On Location
International Expeditions

The Cradle of Modern Civilization: Iraq Today

with Jennifer Spelman and Derek Baron

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Course Description

After decades of isolation, Iraq has finally opened its borders to international travelers—a golden opportunity to photograph one of the planet’s few unexplored places with world travelers Jennifer Spelman and Wandering Earl tour operator Derek Baron.

The cradle of modern civilization and the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, Iraq is home to Babylon, the City of Samarra, and Nineveh Plain. The country’s many delights range from palaces and shrines to bustling markets, lively streets, and enticing cuisine. But even more noteworthy is its kind-hearted, generous, and hospitable population.

Upon arrival in Baghdad, you are guided through immigration and taken in a private car to our hotel. That evening we gather for orientation and a welcome meal at one of the city’s best rooftop restaurants.

Our first full day begins with a tour of Old Baghdad, where we wander the streets meeting craftspeople, exploring markets, tasting local food, and marveling at historic landmarks. After lunch, we take a short boat ride along the Tigris River before visiting the unique Baghdadi Cultural Centre, where traditional artists, poets and performers gather to share their creations. From here, we make the drive to the edge of Baghdad to visit the impressively massive Martyr’s Monument. Dinner tonight features the city’s finest delicacies.

The next morning, we head straight to the 1000-year-old Abbasid Palace for a private session photographing a variety of local models. We then take a guided tour of the region’s complex and fascinating history at one of the most impressive museums you can imagine—the Iraqi National Museum. An afternoon to wander the city’s colorful streets and make images is followed by dinner at a cultural center, with intricate traditional architecture and a lively evening vibe.

We get an early start on day four and drive south to ancient Babylon to tour ruins, original gates, palaces, and more; you are given ample time to photograph the site and explore its hidden areas on your own. Next up is one of Saddam Hussein’s abandoned palaces, where we’re granted rare access to the second and third floors. We enjoy a meal in the town Hillah before continuing to the small city of Najaf, where we check into our hotel for a rest. After a post-sunset visit to the spectacularly ornate pilgrimage site Imam Ali Shrine, we make a stop at the lively Najaf Bazaar.

Our fifth day begins with a leisurely breakfast and a two-hour bus ride to welcoming Fallujah, where we lunch on the city’s famous cuisine. We also embark on a short walking tour before returning to our hotel in Baghdad.

The first stop on day six is Samarra, where we visit the Palace of the Caliph and the city’s mosque with its famed spiral minaret. In the afternoon we continue to Hatra, a magnificent fortified city that served as the capital of the first Arab kingdom. We take our time touring the site’s mind-blowing array of temples, gates, and palaces. Then it’s a two-hour drive to our Mosul hotel.

Day seven kicks off with a full walking tour of Old Mosul, where we visit historic mosques and churches that were destroyed by ISIS and are now being restored by UNESCO. As we wander through colorful markets and sample northern Iraqi dishes, we interact with hospitable people thrilled that foreign visitors are returning to their city. Our evening is spent at a local cafe/museum/cultural center created by young Iraqis.

The Nineveh Plains, day eight’s destination, boasts many friendly villages, often inhabited by Christian and Yazidi people. We visit one of these and spend time at the home of a Christian family with a fascinating history. With time to tour the village, learn about the Iraqi Christian and Yazidi cultures, and visit several small local businesses, we share a memorable day in a little-known area. A return to Mosul in the afternoon offers some downtime and an optional evening out.

After breakfast on our ninth day, we drive to Iraqi Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous region of the country whose vibrant capital is Erbil. After checking into our hotel, we head to the ancient citadel and the Erbil market. That evening, we savor a meal in the hip Ankawa neighborhood, which buzzes with activity 24/7.

Our last full day begins with a tour of the gorgeous Jalil Khayat Mosque. Then a trip into the Kurdistan countryside reveals what is perhaps the most impressive nature in the entire Middle East—magical canyons, mountains, gorges, and rivers. We cross the Zagros Mountains en route to the town of Rawanduz, stopping in several communities along the way. The journey wraps up with a farewell dinner back in Erbil, and on the following day, private airport transfer picks you up in time for your departing flight.

As your camera chronicles this enchanting country in all its splendor—ancient and modern—you witness firsthand the Iraqi people’s inspiring resilience and passionate desire to build a positive future.

Additional Information

COVID-19 Update: For all in-person workshops and trips in 2023, Santa Fe Workshops highly recommends that all participants, staff, and instructors attending be up to date with Covid vaccinations (per definition of the CDC). For international trips, local laws will apply, so it is important that you confirm you will be fully vaccinated according to the countries on your trip.

This program is open to photographers at all levels who are passionate about travel and improving their image making.

What You Should Know:

While the tour itself is moderately strenuous, please note that it can involve the following: typically long days, walking tours in the cities/countryside (up to two hours), being outside in potentially warm temperatures, bus journeys longer than five hours, early morning wake-ups, and other similar scenarios. Uneven terrain such as dirt, sand, loose rock, gravel, and steep stairs are possible. Participants must be able to carry all of your own photography gear

Participants should be technically self-sufficient, as this is not a program to learn how to use your gear or editing software. This a photographic tour, not a photography workshop and there isn’t structured classroom time. There will be group image review sessions with Jennifer, as well as help with photographic ideas and techniques on-location.

"While Iraq might not be a traditional travel destination, tourism is present and increasing. Tourist visas are easily available upon arrival at the airport, accommodations are of great quality, and the overall tourism infrastructure makes for a smooth journey.

The safety of our guests is our utmost concern, and we would not run a trip if safety was an issue. With so many incredible destinations and endless displays of hospitality, we are confident we can introduce you to an Iraq that is far different than what you might imagine." ­ – Derek Baron

Activity Level:

To get the most from this international experience, participants should be in good physical (mobility, stamina) and mental health. In general, arrive prepared for long days and seasonal weather including variable temperatures. You must be able to carry your own photographic and personal gear at all times. You are responsible for being open and honest about your physical fitness, and we reserve the right to remove you from the workshop if we find your fitness to be less than that which you have described.


View Payment, Refund, Withdrawal, and Transfer Policies for this International Program.

Nature & Landscape, Portraiture, Street Photography, Travel Photography
© Nerissa Escanlar
Jennifer Spelman

Jennifer Spelman is a documentary photographer. She is co-publisher of CubaSeen, a quarterly magazine showcasing photography and writing about Cuba.

Jennifer received her photographic training as an assistant with Santa Fe Workshops, working with some of today’s most preeminent photographers: Jay Maisel, Norman Mauskopf, and Joe McNally.

A sensitive photographer of people, Jennifer strives to create portraits with energy and insight. She is most at home on the streets of Havana and has worked with Santa Fe Workshops across Cuba since 2011. Jennifer is a patient educator who has co-instructed with National Geographic Expeditions and taught workshops in Morocco, India, Turkey, Romania, Mexico, Japan, in addition to Cuba.

A popular workshop instructor, Jennifer is also part of our Mentorship Program »

Instagram: @jennifer_spelman

Derek Baron
Derek Earl Baron, aka Wandering Earl, left home in 1999 shortly after graduating from university. He wanted to travel around SE Asia for 3 months before starting a career back in the US. Somehow, he never stopped traveling. Derek has now been traveling around the world for 23 years. He runs a popular travel blog and a tour company that organizes unique, small-group trips to some of his favorite countries. The tour company has been in operation for over 10 years, helping travelers explore fascinating destinations in a style that you won’t find with a typical group tour. He’s been featured by publications such as Time Magazine and The New York Times and is frequently invited to speak at events and on podcasts in order to share the stories, insights and adventures from his life of travel.

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