Photography

How to Photograph a War When You're Not a War Photographer

Joey Lawrence normally photographs celebrities or tight communities around the world. This time round, he met the Kurds battling ISIS.

by Pierre Longeray; photos by Joey Lawrence
12 August 2019, 11:01am

Silava and Berivan laughing together in an abandoned ISIS base in Shengal. Nineveh Governorate, Iraq on the 23rd of November, 2015 

This article originally appeared on VICE France.

When photographer Joey Lawrence isn't taking portraits of the most famous faces in the world, he likes to mix things up by working in war zones. In March of 2015, the Canadian took a flight to Sulaymaniyah, a city in the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region, to photograph Kurdish militants fighting against the Islamic State (ISIS). His aim was to capture the humanity of his subjects, instead of the destruction seen in traditional war imagery.

Four years and four trips later, Lawrence has published We Came From Fire with powerHouse Books. The book contains intimate photos of the Kurdish fighters, accompanied by Lawrence's travel diary. I called him at his home in New York to talk about how he ended up in Iraq and Syria, and what day-to-day life is like for the militants on the frontline.

VICE: Hey, Joey. Why did you decide to tell this story?
Joey Lawrence: At the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, I was following it just like everyone else, watching the news and paying attention to the Arab Spring. One thing stood out to me very quickly: it was the first time a conflict of this size played out in real time on Twitter. There were a lot of citizen journalists posting on social media – and Jihadi groups, too.

I ended up watching some videos by Kurdish fighters in late 2012, and I kept thinking, 'Who are these people resisting the government, the rebels and the Jihadists?' My work has always focused on endangered language groups and cultures, and I saw similarities between the Kurds and projects I've done with Ethiopian tribes.

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Perwîn, a Kurdish fighter, inside an abandoned church in Shengal, on the 11th of November, 2016.

What motivated you to go?
I decided to go in 2015 after I managed to get in touch with a very good fixer. I'm not a war photographer by any means, so during my first trip I was really worried about everything and didn't know who to trust. My only knowledge came from what I read online – but when you get to a place, things are very different.

How did you mitigate your inexperience as a war photographer?
The way I planned it was to fly to Sulaymaniyah first, which is a totally safe city. Then I'd meet my fixer, have a good sense for the people and take it slowly, step-by-step, all the way to the frontline. What really helped was that I found the Kurdish people very trustworthy, and I felt protected. Any photographer that goes to Rojava [an autonomous region in northeastern Syria] comes back with this love for the people – even journalists become like activists in defending them.

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In the distance, a statue erected in honour of the martyr fighters of Kobane. Rojava, Syria, on the 13th of November, 2016.

Isn't it difficult getting access to Kurdish fighters?
At that time it was [a lot easier] than now. All you needed was a well-connected fixer to explain your project and act as a "cultural bridge". For me, it was different because I wasn't working for a publication; what I had was an iPad loaded with other projects. My fixer would say: "This is a cultural photographer, here are some of his photos of African tribes." It was really different for them, I think. They helped me out a lot, letting me see literally anything that I wanted to see.

Still, you could say that Kurdish fighters have better things to do than pose for a stranger while war is raging.
Most of war is actually quite boring, and it's only when they're doing an offensive that there's actual action. If you think about the most accurate depiction of war, it would literally just be sitting across from somebody and looking at them. So getting access can be easy if you do it the right way. You sit with the commander, you show your [past] work and you demonstrate knowledge of what their movement stands for. As soon as that person is OK, the rest are usually OK.

One story comes to mind that highlights this: it was one of the first days of shooting and I was taking individual portraits of all the fighters against a backdrop. As I was photographing, I noticed that the other fighters were hanging around and watching. At the end they said: "Can you take a photo of us together? We want a group shot because we're a unit, we're not individuals." So we took this huge group picture in their trench. This speaks to how Kurds see themselves as a collective body of fighters. The reason why they're so effective is ideological, but they're also very selfless and they operate as a group.

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Kids playing on a tank after school. Nineveh Governorate, Iraq, on the 22nd of November, 2015

What was the mood like on the frontline?
The fighters always keep each other in good spirits; there's a lot of camaraderie. These are not only fellow fighters, but groups of friends, because they spend all day together. When you see a photo of them sitting on the front line laughing, it's very realistic. They're not laughing just because it's weird that this guy's taking their photo, they really have this larger than life sense of being.

Isn't it weird to take this type of photos in a war zone?
People have a problem with seeing an endless cycle of war imagery – it's called compassion fatigue. Over time, your mind just turns it off because, as humans, we can’t handle these things. The portraits against a solid background are meant to change things up. When you look at the picture, you only see the fighter. You can focus more on their clothing and expressions.

Using a portrait technique, you put humanity back to the centre of the project. Does that mean the conflict fades into the background?
No, because the book still has a lot of war imagery. This is more of a project on Kurdish culture, and one of the best ways to see Kurdish culture is photographing the fighters that have to defend it. When they go to the front line and they fight, they're not just fighting for land. They are really holding the culture together, protecting it from forces like ISIS that want to wipe them off the face of the earth. We should not try to sugarcoat the war, but in this project it is in the background.

Scroll down to see more photos from Joey Lawrence's 'We Came from Fire'.

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Kurdish fighters in Makhmur, Erbil governorate, on the 13th of March, 2015.
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PKK fighters posing next to the trenches in Makhmur. Erbil Governorate, Iraq, on the 4th of March, 2015.
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YPG fighters in front of Al-Hawl. Rojava, Syria, on the 4th of December, 2015.
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Cudi Serhed, commander of operations, on the frontline for the armed branch of the PKK in Shengal. Nineveh Governorate, Iraq, on the 22nd of November, 2015
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Portrait of Sarya in Makhmur. Erbil Governorate, Iraq, on the 4th of March, 2015.
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A family watches as firefighters try to keep the flames away from their house in Qayyarah. Nineveh Governorate, Iraq, on the 26th of October, 2016.