Koutaiba was born in Baghdad and worked as a photojournalist as a teenager with Tariq Al-Shab, one of Baghdad’s progressive newspapers. When photography was banned in the mid-70s and the newspaper was shut down he left Iraq and began a long period of exile.
He studied photo journalism in Budapest, Hungary and then qualified as a Cinematographer at Budapest Academy of Drama and Cinema. He studied under Lajos Koltai Oscar winning cinematographer and the “Hungarian style” of lighting and composition influenced his work significantly. He worked in the Hungarian film and television industry and also completed a PhD on the aesthetics and history of Arabic cinema before relocating to London.
One of Koutaiba’s earliest projects was a collection of photographs taken in the 1980s in the Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, where he aimed to capture the youth and the hope of the period.
Koutaiba’s photography has been exhibited around the world, and he has published photo books including ‘Far from Baghdad’, profiling Iraqi refugees, and ‘Foreign Light’.
After work as Director of Photography on numerous projects including Jiyan, a portrait of life after Halabja, his first film as a Director, Leaving Baghdad, was released in 2010 to critical acclaim.
“Leaving Baghdad: Al-Janabi regarding Saddam Hussein’s victims everywhere – the making of a new cinematic style” – Kais Kasim, Sweden, Senior Film Critic
“These scenes make for both shocking and uncomfortable viewing, but where the film really excels is in the grim but real picture it paints of illegal immigration…” – London Review, Isabel Stevens
I see myself and the world around me through the lens of displacement. I went back to my homeland and even there I felt like I was carrying this illness. Mahmoud Sami el-Baroud said if someone touches him with this illness, exile, it never gets out of your body. It seems that this is my destiny…When I left my homeland aged 17 I was really journeying as a refugee. I left by force, I had to leave. In that time I wasn’t political, I was nothing really, I had to leave because of my family background. And I carried this exile with me. I know people who are exiled in their homeland, they live with their bags… It’s a strange set-up, I’m always with the victims. If I watch football I always support the loser, if the loser starts to win always again I go with the loser, I don’t know why it happens I am just always with the lost and displaced.
There have been many waves of emigration from Iraq since the end of the 1970’s. These emigrations have taken place for various reasons: the war with Iran from 1980 to 1988 and the Gulf War in 1991 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the occupation of Iraq by the US the UK and their allies from 2003 – 2011 and subsequent sectarian violence.
A climate of constant insecurity has led to massive population displacement. IOM estimates that there are some 1.9 million Iraqis displaced internally, and over 2 million in neighbouring states, particularly Syria and Jordan.
There was a 71% increase in asylum applications from 1990 to 1991, due to an increase in applications from Zaire, Angola, Pakistan and Ghana. The pressure of these rising numbers and increased demand upon housing and welfare in areas of settlement led to the introduction of a more coordinated approach. The 1993 Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act therefore became the first piece of primary legislation in the UK to deal specifically with asylum. It was designed to increase decision making and deal with the backlog of asylum cases. It introduced finger-printing for asylum seekers, reduced rights to housing, denied entry to those who had travelled via a ‘safe third country’, and made it compulsory to apply for asylum on arrival.