Joey Lawrence Documents Kurdistan’s Armed Struggle Against the Islamic State
Over the past several years, Joey Lawrence has documented Kurdish guerrillas, encapsulating the humanity and hope behind the faces of war fighting against ISIS.
We Came From Fire: Photographs of Kurdistan’s Armed Struggle Against ISIS is a powerful collection of moments that captures the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria over several years.
Joey Lawrence, a Canadian-born photographer and director based in Brooklyn, depicts the humanity that has been deemed to be lost and challenges the misconceived narrative of constant massacres and mass migrations continuously saturated in the media. Instead, these astonishing photographs represent the strength, courage and viewpoint of Kurdish guerrilla organizations fighting the Islamic State.
The Kurds, homeland to 40 million people, were left on their own to defend themselves from the extremist groups demolishing the land. Since March 2015, Joey Lawrence has gone on three trips gaining the trust and access to various armed soldiers from Kurdish guerrilla organizations. Lawrence uses medium format portrait photography as the vessel to highlight the central conflict of the destruction and tribulations of the Iran and Syria Civil War. In We Came From Fire, Joey writes, “From Iraq, one crosses the Tigris River into war-torn Syria, and is catapulted into a worldview crafted by the guerrilla. You are welcomed back by familiar faces wearing a palette of earth tones interrupted by a brightly colored scarf—likely given to them by their mothers. Conversations over cigarettes and tea with much too much sugar often drift to conspiracy theories about the entire world plotting to destroy their cause. Oddly, they begin to make sense. The guerrilla's secretive hierarchy vanishes due to its compartmentalization, and you find yourself among individual Kurds who left their families with the intention of defending their culture and way of life. We had once again entered the world of the Kurdish guerrilla.
Joey Lawrence sits down with The Daily Beast and shares his experiences documenting the daily life of Kurdish guerrilla organizations.
All of the photographs are from We Came From Fire: Photographs of Kurdistan's Armed Struggle Against ISIS by Joey Lawrence, published by powerHouse Books.
Why did you decide to become a photographer?
I began my life as a photographer at age 7 taking photos of my dinosaur toys with a 1.3 megapixel point and shoot camera. I began freelancing and making a living as a photographer in my teenage years and haven’t stopped since then. I don’t know any other life outside of being a photographer. Since the very beginning, it has been an incredible device for exploring the world, sharing the stories of inspiring people, and a catalyst for my own personal growth. Working as a freelance photographer can be as rewarding as it is grueling. I view it more as a vocation than a job or career.
Could you explain your process in photographing the various Kurdish guerrilla organizations and settings in the book?
This series from Kurdistan is a personal passion project, which means it was shot entirely independent and was self funded.
The Syrian war was one of the first to be broadcast live on social media, and became a source of curiosity for me. I followed the conflict beginning in 2011, which reveals my lack of knowledge at the time, so I had a lot to catch up on. My initial take on the conflict was provided by a collection of posts from civilians, activists and propagandists from the ground. This, in addition to American-centered mainstream news coverage provided me with a basic narrative of the conflict. But of course, what’s reported doesn’t always correspond with actual events that are happening. To put simply—no amount of research can provide you with the same knowledge you get from actually visiting an area. So my true learning experience began with my first day on the ground.
I worked with a pair of local Kurdish journalists, Jan and Ipek Ezidxelo. Without this couple, I wouldn't have gotten any of these photographs. We would make contact with military commanders and stay with their units for extended periods of time. My shortest trip of the four was just a couple weeks, and the longest was 40 days. If we caught wind of a military operation against ISIS, we would join it, but most of the photographs were made in calmer hours of the day away from clashes. We slept in bases or stayed with soldiers, as these are typically the safest areas to operate from.
What was one the most significant moments this project for you?
In a corner of the world that you wouldn’t expect, the Kurdish population began is own renaissance in a way. When the Syrian state retreated from predominately Kurdish areas, civilians in the region armed themselves against jihadist groups hellbent on genocide. As a photographer interested in culture, this was a very opportune window to do a project on the Kurdish people. The war became a backdrop for these fighters who were not only fighting ISIS, but preserving and reviving their suppressed identity. The frontlines was the setting in which all of this was taking place.
Exactly what it is you want to say with your photographs, and how do you actually get your photographs to do that? What do you want your viewers to take away from your work?
I’ve always had an interest in distinct cultures and endangered language groups. This series on the Kurdish struggle actually shares a commonality with many of my other projects—the Mentawai of Indonesia, and the tribes of Ethiopia's Lower Omo Valley, etc. These populations find themselves restricted within the borders of a nation state they had little to no say in creating. And consequently, they have been historically oppressed by an invading force, authoritative regimes, or another ethnic group. And so, witnessing Kurdish resilience prevail before me in their fight against ISIS provided me with inspiration, and a deep appreciation for their struggle. My goal was to create something intimate and humanizing. To which I think was depicted through the individual stories of each fighter I encountered. Each subject had a lot to contribute.
What were some challenges you faced while working on this project?
Any photographer embedded with the Kurds finds himself or herself well-protected, and I am thankful for that. But needless to say, there were some risky situations beyond anyone's control. The worst is when you feel helpless—when no amount of preparation or bravery will help you. During the military offensive to surround the ISIS-held city of Raqqa, I was with a mixed Kurdish and Arab unit of the SDF outside a small city called Tal al-Saman. Suddenly, our position became shelled by ISIS. Mortars were hitting 20-50 meters away from us in the open ground, and we were laying down, just waiting for it to end. The sound of the mortars falling from the sky almost sounded cartoonish, and unreal. It's not nearly as bad of a situation that many photojournalists I admire have been in, but to me—someone who is not an experienced war photographer—it was truly terrifying. And this experience of mine alone, was only a small snippet of the day to day lives of these fighters.
Was there a specific moment or any moment that held a great significance to you during this project?
I think the most meaningful moment for me is actually where the book gets its title from. “We came from fire, and we will return to fire,” is a well known Kurdish proverb, but first told to me around a campfire in the recently liberated city of Tell Hamis by Didar— a YPJ fighter. When I asked Kurdish friends about this phrase long after that trip, each gave a different answer to its meaning. Some explained it came from the pre-Islamic motifs of Zoroastrianism and fire worship, others used more modern nationalistic language to describe rituals that separate themselves from other groups.
The exact root of the phrase seemed like an unsolvable mystery as many of famous Kurdish mythologies and poems are kept alive from oral tradition. Oral traditions are passed down by generation, surviving due to the familiar themes that are able to resonate in each era. If it couldn’t be found, perhaps it was Didar the YPJ fighter herself who first birthed the phrase in this specific way, shaping and giving it a renewed meaning while sitting around a burning car tire in Tell Hamis, seeking to separate her cause from the jihadist graffiti on the walls of the compound that was under the control of ISIS just a few days before. “Kurds have lost most of their mythologies, but new mythologies will be based on these kids one thousand years into the future,” a Kurdish friend later told me. This phrase felt like it captured the essence of the photo series I was trying to create.
What did you learn in the making of this book?
First and foremost I learned the Kurdish perspective on this very intricate and complicated war. I believe that mainstream news depicted the Syrian conflict incorrectly for many reasons. It's nearly impossible to present the complexities of such a conflict in the format that works with modern corporate media. Presenting complex conflict analysis in a matter that simplifies it to a broader audience can be detrimental. This formatting leaves out essential elements that really, contribute to the larger narrative at hand.
The biggest surprise for me was the role that outside nations played into backing various rebel groups, especially with the nation of Turkey. I strongly believe Turkey has backed jihadist groups against the Kurds since the beginning of the war. You begin to feel that there is a larger international conflict being played out using the blood of local people. It essentially became another excuse for Turkey to perpetuate ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people under the disguise of “fighting terrorism” when realistically, Turkey has been funding these jihadist groups for years.
It is widely recognized that you are one of the “Most Influential Photographers on Social Media.” In your opinion, how can social media be a powerful tool for photographers? How has social media played a role in your photography?
The gatekeepers of photography, which were originally a small choice of publications, have dramatically shifted, and one can shoot and publish their own stories. Now photographers can share what they have to say with the entire world. This media landscape will continue to change in profound ways, both in the positive and the negative. Social media is a part of that.
What are some tips you would give to yourself if you started portrait photography all over again?
My main problem is hoarding away images for a long time, and not sharing them. I get too precious about it, and that quickly turns into fear. I over-complicate releasing projects. I should try to share them closer to when they’re shot. This is not just a problem I’ve had when I started, I still have it now, so this would be the advice that I should actually follow now.
What is your next step for this project and/or what is your next goal?
I will never lose my fascination for what the Kurds managed to achieve with such little international support, surrounded by hostile frontiers. I would love to visit Rojava again. But now that this series is done, I will start thinking about a new project. The idea of something new is so fresh in my mind, that I haven’t even considered it to be real yet.
For more information on the book: click here.