images and videos from over 50 individuals across Iraq. The resulting Leave and Let Us Go is a multi-dimensional project that returns the narrative power to its own citizens and challenges the foreigners' gaze.

        Leave and Let Us Go is comprised of sections from the panoramic of Mosul Road, phone images and videos from participants as well as suspected ISIS members, scanned family photo albums, found objects, and my own documentation across Iraq. Throughout the process of building the work and choosing which images to use in the final selection, the participants were closely involved in selecting the images which they believed represented them most accurately. Before each new publication, I speak with each participant and ensure they are still comfortable with each image or video being used. This project is dependent upon its collaborative nature and is constantly growing as a result. Every participant has given me the copyright of the images being used. Images taken from phones and scanned images are noted within the captions and attributed to their creator, except when the participant asked to remain anonymous.


The Unrepresentable

It is 17 September 2021 as Alexandra Rose Howland’s exhibition Leave and Let Us Go opens – exactly twenty years after U.S. president George W. Bush announced the War on Terror, in the wake of the attacks performed by the terrorist group al-Qaeda against the United States on the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Howland’s project also premieres right after U.S. president Joe Biden has officially withdrawn U.S. forces in order to end ‘America’s longest war’.

9/11 was a time still six years away from Apple bringing the first iPhone on the market in 2007, popularizing the smartphone as a product of mass consumption. Whereas in previous wars it was mostly photojournalists’ labour of visually documenting newsworthy events, the war against the Islamic State was the first smartphone war, enabling the widest array of participants to photograph the conflict from all perspectives. In 2017, Alexandra Rose Howland moved to Iraq. Whereas she made a living as a photojournalist working for various media outlets, as an artist her reason to go there was to convey the complex reality of people caught up in conflict. Alexandra Rose Howland’s Leave and Let Us Go is not so much a journalistic endeavour, but rather an effort to convey what philosopher Jacques Rancière has deemed the ‘unrepresentable’: under what conditions, he writes, can an unrepresentable phenomenon of this kind be given a specific conceptual shape?

Leave and Let Us Go employs different modes of authorship. The literal basis of the exhibition is a wallpaper that shows the final scene of the endless panorama that makes up Mosul Road, 88 km. Rather than solely selecting views of war and devastation, with this artwork Howland offers a very factual registration of the reality of a country in conflict – that is: she didn’t picture what might be newsworthy along Mosul Road, but documented its full distance of 88 kilometres. Seated atop a Landcruiser, every three seconds she took a picture of

the landscape passing by her lens. She digitally stitched the resulting images together into an infinite panorama: from a local market in Erbil where life seems like business as usual, ending at the ruins of the Al Nuri Mosque in West Mosul which was destroyed in 2017 – and where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the Caliphate in July 2014. Howland’s endeavour resembles Google Street View. At this time of writing, however, Google still does not offer a street view of Mosul Road, through which Mosul Road, 88 km reveals a gap in the illusion of digital omniscience. But it’s not just the providing of missing information that stands out. By adopting the straightforward and factual recording strategy of the ‘uncaring camera’, as Ben Burbridge describes the non-human, automated photography of Google Street View cars, Howland’s performance paradoxically proves the opposite: Mosul Road, 88 km is a painstaking effort to document without judgement and with utmost care. Instead of filtering out the spectacle of war, the panorama just as much conveys the boredom of the mundane, literally providing a full picture of life in a conflict zone.

The exhibition only shows the very end of the panorama, depicting the start of the reconstruction of the historic mosque. This scene forms the surface on which hundreds of photos from the smartphone archives and photo albums are pinned, which Howland collected from more than fifty Iraqis. These people, young and old, were willing to share their digital archives with her, offering an intimate glimpse of their daily lives. The complete collection consists of some 350,000 images, including selfies, Snapchat videos and photos of loved ones, as well as horrific moments of war. As the grid on the front of this leaflet is visualizing, the exhibition of Leave and Let Us Go at Foam 3h is only showing a tiny portion of the whole archive Howland has accumulated.

The complex mix of photographs is exactly what connects us, as spectators in a museum far away from conflict zones, and what sets us apart from the people in the photographs.