In conversation with

Emily Garthwaite


emily garthwaite photographer



For a global photojournalist like Emily Garthwaite, self-isolation must feel especially strange. Her work has her travelling often: to the coffee farms of Ethiopia, the rainforests of Borneo, the colourful streets of India and the desert terrain of Iraq.

Wherever the location, Emily examines her subjects with the same exacting eye as a writer who hones in on every last detail of sentence structure and rhythm. And her raw and arresting images tackle humanitarian and environmental issues that might otherwise get left behind. On a recent visit to Iraq, for example, she captured the annual cross-country Arbaeen pilgrimage, telling stories of resilience as she too walked the 500km. Twice. She has since decided to the Kurdistan Region, an act she describes as “the best decision I have ever made”.

But with Emily now home in the UK, we sat down to talk about what drew her to the Middle East, the importance of women’s spaces in photography and why we all need to rethink how we use Instagram.

Question and Answer

What stories did you love growing up?

I grew up in Australia reading International Wildlife Encyclopedias that once belonged to my father and watching Steve Irwin on VHS. I subsequently became reptile mad, and by eight years old, I owned two snakes encouraged by my father, a former zoologist. As a child, my favourite book was [still is] Mrs. Armitage on Wheels by Quentin Blake, an aspirational lady who keeps finding ways to improve her bicycle. I reference her frequently, but no one knows who she is. I don’t understand why she has to be a ‘Mrs,’ but she should be an icon. Oh, and Jaws by Peter Benchley – he taught me some of the good swearwords. I found the book in my grandparent’s house.

Emily Garthwaite

As someone who tells stories visually, what do you look for when you're shooting? Is there a process before you shoot in researching, or is it more spur of the moment?

For the most part, people have approached me and asked if I’d be interested in meeting their community and learning more about their experiences. I had visited and spoken at several mosques who kept mentioning Dearborn in Michigan, USA. I started to research and discovered Dearborn is home to the largest Muslim population in America, and the largest Middle Eastern community outside of the Middle East. I always research news articles before to get a sense of how the media view the place, town, city, etc. In this case, Dearborn was filmed for Fox News, and there were plenty of articles referring to Dearborn as ‘Dearborn-istan’ and the site of ‘homegrown terrorism’. This, more than anything, compelled me to visit. I wanted to correct the perception and to educate myself and others.

In the Spring of 2019, during Ramadan, I moved to Dearborn just outside Detroit, for a few weeks to live with a Syrian family. It was the first time I gave myself space to tell a story, slowly and carefully. It was also my first visit to the USA.

More recently your work has focussed on Muslim communities around the world. What drew you to this subject matter and made you want to share their stories?

Every year, for forty days, the Arbaeen pilgrimage through southern Iraq occurs. It is a walk of peace, and the largest annual pilgrimage in the world. While non-Muslims are encouraged to join, it is walked almost exclusively by Shi’a Muslims to the Holy Shrine of Imam Hussain. In 2017, I travelled to Najaf in Iraq to join pilgrims walking to Karbala, and with me, a documentary film crew from Iran. This was my first visit to the Middle East and challenged my preconceived notions of what it was to be Muslim, what faith is, and how misunderstood countries like Iraq are. It was the beginning of my career in many respects. I returned in 2018 to walk the pilgrimage again. In 2019, I returned for Ashura too. I hope to walk Arbaeen every year if I can. I have since moved to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq – the best decision I have made!

What has been your proudest moment/work to date and why?

As a female photographer, it can be challenging to work. Safety is the main priority, so having access to women’s spaces is something I treasure. I feel impossibly happy when I’m in a room filled with women. It’s healing to be among other women, to collaborate and exchange experiences. Perhaps they’re not my proudest moments, but they’re the moments I think, “I wouldn’t change this job for the world”.

What are your thoughts on Instagram as a storytelling platform, and how does it contribute to you and your work?

It’s important to rethink how we use Instagram. For the most part, it is a platform to share stories from misunderstood communities. I want Instagram to be an empowering and peaceful space. I share what I see, and I have developed trust with many followers. At times, it has been a platform for activism – and I have been vocal on specific issues, but I find the online harassment and threats very hard to deal with, as anyone would! The majority of followers are from the USA, UK, Iran, and Iraq, so the reactions to the work are incredibly diverse. I hope my platform can lift and celebrate others.

"Remember that social media is a tool for reaching a wider audience and using your voice, not for affirmation. Read about informed consent and keep integrity in all you do!"

What are three pieces of advice you would give to a young, aspiring photographer or photojournalist?

Stay persistent, form a healthy relationship with failure, and lean on your camera. I find great comfort in my camera. Be inspired by other people’s journeys, but forge your own path. Know when to be blinkered, and when to look around you. Remember that social media is a tool for reaching a wider audience and using your voice, not for affirmation. Read about informed consent and keep integrity in all you do!

The Storylist

Emily's Storylist

Photo Books

  1. A Period of Juvenile Prosperity by Mike Brodie
  2. Coexistence by Stephen Gill
  3. Kurdistan: In The Shadow Of History by Susan Meisalas
  4. The World in 1900: A Colour Portrait by Sabine Arqué

Nonfiction Books

  1. Feral by George Monbiot
  2. Sane New World by Ruby Wax
  3. My Family And Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
  4. Book Of Longing by Leonard Cohen
  5. Just Kids by Patti Smith
  6. Slowly Down The Ganges by Eric Newby
  7. The Land Beyond by Leon McCarron
  8. Twenty Love Poems and a Song Of Despair by Pablo Neruda


  1. Caliphate by The New York Times
  2. Catch And Kill by Ronan Farrow
  3. Channel The Rage by CJ Werleman
  4. The Breakdown by Shaun King
  5. The Daily by The New York Times
  6. SuperSoul Conversations by Oprah

More from The Journal

InterviewNatasha Collie

Natasha Collie

Senior Brand Marketing Manager at Penguin Random House UK

At the start of the year, Ladybird Books approached Sonder & Tell with a dream brief. In 2021, a year that’s been particularly challenging for...

InterviewTatton Spiller

Tatton Spiller

Founder Of Simple Politics

Talking about serious issues doesn’t mean defaulting into a serious tone of voice, or using complicated language. If anything, accessibility, clarity and a touch of...

Interviewloïs mills

Loïs Mills

Brand & Community Manager at Homethings

Creating a tone of voice from scratch can be challenging. But a blank slate to work from also mean there’s room for something a bit...

Previous Story
Duke Stump
Duke Stump

Chief Marketing Officer at Lime

Next Story
bre audrey graham
Bre Graham

Content Editor for Natoora