- Interview by
- Arvind Dilawar
In some ways, Joey Lawrence’s photograph of Sarya, a Kurdish militant, is an example of classic studio portraiture: the lighting cast against the subject’s posed figure illuminates her features, conveying a heightened sense of dignity. What sets the portrait apart is the rocket-propelled grenade launcher in Sarya’s hands.
The portrait is just one of many striking photographs collected in Lawrence’s recently released book, We Came from Fire, which spans his three trips to Iraq and Syria to document the Kurdish people’s war against ISIS. The portraits and battlefield landscapes focus on the YPG and YPJ militias — mixed-gender and all-women units, respectively — which the Kurds formed as self-defense forces during the early Syrian Civil War.
Originating from Kurdish separatists organized as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), the YPG/J have since embraced the libertarian-socialist ideals of “democratic confederalism” and spearheaded the most successful offensives against ISIS as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a multiethnic alliance of local militias.
Through his arresting photography and insightful travelogues, Lawrence brings readers to the frontlines of Rojava — the autonomous, Kurdish-controlled region in Northern Syria — and into a radical movement for freedom, justice, and peace in the Middle East. Jacobin contributor Arvind Dilawar recently spoke with Lawrence about the source of his interest in the Kurds, his approach to documenting their struggles, and the future of a region indelibly shaped by imperialism.
Your background is in portraiture, rather than conflict photography. What drew you to the Kurds in Syria, who have been at war with ISIS since 2013?
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, 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, authoritarian regimes, or another ethnic group.
Witnessing Kurdish resilience prevail before me in their fight against ISIS provided me with inspiration and a deep appreciation for their struggle.
In We Came from Fire, you touch upon the revolutionary aspirations of the Syrian Kurds. How would you describe their politics?
The Syrian Kurds of the YPG and YPJ follow the philosophy and writings of Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the PKK. Although the PKK was originally formed in 1978 as a separatist Kurdish political party based on Marxist-Leninist principles and began its armed struggle in 1984, the ideology of the group has evolved significantly over the decades.
After being forced from his operational center in Syria, Öcalan was captured in 1999 while on the run in Nairobi, Kenya, and has been in a maximum-security prison on Imrali Island in Turkey ever since. Confined to his cell in virtual isolation, Öcalan delved into political theory, requesting and receiving hundreds of books on sociology, philosophy, and political theory. The authors Öcalan encountered would greatly influence the future role of the PKK, in particular the work of the American social theorist Murray Bookchin. Bookchin advocated ecologically sensitive, decentralized power-sharing in local communities as the basis of all decision-making, suggesting general assemblies at the local level were the true path to democracy.
Öcalan critiqued the Marxist-Leninist roots of the organization and introduced the theory of democratic confederalism as a new way forward in 2005. “Democratic confederalism” advocates for self-administration in Kurdish areas, which could operate in duality with the Turkish state, as well as the other parts of Kurdistan. Democratic confederalism was described as not just for Kurds, but as a system that could be replicated by any population in the Middle East. This collective mass of small units could confederate with one another to form a new kind of local power that challenged the authority of centralized states.
Öcalan’s ideas have inspired many movements in all four parts of Kurdistan [the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Bakur (Turkey’s Kurdistan), Rojhalat (Iranian Kurdistan), and Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan)]. These new organizations are independent and decentralized from the PKK leadership, which is now based in the Qandil Mountains of Iraq, but they still very much share a common ideology — a “Kurdish hive-mind” of Öcalanism or “Apoism.” Apoism has manifested itself socially, politically, and also in various armed groups, who view Öcalan’s writings both as a blueprint for self-determination and as a style of armed resistance. With the advent of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, the disintegration of the Syrian state itself would offer further grounds for Öcalan’s theories to be set in motion.
Rather than opening with an introduction, We Came from Fire immediately moves into photographs of Kurdish soldiers, slain ISIS fighters, and both natural and war-torn landscapes. Was it your intention to drop readers into the middle of the war, so to speak?
The project was first and foremost a photography series, so I always envisioned the book like that. Over time, my essays and journals from the trips grew and grew, and I felt it was necessary to include those as well to provide a greater context for the images. So in the end, my book designer, Yolanda Cuomo, and I decided not to disrupt the flow of the images with text, but rather separate the two sections.
Some of the most striking photographs emerge from the juxtaposition of studio portraiture and conflict photography, such as the classically composed portraits of Kurdish soldiers holding Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Was this aesthetic something you had in mind going into the project?
My work always is based around a portrait series. Usually the subject is immersed in their surroundings, giving a sense of place, but it’s always more about the human. I stylize some elements, such as lighting, to elevate those in the frame.
I had seen striking photojournalism spanning the generations of war in Kurdistan, but the portrait project I envisioned was different. I felt the public — myself included — was becoming fatigued with images of war. War, particularly when it’s not happening on one’s shores, can feel far away and unrelatable. However, if a certain shift of style is enacted, then the viewer may actually pay heed.
This is what makes portrait photography unique from more purist strands of documentary photography. Raw photojournalistic work is important because the camera becomes an outside observer; the viewer may never meet the subjects, but we get a sense of the outside events shaping their lives. However, the realm of portrait photography is an entirely different medium of expression — the core of the image relies on human interaction, which most often requires trust, empathy, and a responsibility to the subject you are photographing.
What’s been the response to the book? Have any of the subjects been able to see it yet?
The response to the book has been incredible, especially among the Kurdish community. The Kurds see these fighters as heroes and defenders of their culture. We have read too many articles in the media where even properly naming Kurdish groups has to be followed up with another sentence that Turkey considers them terrorists. This normalizes the viewpoint of the oppressor. Other political parties and armed groups in the region do not have to live within this double standard — why do the Kurds? My book has been received well because it is the opposite of this: It is an unapologetic study from the ground level.
The book has also been received well by the arts and photography community. These are people who may know just the basics of the Kurdish struggle, but enter this new world through portrait photography.
The subjects themselves have been aware of the ongoing project since the very first trip. There is a local bookstore called Peyk in Southern Kurdistan and Iraq doing home delivery service. It is just a matter of time before copies of the book make it to the Syrian side of Kurdistan. Getting books to Turkey is difficult because it is too dangerous for citizens to have them. Even a “like” or “retweet” on social media of one of these images means jail time for an average citizen. So I don’t send books to Turkey to protect the recipient. But I am confident a few will end up there anyway.
While the Syrian Kurds have emerged victorious against ISIS, the threat of their historical nemesis, Turkey, is now graver than ever. What do you think the future holds for the Kurds?
We can see direct proof of what Turkey hopes to achieve against the Syrian Kurds through their actions during the invasion of Afrin in January 2018. Alongside Islamist rebels, the Turkish Army invaded a Kurdish-controlled region that had been peaceful and stable throughout the entire Syrian Civil War. The Turkish Army and their rebel allies openly committed war crimes that the greater international community turned a blind eye to, including ethnic cleansing.
It is very clear they hope to accomplish the same in other parts of Syrian Kurdistan where the YPG, YPJ, and SDF are in power. What is currently stopping them is the presence of American and coalition troops involved in anti-ISIS missions.
A greater political solution that would benefit the Kurds of the region would be a peace deal between the PKK and the Turkish government, as well as a political settlement between YPG/J, SDF, and the Syrian government. Without such a negotiation, we risk seeing not only another Afrin-style invasion, but also continued armed struggle and instability in the entire region.
Do you think a political solution, either between the PKK and the Turkish government or the Syrian Kurds and the Syrian government, is in the cards?
I believe that a political solution is possible between all sides, but the war against the Kurds is being harnessed for political gain by Turkish politicians. Ceasefires have held in the past between the PKK and the Turkish government, and before the most recent ceasefire was broken in the summer of 2015, anything seemed possible. The Syrian Kurds have already put out signals for negotiations.
Superpowers like the United States and Russia can act as mediators and guarantors to solve the crisis. No amount of humanitarian aid or weapons would be as beneficial as a deal like that.