Photograph by Moises Saman
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A memorial depicting the execution of 11 civilian residents of Al Alam by ISIS militants stands at an intersection at the entrance to town.

Photograph by Moises Saman

How One Man Captured the Horrors of ISIS

Photographer Moises Saman discusses the decade and a half he's spent reporting in the Middle East.

In 2010, after eight years photographing in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East, Moises Saman, a Spanish and American photographer, was ready for something new. But then a street vendor in Tunisia lit himself on fire and set off a wave of protests that would become known as the Arab Spring.

As the demonstrations spread, Saman found himself in Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. The risks of photographing in conflict zones never seemed to deter him, even after he was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib prison for a week in 2003, and, later, survived a 2014 helicopter crash in Iraq.

Saman’s latest work covers what's now the biggest story in the region: the Islamic State and the humanitarian crisis that the terror group’s rise (and likely fall) has created. Saman’s recent photos show refugees fleeing ISIS as Iraqi forces march north to recapture Mosul. A series of 30 photos gives voice to an area torn apart by terror, crippling uncertainty, and sectarian loyalties, with murky distinctions between who’s good and who’s dangerous.

He spoke with National Geographic about his work, the gambles of war photography, and the future of the Middle East.

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A man who has been displaced by ISIS walks along a desert road near the town of Khaldiyah in Iraq's Anbar Province.

You’ve worked in countries with incredibly unstable governments and sectarian groups. What draws you to this part of the world?

It’s more of an urge to really understand that—it’ll sound cliché—that the more time you spend the less you really understand. I really think this region continues to be misunderstood. I’m not getting all the answers nor do I have a special insight. It’s just fascinating in its complexity. It can be a very unpleasant place to work because of the instability and violence. But for me it’s part of the world that’s shaping the time that we live in. It’s such an important time.

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A Kurdish peshmerga soldier carries a newborn across the last few meters of a no-man's-land separating ISIS-controlled territory from the most forward peshmerga front-line position in Bashiqa, Iraq.

You were imprisoned in Abu Ghraib in 2003. What was that like?

I was on staff working for Newsday in the weeks before the invasion in 2003. Since we weren’t able to get a journalist visa, we entered the country on another visa. We were arrested for being in the country on the wrong visa—and then put in Abu Ghraib. This was the week that Americans started the invasion, so it was a big, chaotic week. We were interrogated, but we were not physically tortured or beaten. High-profile pressure from people like Yasser Arafat and the Vatican [was] involved in our release, and we were taken to the Jordanian border and let go.

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Fatima Shatti, a Kurdish woman fleeing ISIS-controlled Mosul, sits on the ground exhausted after walking for hours across a no-man's-land to reach the safety of the Kurdish peshmerga checkpoint in Bashiqa.

One thing you’ve observed is how ISIS converts normal spaces into torture chambers—schools, hospitals, and ordinary people’s houses become prisons. Explain that.

They create these spaces out of necessity. They have to be kind of clandestine places where they’re not noticed, so I can kind of see a logic [in] them creating a prison in someone’s house. To us, it’s very sinister and bizarre and absurd and shocking. But it really plays into their dark and sinister appeal. It makes a lot of sense strategically to have these places that wouldn’t be detected. I can sort of see the strategy.

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Inside a house in the city of Fallujah, an Iraqi soldier inspects a makeshift holding cell used by ISIS.

You published a book earlier this year, Discordia, on the Arab Spring. Why do you think the Arab Spring wasn’t as lasting and transformative as some people thought it would be?

Well, I’m not an analyst, but what I think is that we tend to—and I include myself—we tend to approach these events in very absolute terms: good versus evil, good guys against bad guys, victims and perpetrators. That’s the wrong approach. We’re dealing with a different place with a different culture with a longer time line. There’s no doubt there’s transformation and change in this part of the world. But it’s not all about Western-style democracy and freedom of the press. We cannot force that system on places where it just doesn’t work that way. Sometimes we find it difficult to understand that our way is not the best way for certain countries and people and events. When you introduce those concepts … there’s going to be a reaction to that, and that’s what’s still happening.

So much of photography is trust. But in such a rife conflict, how do you even know who you want to trust you?

It sort of depends on what’s going on, the situation. In violent situations, such as riots or protests that become violent, I tend to work as quickly as possible. I don’t linger. I work also with one little camera so I can be as low profile as possible. I don’t want to be seen as a photographer or noticed as a journalist. In different situations where you’re trying to gain the trust of people, it’s difficult. That’s one of the reason I keep going back. Sometimes you think you have their trust, but you don’t, or you think you’re in the situation, but you aren’t. Sometimes you can go unnoticed and be a fly on the wall. But a lot of the time it’s about engaging and being part of what’s happening. Different approaches for different situations—and obviously the situation can change very quickly.

What still shocks you?

I have to be mindful that I cannot not be shocked anymore, or you lose part of you that’s very important as a photographer. Yes, I’ve been to countless funerals and seen countless people lose their

lives. But I have to maintain a connection with what’s happening, or it’s very easy to become jaded and burn out. I also remember to give it the respect it deserves. Just because I’ve seen a scene over and over doesn’t mean I’m not struck every time. It deserves our respect.

What do you think Iraq and Syria will be like in ten years?

I think the trend is that these non-state actors, like ISIS—I think they’re going to be more the norm. I think we’re going to see these non-state actors become more relevant in the region. More tribal and more sectarian. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing when you think of how a country should be run. But maybe that’s the way these societies are meant to be ruled.

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The body of a dead ISIS fighter lies in the desert on the outskirts of Hajj Ali, Iraq.

What advice do you have for people who want to be war photographers?

It’s a difficult path. The biggest risk is probably that it can take over your personal life. It’s very difficult for people who care about you to deal with that. But also, you need to stay connected with things outside of your work, or you’ll become a caricature of a war photographer who's only friends with other war photographers. I’m 42 now, so maybe I’m seeing things from a different perspective. But for young photographers it’s important to stay involved in things that aren’t photography, [things] that could enrich your life in other ways.

Well, how do you assess which risks are worth taking?

There’s no rule or formula. It really depends. It’s really a gamble at the end of the day. The more you expose yourself to these situations, it’s only a matter of time before things go wrong. A lot of it has to do with chance, luck, and fate.

You can see more of Moises Saman's work on his website.