Once a refugee himself, Maitham Basha-Agha’s passion lies in the stories others have to tell. Through the lens of his camera he captures the stories of Erie’s refugees, as well as the way of life of those in Ghana and Botswana. He believes he can change hearts and minds through the universal language of photography.
Maitham graduated from Edinboro University of Pennsylvania in 2010 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice. He worked in the Juvenile Justice System until 2014, and in May of that year he completed freelance photo journals in Iraq on refugees and anti-ISIS protests.
During the next two years, he joined the United States Peace Corps in Botswana. There he worked on a project featuring social issues such as HIV/AIDS, and he taught the locals photography and how to use social media.
In October 2016 he returned to Erie to work on “Rustbelt New Americans: A Showcase of Erie’s Refugee Population.” The photo series was eventually turned into a movie that has been played in four film festivals across America.
In June 2018 Maitham took a Communications Manager position in Ghana West Africa to work with Children in Slavery. He resigned in December to focus on expanding his photography. Maitham was even named Botswana’s top photographer.
I had the privilege of speaking with Maitham to discuss his projects, both past and upcoming. He told me what motivates him, as well as some of the things he has learned through his journey. Let’s take a look:
How did you get into photography?
I got into the field of photography because I enjoy listening to people’s stories. I have interviewed people from all over the world and there is always a story of resilience, hope, and never giving up.
How have your experiences in working with refugees shaped your photography?
I strongly believe that if it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t be where I am today. Their stories are just amazing and they gave me the motivation to keep going. My photography is about telling stories and I believe my pictures show those stories.
How has your photography (especially given the subject matter) influenced you as a person?
It gave me the motivation to speak on their behalf and be an activist for them. Their stories always touch my heart, but also allow me to reflect on my past. I was once a refugee, so I totally get where they come from.
Has anyone ever told you they’ve been touched by one of your photos? Give an example.
I think I hear that every day. One of my strongest photo journals contains photographs of the refugees in Erie. One of them even sold.
As a photographer, do you believe you see the world differently than most people?
Of course. Everywhere I go I immediately look and I ask myself, what story am I going to tell. I totally believe I have the power to change minds just from the photos I take.
Do you ever just take a photo and see the story in it afterward, or do you usually have a plan beforehand?
The majority of the time I determine how I’m going to take the photos based on the stories. I usually listen to my subjects’ stories before I pull out my camera.
You’ve been to a couple of African countries. Given the chance, what other countries would you like to visit and photograph, African or otherwise?
I would love to go to Syria and take photographs there. The country is upside down, and people are fleeing each and every day. I would like to spend some time in a village that has been destroyed by ISIS or the Syrian government and hear the stories from the people.
Photographing the way of life of other cultures would certainly open your mind. In what ways has it increased your understanding and acceptance of things you may not have been familiar with before?
Well, there is always the perception that Africa is poor, but going there totally changed my mind. People there are very well-educated and have a great understanding of the outside world. People there drive Range Rovers, Mercedes, and BMWs. Plus, the majority of them have really nice houses that I can’t even afford.
What was your favorite project to work on and why?
Rustbelt New Americans. That photo project received national attention, and it allowed me to connect with many people from various cultures. I learned that not many people in Erie knew about the refugee and immigrant population in their own city.
What are some upcoming projects we can expect from you?
That’s a really great question. There are so many I’m planning to work on, but I’m particularly excited about Photowalk Botswana. I get to walk around with a bunch of new photographers and show them the ropes.
Thank you, Maitham, for taking the time to talk with me. We look forward to seeing what the future holds for you. To keep up with him and his projects, including Photowalk Botswana, you can follow him on Facebook (Maitham Basha-Agha) and Instagram (@thetravelingiraqi).
About the Author:
Erin Maloney is pursuing her Associate’s degree in Business Administration Marketing & Management and will graduate in March of 2019. She is a poet and a writer who is passionate about the arts and helping it reach the masses. You can follow her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/erin.maloney.581 and Instagram: _erinmaloney