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Our eyes tend to turn to the Horn of Africa only when things go badly. And often, for readers of the world’s media outlets, it is through the lens of Mohamed Abdiwahab that we see Somalia. Since 2011, the 27-year-old Mogadishu-based freelance photographer has transmitted 825 images to Agence France-Presse, the world’s oldest news-wire agency. More often than not, they capture an unpalatable brutality.
Sometimes Abdiwahab’s images are transmitted around the globe, gracing the front page of The New York Times; other times they’re deemed too gruesome for publication.
One in every three of his photographs transmitted by the wires document the aftermath of a deadly attack in the Somali capital. Of his images, 132 — nearly 17% — were made in the particularly harrowing moments following a suicide bombing. Abdiwahab has even photographed the aftermath of car bombs on the same day of consecutive years. His work is both forensic and explanatory, rendering in sharp contrast the morbid details precisely suited for the photographic medium: severed limb and bloody mist, victims so mutilated as to be barely recognizable as human.
Death is ever present in his work, even when there’s no direct violence: His photographs often capture Somalis clinging to tenuous existence, depicting lives racked with disease and the physical scars of malnutrition. It may well be that the young man has never taken an exceedingly happy photograph during his three years of employment in the service of the French wire agency. But his work chronicling the daily bloodletting in Mogadishu is vitally important; without his ability to capture Western readers’ attention, an already marginalized Somalia would slip even further from the pages of the world’s newspapers.
For six years in a row Somalia has climbed the Committee to Protect Journalists’ annual ranking of the most dangerous countries for journalists to work; this year the CPJ ranked the country No. 2, just behind Syria. Journalists are routinely targeted for assassination in Somalia — three were killed in the first 100 days of 2013 alone.
“You just expect an attack when you go out,” Abdiwahab told Al Jazeera by phone from Mogadishu. “Working in Somalia is like walking on a sharp sword. If I survive today, I’m not sure about tomorrow.”
Abdiwahab’s condition of employment isn’t a rare arrangement, given the media’s propensity to rely heavily on stringers and local photographers in countries beset by violence in order to mitigate the physical risk to their own staffers.
When Abdiwahab photographs the funerals of journalists, he seldom forgets the incredible risks. “I see myself covered in blood, helplessly lying in the grave,” he reflects at the funerals of colleagues. “It could have been me.”
Abdiwahab’s photographs chronicle the worst days of his country’s life. His dedication to recording Somalia’s morbid, violent inertia makes him less artist, more historian. He knows he and his colleagues are often his country’s only bridge to the industrialized world. “It’s going to die if people like us die,” he said of his country’s future. Journalism is his life’s work, he said — creating a visual chronicle of the blood spilled in his country that nobody prefers to see.
On May 3, unnamed assassins detonated a bomb concealed in the car of a prominent police officer in Mogadishu, killing five and wounding six. Arriving at the scene within seconds, Abdiwahab noticed a bloodied woman resting against a lamppost, two children cradled in her lap. As the photographer approached the stricken woman, a soldier — dazed by the concussion of the blast — fired his weapon indiscriminately at the crowd rushing to the scene. Dropping his camera to his neck and frantically gesturing, Abdiwahab eventually persuaded the soldier to stop shooting so he could help the woman.
The woman, splattered in the blood of her children, clutched her younger son tightly to her breast. The older one lay in her lap, his lifeless body covered in abrasions from the blast. The woman begged for water.
Abdiwahab often arrives at the scene of a suicide bombing but doesn’t photograph much of anything. “Sometimes you cannot bear holding a camera,” he says, acknowledging that his prerogative to help others in their final moments of life is frequently the most important role he plays.
The photographer ran to a nearby tea shop to find water for the woman. When he returned, he watched the limp body of her older son being carried away like a rag doll.
“I could not stop crying,” said Abdiwahab, still overcome with emotion two weeks later. “All I could see was the mother crying for help with her dead child lying in her lap. I was horribly devastated.”
Working in Somalia is like walking on a sharp sword. If I survive today, I’m not sure about tomorrow.
Witnessing trauma at humanity’s edge comes at a price. A young soul does what it can to parse the jagged images from memory and into the faded sublime; Abdiwahab copes through prayer and by talking to his wife about what he sees.
“The scenes come back into my head at night,” he noted. “I see people lying dead in a pool of blood, screaming with severed body parts. I cannot sleep some nights, spending long hours rolling on the bed. But what options do I have? I’m a journalist, and I want to cover what is happening in my country.”
Since he is a Somali national, Abdiwahab’s passport doesn’t exactly open doors. He faces extreme difficulty leaving the country, whether for specialized photographic training offered by AFP or to escape the day-in-day-out harshness of life that a newsman in Somalia experiences. “I’ve never been outside Somalia,” he says. “I know there are different lives out there, but I don’t have that.”
His editor is AFP’s chief photographer in East Africa, Carl de Souza. Reached in Nairobi, De Souza reinforced the tenacious spirit Abdiwahab carries each day. “I was always very impressed by his dedication,” he said, recalling his first days working together with Abdiwahab in 2011.
“There’s a misconception that since these guys are Somali, they’re used to it,” he said, speaking for the small group of locals who provide the entire world with news out of Mogadishu. “But that’s absolutely not true.
“All the world wants from these locations is coverage when a bomb goes off,” de Souza conceded. “I think that’s sad.”
Dec. 7, 2012. Youths play in the sand at Mogadishu's Lido Beach.Mohamed Abdiwahab / AFP / Getty Images