Sonja Hamad (b. 1986 in Damascus, Syria) is a documentary photographer whose work investigates the reality of conflict in Kurdistan, a geo-cultural territory in Western Asia.
Raised in Germany, Sonja studied photography at Ostkreuzschule in Berlin from 2009 to 2013. Her graduation thesis, Wenn’s drauf ankommt, established her propensity for using portraiture to explore the intimate intersections between personal and cultural identity. Prevented from returning to Syria for her research due to the outbreak of war, she instead focused her study on family, friends and strangers in Germany, examining concepts of foreignness and belonging. In particular, her photography explored the relevance of cultural identity to a personal understanding of the self. Occasionally suspended in moments of contemplation, but more frequently confronting the observer with a direct stare, Hamad’s subjects possess an aura of measured confidence. Through Sonja’s sensitive approach, each photograph becomes the purview of its subject; her sitters assert the right to withhold as much of themselves as they reveal.
Respecting the independence of her collaborators is of paramount importance to Sonja. Her long-term project The road to Kurdistan, and particularly its first ‘chapter’, » Jin – Jiyan – Azadi « Women, Life, Freedom, is a striking series of photographs which depict the experiences of women freedom fighters in Kurdistan. These women – estimated to be a third of all freedom fighters in Rojava (Northern Syria) and North Iraq – play an integral role in the ideological and political development of the Liberation Movement as a whole; their feminist pursuit of liberty is a powerful affront to the brutal human rights abuses enacted by IS, as is their effort to reclaim the territory from IS control. Interspersed throughout the series are landscape images of an environment tarnished by warfare – a swimming pool, drowning in rubble; walls punctured with bullet holes. This unflinching portrayal of destruction is contrasted with moments of quietude; Sonja photographs a table surrounded by empty chairs, an invocation of the last meal shared before a battle. These elements of contrast are perpetuated by the aesthetics of Sonja’s portraits; the women are enveloped by strong folds of light and shadow, exemplifying their presence with empowering effect.
Having spent over two years developing relationships with the women, Sonja felt moved to supersede the homogenised, sensationalist images she had encountered in Western media, which habitually portrays the women as a source of fascination. Accentuating the personal quality of the photographs, Sonja presents captions beneath them which include the name and age of each woman – details which affirm her persistent endeavour to highlight the women behind the guns. Sonja has commented that sharing a cultural background with the women enabled her to foster close relationships which have influenced her life irrevocably, but her photographs convey an empathy towards the Kurdish feminist movement which transcends cultural difference. The arresting gazes of the women in Sonja’s portraits hint at courage and resolve captured with expert subtlety; as content and context coalesce within the images, the neglected stories which linger behind them are rendered inescapably tangible.
By Katherine Riley