It was the rallying cry heard on the streets of Baghdad: "We want to live." Since October last year, protesters have taken to public areas such as Tahrir Square to voice their frustrations against the Iraqi government. Their list of grievances is long: corruption, poverty, unemployment – problems that have gripped the country for years.
"It refers to people who are just breathing, but don't feel alive because of a lack of health services and education … people who just want a normal life," says photographer Amir Hazim, who has been documenting the protests since they started. His images don't only capture the front lines of the demonstrations, but the fringes, too – protesters playing cards to pass the time; a young man wearing a face mask, eyes transfixed on a World Cup qualifying football game between Iran and Iraq; a female demonstrator inspecting a lipstick tube by a park.
Hazim, 23, has spent his entire life in Baghdad, where "the abnormal has become normal" he says, adding, "with the years, you become used to the violence". As a child, he loved to paint and eventually took up fine arts at university. Photography soon appealed to him and he bought his first digital camera late last year. The first images he took on it were of the protests.
Hazim’s photos are part of a new exhibition at Dubai’s Gulf Photo Plus, named All What I Want is Life, which runs until Saturday, April 18. The title is derived from a scrawl on the walls of the Saadoun Tunnel under Tahrir Square, where it stands alongside murals that have flowered since the protests.
Scenes from Beirut, Algiers and Khartoum, where a tide of protest movements have swelled over the past year, also fill the show. It opens with Lana Haroun's powerful photograph from the Sudanese Revolution. The subject is a woman in white – Alaa Salah, unknown at the time – leading a revolutionary chant on the bonnet of a car as crowds gathered to film her on their phones. "I saw the sunset and the reflection of the light in her earrings. Her face was glowing," recalls the photographer.
With her traditional thobe and a defiant finger in the air, Salah quickly became a symbol for the protests, which began in December 2018 and resulted in the overthrow of Omar Al Bashir in April last year. A two-year transition period led by the military is currently in place.
Haroun's photo circulated widely in international media, including on the BBC and in Time's 100 Top Photos of 2019. But for her, it is not about recognition. "I made that photo for Sudan," she says. "It became an opportunity for me to talk about my country and why people were protesting."
Haroun, 32, had been involved in the 2018-2019 Sudanese protests from the beginning. After work, she would stop by the store to pick up snacks for people at the sit-ins. Sometimes, she would help cook meals to distribute to the demonstrators. She is also a musician, and recorded a revolutionary song titled For My Country with her friends. When it comes to taking pictures, she is self-taught, and prefers to use mobile photography. Currently, she works as a manager in a commodities export company.
Speaking of the aftermath of the revolution, she says there is still much to be done. "It will take time, and even now the corruption has not ended," she says, citing the recent assassination attempt on current Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, whose convoy was targeted by an explosion on Monday, March 9.
"There are still a lot of people missing. No one knows where they are," she says, referring to protesters who disappeared during demonstrations and have not been heard of since. Searching families fear that they may be included in the number of deaths that the revolution has claimed, which stands at 246. "We want justice. We want to know the truth," Haroun says.
For Hazim, photography is an act of dissent. “When you’re taking a photo, you are making a statement. Taking a photo means you are protesting. I consider myself a protester photographer,” he says.
Like Haroun, he sees his images as a way of illuminating the stories of the people. In one, he catches a protester with a dog, restocking his vest with supplies, before venturing back to the front line. In another, the eyes of two boys with balaclava-clad faces look straight into the lens. Hazim says the boys, teenage cousins hanging around at Tahrir Beach, were scared to be photographed at first. Not only because they feared being kidnapped or targeted, which Hazim says happens around the area, but also because they didn't want their parents to know they were joining the demonstrations.
In contrast, Fethi Sahraoui's photographs are more action-packed, showing the mass of crowds marching on the streets of Algiers. Protests erupted there in February last year, after then president Abdelaziz Bouteflika said he would run for a fifth term, a decision he quickly reversed after the outcry.
The bright, vivid images of Myriam Boulos also brim with memorable characters. Her signature fill-flash technique radiates an impromptu effect that complements the candidness of her subjects.
Meanwhile, there are Abdullah Dhiaa Al-Deen's poised portraits of the so-called "anti-tear gas grenade squad", a group of men who patrol the streets to protect civilians against tear gas attacks in Iraq. Some are dressed in fatigues, others in jeans and hoodies, donning vests to store their supplies. Despite their masked faces, their eyes give away their youth. Their mismatched gear indicates that they may be as vulnerable as the people they are trying to safeguard.
Other photographers exhibiting in the show include Salih Basheer, whose images speak of women's struggles in Sudan, and Roi Saade and Tamara Abdul, who have collaborated to produce diptychs that show the different sides of Lebanon's protests.
All the photographers live in the societies they are documenting, and understand that their fates are entwined with what happens next. As we wait to see what the future brings to Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq and Sudan, young people such as Haroun and Hazim weigh up what it means to stay.
“Living here is hard. We haven’t achieved much from the protests,” Hazim says, though he has noticed a shift in social attitudes towards gender because of the demonstrations. “People’s mentality has changed about some things, like seeing boys and girls in the same place without talking about them in a bad way. I’ve seen a lot of people talking about this subject,” he says.
Does he have hope? “Hope is the last resort. When you look at facts and truth, nothing has changed. Only [that] people die. A lot of tragedy. A lot of danger. At least you tried, but sometimes you have to make choice. You have to look forward, to achieve things.
"Staying here won't give me a lot of opportunity, a lot of appreciation. Maybe they will go see my work, but they can't support me with the things I do here. If I get a good opportunity, I will leave."
For Haroun, her mind isn’t made up yet. Though she has hope things are moving in the right direction for Sudan, she does not know how long she can wait. “I care about my country … I want to be here until I die,” she says, but admits the struggles of daily life can be frustrating – fresh fruit and vegetables are hard to come by, prices for goods fluctuate and the economy remains weak.
At the moment, she says: "It is too difficult to live here. It is too difficult to leave."
All What I Want Is Life is on view at Gulf Photo Plus until Saturday, April 18. More information is at www.gulfphotoplus.com