T.Stops Blog

Chance of a lifetime. Photography in Iraq.

This past twelve days have been a spectacular adventure.  I was hired by my longtime friend and DP Khalid Mohtaseb, to join him on the photography journey of a lifetime.  We went to Karbala, Iraq to shoot beauty footage of the Ashura religious pilgrimage to the shrine of Imam Hussein.  A mass pilgrimage of over nineteen million people to the small southern Iraqi city of Karbala. Normally, Karbala has two and half million people.  Its the equivalent of the entire population of New York City, and half the residents of the tristate area simultaneously converging on a small town in the midwest.  Many of the pilgrims walk to the holy city, some on bare feet, starting as long as two weeks prior to the great celebration and walking over 500 miles, in some cases, there were reports of pilgrims coming from as far as India and Pakistan, again, on foot.  The people of Karbala, some of the most giving and good natured people i’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting, respond to this influx by essentially doubling capacity of their city on the streets itself.  They build makeshift tent structures, outdoor kitchens, and temporary facilities that cover all the bases of human life.  Food, water, shelter and medical assistance, all free of charge.  This isn’t a government funded project, the citizens themselves pouring out what little resources they have to assist, and comfort the pilgrims.  The showing of compassion and kindness is overwhelming.  This is made all the more significant by the fact that this country had been war torn, and until recently under a dictatorship.  Politics aside, its safe to say the people of this region have never had an easy ride.

My specific task was to document in photos my own perspective.  I was asked to take pictures of what i found interesting, what caught my eye, and what i found beautiful.  The city, the locations, and the shrines, while all amazing some how seemed insignificant as compared to the people that made this celebration unique.

Here is what i saw.

The road:

Pilgrims walking to Karbala from Najaf.

The Road from Karbala to Najaf.


The night in Karbala: This is the feeling of the place.  There was no electricity at this moment, and what power there was, came from generators and fires.

The market place.

 The early morning street cook.  Getting ready to start handing out tea to the pilgrims.

 The roadside tables, being prepped for a full day of cooking, and charity.


The Day:
Karbala Comes alive, in full support of those seeking religious fulfillment.  The make shift living spaces empty out, the constant cooking begins.  The smell of food, millions of plates of food fills the dust and smoke in the air.  The overwhelming smell of woodsmoke wafts over your senses, your eyes burn, your nostrils constrict, and you can taste the fire.  You cant quite tell from the images below, but the men with steaming cauldrons, are literally everywhere.  They are evenly spaced, about 20 feet from each other, up and down every street, and boulevard in the city. There must have been 5,000 make shift kitchens cooking at the same time.

 The most common mode of transportation in a crowded city.

 Tripe stew.  Despite its looks is quite delicious.


The Pilgrims.

The devoted traveled all this way, and despite exhaustion, weary feet, and several bombing attacks on the road to get there, they were high in spirit, and more than willing to pose for a shot.

 The man pictured above, followed me around or about three hours, helping me with my bags, and bringing me a never ending stream of delicious tea.

 This gentleman above posed for over 30 pictures,  patiently until I was happy with this one..

The Crowd waiting to get into the Shrine.

 Emotionally over come by the moment.  Reaching the Shrine of Imam Hussein, and mourning his death.

 The young man above struggled for over 5 minutes to climb that silver gate, and kiss the door post of the shrine.  I was fortunate eough to have caught it.

A young shiite, joyful with her father and awestruck by the event.

The Shrine:

The shrine marks the locations where the grandson of Prophet Mohammed was killed, and his followers were buried.  This is one of the most sacred locations in Shia Islam next to Mecca.

 The inside of the largest Shrine.  Its capacity at the peak of the celebration must have been 10,000 people.

 The great shrine in the early morning, not quite as crowded.

 The Ceiling dome of the Great shrine.


I shot all of these images on my 5DmkII, with six lenses for the most part.  The Canon 24-105 F4L, The Canon 50mm F1.4 USM, Canon 85mm F1.8 USM, Helios 44-2 F2.0, The 1908 Wollensak CineVelostigmat F5 and the Canon L F2.8 70-200 Zoom.

We also used a Kessler CineSlider with motion control for some timelapse/dolley work, and the 12′ Kessler Crane for all the motion work.  When the time comes, i’m sure Khalid will post his motion work over on his blog.

 Khalid And I getting Jib Shots in the Main shrine.

Khalid Monitoring a timelapse….

This was the trip of a life time.  I am Honored to have been a part of it.  Thank you to all involved, Khalid Mohtaseb, the ever critical Susan Modaress, Rami Faris, and Ahmed Mohtaseb.


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13 years ago


13 years ago

Beautiful photos.

12 years ago

Amazing.and Powerful.

11 years ago

Thanks you guys!