After Hurtwood students have taken many diverse paths, some more challenging than others. There cannot be many more so that that taken by Ayman Oghanna. He left in 2003, beginning of the second Iraq war, he reminds me, and here lies the clue.
From hard working A-level student to published, lauded photographer and journalist, working in the vortex of Middle Eastern politics, published in The New York Times, the Economist, the BBC and Vice (to name but a few) I feel genuinely awed to meet him in wintry central London after so many years.
The first surprise is how tall he is – I don’t remember that at all. Then what is striking is his rather intense gaze; the delightful committed and enthusiastic student I remembered had clearly fulfilled some pretty impressive aims and objectives, had indeed witnessed history in the making and been part of the mechanism of truthful witness. He has every right to an intense gaze, I think. Living now in Athens, after a number of years based in Istanbul, it was a privilege to catch up with someone so clearly committed to the pursuit of truth and, if the tattoo on his wrist is anything to go by, peace.
So with lunch and a glass of wine to fend off the freezing outside, what shape was the journey? After a gap year of bar-tending in Paris and back-packing in Cuba (cigars and music, he confirms my cliched envy) he headed off to St Andrews armed with sound A levels in English, History and Law, to study International Relations and Middle East Studies. He clearly thrived on the excellence of both professors and course, travelling abroad, making connections various, and even enjoying the challenge of theatrical performance.
Finally gaining a First (not that he told me this; I suspect that modesty and understatement about himself is a given) he managed some volunteering on the West Bank, travelled in Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Libya, and the lure of journalism was clearly finding roots. Did that date back to Hurtwood? Yes, in a way, he considers; studying History and Vietnam in particular, and the film ‘The Killing Fields’ made me want to be a journalist.’ And so began the next stage.
Heading out to New York he did a post-graduate degree in Journalism at Columbia, benefitting from generous scholarships. He found himself in the middle of the financial crisis of 2008, witnessing first-hand the fall of the Lehman Brothers as well as the election of Obama. So he certainly saw some history being made? Indeed. ‘New York sucks you in… but I wanted to get out, I wanted to get to Iraq’. History of a particular kind was calling. His grandparents had been asylum seekers during the Gulf War of the 1990s. With a British mother and Iraqi father, he had grown up in Britain but this drive to understand the wider world and his place in it prevailed. It seems the next move was obvious: with decisive simplicity he tells me that ‘I moved to Iraq and started taking photos.’ Previous vacation work for a newspaper in Lebanon whilst at university had forged connections, particularly a friendship with ‘one of the best journalists I’ve ever met – Anthony Shadid – who died some years ago in Syria’. It was an asthma attack, apparently, and clearly a loss on many fronts. But in what seems like a very short space of time, Ayman was in the crucible of history, and so began his commitment to witnessing and reporting the truth.
There is a stillness about him, a kind of reverence for the powerful repercussions, the experiences of being in the conflict zone. His is quite clearly neither idle curiosity nor even the buzz if the adrenaline seeker. If anything, he seems to feel still too much of the horror to make light of it. What is apparent is that these are some of the most profound experiences of his life. He speaks of the intensity of the relationships forged, the speed with which ‘you really get to know someone’. I think he is telling me about the real centre of his experiences.
So now in the thick of things, what was the real break? Being in what was clearly the wrong place at the right time; he got the picture that landed him with the exposure and journalistic credentials and indeed practical connections that he needed. Witness in Baghdad to a car bomb and its horrific human fall-out, he found his image on the front cover of The New York Times. The shot resonates with the cost of war in material and human form, and bespeaks the suffering on so many different levels. Take a look at Ayman’s site and on his Instagram:
His is a bearing of passionate witness to man’s inhumanity to man, and it is impossible not to feel that this must, at least on some levels, be at some considerable cost to himself. What began with that key photo, and has taken him through many years of conflict throughout Syria, Lebanon and beyond.
When he speaks of this there is a clear thread, that whilst he has witnessed the worst, he has also experienced the best. He is unabashed about the dark appeal of his work. ‘It’s a rush,’ he admits, ‘a privilege.’ A restless mind and spirit, who admits to a low boredom threshold, it is equally apparent that his interest is driven by integrity and commitment to the truth, although he freely acknowledges the adrenaline rush of the task is central and rewarding.
He has gone on to report on some of the most powerful moments of the last decade. Living in Istanbul in 2014, when Isis exploded, he hitchhiked through Iraq and Syria and back – to find himself one of the first on the scene, witness to the fate of the Yazidi people. It was, he says, ‘Biblical. Women rounded up for slavery, killing all the men… genocide pure and simple. It was a dark time.’ He clearly struggled in terms of direction, until he managed to find ‘a group of soldiers who were trying to do something good. Iraqi soldiers had been getting bad press. These guys were trying to make a difference, to put a positive spin on the Iraq story which was inspiring. I saw a lot of combat then.’ Ayman is not one to waste words, in any sense. Amongst his considerable output was a brilliant report on the men who fought for Mosul for the BBC.
Now however, with the apparent shift of news focus from the Middle East, and with the seeming fall of the Caliphate, Ayman is possibly about to reshape his world. So what is changing, I ask? Why this hiatus in the working world of photojournalism? The obvious concern is that news reportage is no longer sourced in the same way; without the old checks and balances there seems to be a kind of free-for-all. And with social media and the ubiquitous cameraphone, it is harder to get the exclusive shot. He admits also to a weariness in earning capacity, and the fact that is increasingly harder to earn money from the single image. ‘You can’t put an advert on a single image,’ he tells me. Meaning? That film is the more solid way forward in terms of income and survival. The grim realities of this extraordinary job.
He speaks energetically of a ‘nationalistic populism that is sweeping the globe… threatening our democracies’. What went wrong? ‘We were complacent’ is his instant answer; this is something he has thought about at length. Living in Istanbul for so long, moving thence to Athens, means that Ayman has an acute sense of the contrasts of political systems and the seismic changes rumbling round our world. ‘It is always great to come back to the stability of the west,’ he tells me. ‘But?,’ I ask, since it is clear there is a qualifier. ‘We took our liberties for granted,’ he replies simply.
He lists the outcomes of our lassitude as he sees them, amongst them disinformation: ‘Real disinformation – fake videos, and the fear of disinformation. How to trust what you see? That is the issue. Our system is vulnerable. We’re stoking the fires again.’ There is a profound sense of change, and he, like so many others involved in journalism, is at a crossroads.
Does he feel that what he does makes a difference? It is clearly a topic much discussed amongst his comrades on the journalistic barricades. ‘The truth is that is doesn’t, but at the very least it is a record. There are witnesses. Syrian kids will one day know what happened in their country. The information will be there somewhere.’ My admiration can only increase; the triviality of a London restaurant on a winter’s afternoon seems striking. What he has achieved in his journey from Hurtwood does matter and has made a difference.
So where to now for Ayman? He is working on a number of leads, as they say. Still quoting Yeats and memories of his poetry studies for A level, he speaks of ‘The lonely impulse of delight’. Of the pure drive for personal fulfilment that bucks expectation or logic. He is all too aware that ‘the best lack all conviction’ and that ‘the worst are full of passionate intensity’; he has seen it firsthand.
It has been profoundly moving to hear of Ayman’s journey from thoughtful, sensitive and rewarding student to committed witness of history. We have ranged widely over lunch from the deeply trivial ironies of the present to the fundamental moralities implicit in human ambition.
He sums up. ‘I’ve had some pretty extreme experiences,’ pointing out the strange paradox that, ‘you see the best of humanity and the worst’. That is certainly clear. It is also apparent that he has used considerable talents in the journey. ‘Journalism is story-telling and war is the most dramatic of all stories,’ he reminds me. His journey after Hurtwood stands as a powerful witness to the troubled history of our turbulent times. He has certainly made his mark, and whatever his direction now, he has plenty more to give.