This month we sat down with Istanbul-based photojournalist Monique Jaques, who has spent the last six years documenting issues across the Middle East and West Africa. Her work has been published by The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Geographic, Time, and The Economist, among other publications, and Monique has won numerous acclamations, including the PROOF Award for the Emerging Photojournalist.
Gulf Photo Plus: How did you get started in photojournalism?
Monique Jaques: I started getting into photography when I was in high school in the US and continued when I went to university in New York. When I graduated, I was interested in travel photography but also history. I figured I could combine the two and started with photojournalism. I moved to Turkey and kind of took off from there!
GPP: You’ve documented issues all across the region, from the effect of the Ebola crisis on maternal health in West Africa to the introduction of the first women rangers in Virunga National Park to the lives of Syrian Christians living in Turkey. When telling such different stories across such varied landscapes, how do you decide what aspects to focus on through your images?
MJ: For me, so much of what I do is about telling untold stories and showing people unexpected things. When everyone thinks about Congo, they thing about decades of violence and war. When I went there, I saw so much more than that and wanted to show the depth of the Congolese people. I met the female rangers and absolutely fell in love with them. They’re wonderful women who pushed past their difficult situations and work to preserve part of their culture and legacy. It’s so inspiring. I have similar reactions to most of the places I go to. When everyone’s looking right, I’m looking left. I’m just interested in what’s not being talked about.
GPP: How do you find balance between commissioned assignments and personal projects?
MJ: Most of my commissioned work comes from my personal projects, so it’s an easy blend. For instance, Islamic Fashion started as a personal project, but so many people have run it now it’s become commissioned. Same with the Virunga work and the Gaza Girls project. There are so many working photographers now that you really have to have a distinct voice to your work, and you find it through personal work.
GPP: When you receive a commission, do you ever find a conflict of interest between the stories you are being hired to tell and how you want to document the issues you encounter?
MJ: Very rarely. Most of the stories I work on are pitched by writers on the ground who discuss the idea with me beforehand, and we both agree on it, rather than from someone behind a desk. I don’t think that’s ever happened to me.
GPP: What has been your favorite or most surprising experience during your photo travels?
MJ: Gosh. So many things. I absolutely LOVED shooting the Miss Muslimah Islamic pageant. The mix of women that were in attendance was really amazing, and everyone brought something unique to the event. I really loved meeting everyone and being in Indonesia. I wish that it continued, but it was cancelled after that year.
GPP: Later this year you are launching your first-ever photobook, Gaza Girls, documenting the process of growing up in the 45-square-mile district. What was the impetus behind the project?
MJ: It’s a similar thread to the rest of my work. I really felt like so much of the imagery and storytelling coming out of Gaza was based on violence and war, and I wanted to talk about some of the very real issues that girls go through while coming of age in this difficult place. Yet despite it all, the experiences that they have are very relatable and tell so much about their lives to people outside of Gaza.
GPP: What brought you to Gaza the first time, and why do you keep going back?
MJ: I went to cover the war, like every other journalist, but I stayed because I met the most amazing group of girls and young women who were so inspiring and were focused on making positive changes in their lives and the lives of others. I started documenting them and then expanded the work to tell more stories of the women.
GPP: Of all of your projects, why did you choose to turn Gaza Girls into a photobook?
MJ: I felt like this work really spoke to people outside of Gaza and showed how relatable the girls' lives are to those of other people. I also felt like this work was a necessary contribution to the discussion around Gaza, which is so often centered around violence, and their stories could be amplified through a book with their writings and images.
GPP: We know fundraising and gathering support for the photobook have played a huge role in preparing for publication. Are there any updates on when the book will officially be released?
MJ: Yes! The book will be released in the late fall, in time for the holiday season.
GPP: Do you have any other projects coming up?
MJ: Right now this is the biggest one! Currently fundraising for the book is a full time job.
Learn more about Monique’s work here.
Learn more about Gaza Girls, support the project, and pre-order the book here.