Unexpected conversations on peace bring us closer

Niga Salam looks at her photography through a lens of peace ahead of her attendance at the UN International Day of Peace Youth Observance in New York.
Close up of short hair on skin.
Louise O’Driscoll

Written by Louise O’Driscoll

Sustainability Communications Specialist, Canon EMEA

Actions of peace are delivered through working in harmony with the natural world and with others. But it’s only human to find strength by seeking those similar to ourselves. It makes us feel secure. It confirms our view of the world. It is easy. However, peace can also be found in the unexpected and connecting with others who hold different views to us. This year, the United Nations are celebrating the International Day of Peace with the theme of ‘Actions for Peace: Our Ambition for the #GlobalGoals’, asking us to challenge our belief systems and come together in harmony, regardless of our differences.

And while we have clear definitions of what peace means (freedom from disturbance. An absence of war. Tranquillity), its perception changes from place to place, person to person. This is why the camera plays such an important role in our shared understanding of what peace is – and is not. Photographs create reference points for us all to understand the multitudinous and subtle ways in which peace is absent, is sought and can be disrupted. Niga Salam’s photography might not take an exploration of peace to obvious places, but it lets you question and feel the discomfort caused by a lack of it.

Raised in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, Niga is a teacher with Lens on Life – an NGO which recently won the Canon Young People Programme (YPP) Partner of the Year at the Global Good Awards. She currently works in the Syrian Refugee Camp in Arbat, Iraq and will soon be leading Canon YPP workshops, which will enable young changemakers to learn more about photography. As an artist, she is concerned with identity, gender and the environment and is no stranger to the international stage, having exhibited and curated widely.  

To mark International Day of Peace, we supported Niga Salam to tell her story at the United Nations General Assembly.She also held a workshop on Transformative Education Through Photography during the UN International Day of Peace Youth Observance. This was the same space in which peace was recognised as a fundamental human right seven years ago through the adoption of the Declaration on the Right to Peace, so was a truly significant place for Niga to make her powerful visual observations.

She often turns the camera on herself, not only as a means of her own self-exploration, but to trigger introspection in others. She asks you to question your beliefs, your understanding, your safety and your bias. She disrupts your own sense of peace in order that you understand the aspects of her world that challenge her own. Here, she shares projects that give an insight into those parts of her life and how they affect her sense of peace.

A triptych of images depicting hair on different, unidentifiable parts of the body.

‘It’s just hair’ from a series by Niga Salam

It's just hair

“At some point you get lost. Is this a landscape or is this is a part of a body? We always tie identity or politics to what we see. For example, we are used to seeing women’s bodies hairless and men’s hairy. But in creating a landscape, or an abstract image where you can get lost, it takes us away from that – from what part of your body is okay to be hairy? And what part isn't? All of the photos in this series are from different body parts and different people too. There is no understanding who is female and who is male.

In the culture that I grew up in, for example, it's expected for a woman to have no hair on her body, Otherwise, it's seen as unhygienic. Young women in school are bullied for it. And it's the same for men who don't have enough hair on their body – they are not man enough. Yet, it’s something biologically normal that just grows out of your skin and we collectively decided it’s meaning, how it can hurt or make somebody feel very uncomfortable in their body. What I have tried to do in these photos is to become comfortable with the hair itself and move away from the gender-related ideas that we have, trying to build a sense of peace and leave behind the understanding we grew up with.“

A blurred portrait of Niga Salam in traditional Kurdish dress.

Self portrait by Niga Salam

A black and white portrait of Niga Salam with her head shaved.

Woman is her Hair by Niga Salam

Self portrait (left)

“The scarf I wear bears Kurdish patterns and it shows my Kurdish identity. But I grew up in the era of the internet and because of this, for a while, I became disconnected with my own language, my mother tongue. Even at school and university, I always had a more western understanding of my own culture. So, at one point I couldn't even describe anything in my own language. Because of my lack of ability to speak the language, there was also a disconnection between me and my parents. So, at the age of 18 or 19, I began to free learn my own language.

So, even though the photo itself is abstract, it plays with my Kurdish identity – and calls into question how I present in my culture. This is important because we then begin to ask, ‘should I wear this or a hijab?’, ‘is this part of my culture?’ and ‘how do I practise my religion?’. There are so many layers of making peace with my identity is Kurdish person and how it portrays on my face, my body and in my language.”

Woman is her Hair (right)

“We have a saying in Kurdish which means ‘women is her hair’, or ‘women means hair’. I shaved my head for three years as research for this project and to gauge perceptions every day. For example, there have been times when somebody would ask a friend of mine, “why does that woman have no hair?” They would say “oh, she’s sick” because they didn't want to explain and say “Oh, she just likes it that way”. We also have another saying – ‘if a woman can cut their hair short, it means they are very strong’ because hair is something so precious to them. This is something that has been tied to me just because I was born female.

In the past, in our culture, if a woman did something ‘bad’ some of the villagers would shave her hair, put her on the back of a horse and take her around the village. Just to take her honour from her. So, women are tied to their hair in ways that I could not understand. When I was born female ‘women’ was the word that was tied to me. And with it all its politics. So, now that I don't have hair, what am I? Less of a woman? How do you see me now when you see this photo? For 10 to 13 years of my life, I was wearing hijab and covered my hair. So, it is not okay for me to not have hair, but when I have it, I have to cover it? These projects help me to understand and find peace, but also raise that the questions with my audience and set them on a train of thought that can take down invisible walls between us.”

A black and white portrait of Niga Salam.

Find the Difference by Niga Salam

A near identical black and white portrait of Niga Salam, except she is wearing a hijab.

Find the Difference

“I was raised in a very religious family and for me to be a good daughter and good Muslim meant wearing the hijab. But I was also in environments where the hijab was less welcome. This made me question how a piece of fabric has so much power? So, I made this project based on a game I used to play when I was a kid – to find like three or five differences between two photos that look very similar. These are two self-portraits – no Photoshop – displayed side by side. The only real difference is that one has a headscarf, the other does not. I asked the audience to write down what they see in a notebook provided.

The responses were very interesting. Some people wrote that in the image with the hijab I looked angrier. Others picked up on technical aspects or thought they saw some blur. But most people mentioned the hijab, of course. My aim was to raise the question and show that your own background or understanding decides how you perceive me. Creating this dialogue between artwork and audience is very important to me. I can raise questions on topics that matter. I feel a sense of responsibility for the things I have experienced in my life and, by taking this step, maybe I have the power to change something, to change the experience I had to make things better for my nieces and nephews – the newer generation.”

Niga Salam attended the United Nations International Day of Peace Youth Observance on Thursday, 14 September 2023 at the United Nations Headquarters, New York. She also delivered a workshop on photography and its revolutionary route of providing a story through visuals.

Louise O’Driscoll Sustainability Communications Specialist, Canon EMEA

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