An Experimental Portrait of Trauma

Using movement to create a portrait of a young girl in Iraq who had been kidnapped by ISIS

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Earlier this year I wrote about the process of collaboratively staging a portrait with a young Yazidi boy for a story with Jennifer Percy for the New York Times Magazine. In 2019, I traveled to the Kurdish region of northern Iraq to meet survivors of ISIS captivity, many of them children from the ethnic Yazidi population, who had recently returned from years of captivity in Syria.  

On this trip, I also photographed nine-year-old Hediya, who had been kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 when she was 4 and freed in March 2019. Hediya’s 12-year-old sister, Kristina, had also been kidnapped by ISIS in 2014 and was released the week before I visited their family in April 2019. Hediya and Kristina’s family were ecstatic to have their children back after years of uncertainty. But the girls were troubled.

One morning, we paraded through the white tents of the camp, visiting relatives and celebrating the return of the sisters. Despite the festivity, there was an undercurrent of trauma. Hediya had trouble concentrating and would get aggressive, moody, and lash out at her parents and siblings. It was as if her personality was split between her old life with her family and the life she had experienced with ISIS.

To my surprise, Kristina missed her ISIS captors. She had been sold to a family that treated her well, and after spending nearly a third of her life with this family, she no longer identified with her biological family. They had both learned Arabic in captivity and now spoke it better than their native Kurdish. Hediya’s experience in captivity was not totally discussed and I understood that the family was embarrassed by the horror.

It feels trite sometimes to attempt to photograph personal, intimate, and traumatic events, deciding on a creative trick to represent an individual's grief. But I was there to tell the story and I had to make a creative decision. As I started to conceptualize a portrait of Hediya, I saw her two sides: the girl before being kidnapped, and the girl after. It was as if the ghost of trauma was haunting her.

Equipment and Specs

  • 1.3-second shutter speed

  • Aperture F8

  • 50 mm focal length

  • ISO 200

  • Profoto B2 flash head

  • Cine foil

This portrait was made with a mirrorless digital camera and a 28-75mm F 2.8 zoom lens set to 50mm. The shutter speed and aperture combination was 1.3 seconds and F8. 

The slow shutter speed allowed me to make an exposure with a mix of introduced and ambient light to capture movement. Stopping the aperture down to F8 and setting the ISO to 200 reduces both the light coming into the lens and the camera sensor’s sensitivity, which allowed me to use a slower shutter speed to achieve an average exposure.

I asked Hadiya to look at the camera, and then after the flash fired, I asked her to turn her head to look at her sister and stop her movement. By exposing with a slow shutter speed, the initial flash froze the subject’s face in the first split second when I released the shutter. The remainder of the 1.3 seconds allowed the ambient room light to create the rest of the photograph, defining the girl’s face as she moved. 

When you use this technique, you can achieve different results by varying the shutter speed and intensity of the ambient or constant light—it depends on how much blur you seek to capture. The way you direct the subject will also affect how much blur there is. The more the subject moves during the exposure time, the more blur there will be. It’s always an experiment playing with this technique, the biggest variable being the subject's movement. 

Lighting diagram