‘What Is Going on Behind the Headlines’

Catholic journalist and photographer Jeff Gardner discusses how the Picture Christians Project puts faces to persecution.

Nawal is a skydiver and professor in women's athletics who was forced into exile by ISIS for not wearing the hijab.
Nawal is a skydiver and professor in women's athletics who was forced into exile by ISIS for not wearing the hijab. (photo: Jeff Gardner)

Catholic journalist and photographer Jeff Gardner has been writing about the plight of Christians in the Middle East for the past five years for a number of national and international publications.

While he saw value in bringing to light the issues Christians faced in these war-torn countries, he became increasingly frustrated that nothing was getting done.

Then  he realized that what was missing from this Middle-Eastern picture was quite literally the picture.

In the fall of 2013, Gardner launched the Picture Christians Project. He hopes to a put a face on a particular group of persecuted Catholic Christians — the Assyrians, most of whom are members of the Syriac Catholic Church.

For more than a decade, these Christians have been driven out of their homeland in Iraq by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State group by the hundreds of thousands.

Since he began his photography project, he has visited the Middle East twice and has just recently produced an e-book entitled Exiled: The Incredible True Story of One Million Homeless Christians.

At the end of 2014, he spoke with the Register about these forgotten Christian refugees and what can be done to help them.


Why was it important to take photos of these Christians instead of providing humanitarian aid?

For the average news reader, the picture of Christians in the Middle East is associated with a burned-out church and a wailing woman. I knew that there had to be more to this. So I started to look around (on the Internet). … I did an image search for “Palestinians.” In that search, I found pictures of nationalism, people in good times and in strife. When I googled “Assyrians,” images of guys in chariots, cuneiform [one of the earliest forms of writing] and stone-relief tablets came up.

If the problems of Christians in the Middle East are those things that live in a museum, then, visually, we’ve got things covered. But if their problems are daily and affect the living and breathing of real people, then we’ve got a problem.


In March of last year, you made a trip to Jordan. What did you discover?

Since 2003, 1.25 million Assyrians have been driven from their ancient biblical homeland of the Nineveh Plains (in northwestern Iraq). When ISIS forced them out of their home, Jordan opened their borders. However, they did not roll out the red carpet for these exiles.

Unlike a refugee camp, where there are a bunch of tents in the middle of the field, you don’t see these Christian refugees. They are jammed into urban settings in cities such as Aman and Zarqa. They are hidden to the world and are in a strange type of limbo. They are not allowed to work; their kids are not allowed to go to local schools. They sit and sit and try to figure out the (Jordanian) immigration system.


How did you find the people who wanted to participate in this project?

Because of my years of writing on the Middle East, I had made contact with a number of religious orders — priests and nuns — who were very helpful in putting this together. So, upon my arrival in Jordan, one of those priests, Father Noor Alqasmosa at the Church of the Virgin Mary of the Syriac Church, called a parish meeting and explained who I was and what I was doing. The people there asked me a number of tough questions such as: “Why are you here? What can a picture do?” and “Why aren’t you raising money for us?”

They assumed that the world knew about this crisis. So, for those who had phones or tablets, I asked them to run my “Google test,” and they soon realized that this [project] was worth doing.


Why did you do portrait photography, as opposed to photojournalism?

I did portraits to break the clichés of the car-bomb or burnt-church image that we see in the paper. I hope that my images will communicate what is going on behind the headlines. So I had a dentist, a veterinarian, a house painter, a former boxer and a baker, among others, who volunteered to tell their stories through pictures. I would tell these people, “I want you to look at this lens, because, on the other side of this lens, is the whole world. They need to meet you.”


Do you have an image that has stuck with you from that trip to Jordan?

Yes, it is the one with Nawal. She is the woman holding a laptop with a picture of herself skydiving. [For me], that is one of the saddest. I said, “Tell me about your life; and she said, ‘Let me show you.’” And she began to show me all these photos of her as a skydiver, and she said, “I wake up sometimes in the early morning and cannot understand how it is that one minute I was flying through the clear blue and the next I was crawling around in the dirt.” And you can see that look of utter disbelief in her picture.


You knew that this was going to be an ongoing project and were planning on going back over the summer when the Islamic State group went on its rampage. What happened?

Yes, I knew of the danger; but I knew I still had to go. So I waited until September to return. I couldn’t have done it without the help of the American Mesopotamian Organization. They connected me with reliable security, and we traveled up to the northern part of Iraq, to Erbil and Kirkuk. I spoke to Assyrian families living in church basements and makeshift tents who told me how ISIS had taken everything from them. There was certainly a greater level of intensity on this trip than my earlier one to Jordan, as I saw firsthand where these Assyrians were being drive from. This was a war zone.


Did any interesting stories come out of that trip?

I was talking to people in an internally displaced persons (IDP) camp in Zahko, Iraq, when a teenager arrived. Some people ran up and grabbed my translator and were very excited. They told us that there was a girl, Adla, who had just escaped from ISIS, and she was here. Her father was in the camp.

We spoke to her for about an hour. She told us that she had been kidnapped by ISIS and sold into the sex-slavery trade. She was able to escape and wandered and staggered three days before being discovered by a group of Yazidi guerilla fighters, who were able to connect her with her father in this camp.

She told us how she was beaten and abused by men from all around the world. Her story really exposed for me the depth and evil sophistication of ISIS.


During this month’s Week of Christian Unity, how can we unite with our fellow Catholics?

The Assyrian people are the oldest Christians people on the planet. They converted from [the witness of] St. Thomas the Apostle. They are in line with the Syriac Church, founded by Peter in Antioch, what is now Syria. If we want to see where we going, we need to have a much better connection with where we came from — and that is the Assyrians.

 Eddie O’Neill writes from Rolla, Missouri.