Next time you’re having a bad day at work – maybe the coffee machine is on the blink or the printer’s run out of toner – remember to put it in context. I mean, at least you’re not under ISIS mortar attack in Northern Syria, right?

This was the scenario facing Canadian photographer Joey L during his most recent trip to Kurdistan. Joey L (full name Joseph Lawrence) isn’t a conflict photojournalist, he’s a portrait photographer by trade. A prodigious young talent, he was hired at just 18 years old to create the poster for the movie adaptation of the first Twilight book. But his latest project has taken him a long way from the world of teenage romance fiction.

“We were on the frontline in the Raqqa countryside, an area that is frequently changing hands and probably one of the most dangerous places in the world at the time. We were near a truck that belonged to the Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF]. ISIS began firing at us with mortars. My local guide, Jan [Êzîdxelo], said that it’s better to lie on the ground then it is to run away.

“It’s scary because you’ve totally lost control; there’s nothing you can do. It makes you feel really helpless. I asked myself ‘How did I get into this situation? Oh yeah, I remember: I’m a photographer trying to do this project. That was a dumb decision!’”

The project in question spanned three years where Joey was embedded for several months with Kurdish guerrilla groups in Makhmour, Iraq and rebel-controlled Syria.

The region that Joey was in on this particular day had been under ISIS control for two years, and the nearest town was only liberated by the SDF 24 hours earlier.

“The only way to cope with the attack was gallows humour; to joke about the situation helps calm the nerves. As the mortars flew over our heads, I said to Jan, ‘I think they’re aiming for the truck, man’. His response: ‘No. They’re aiming for all of us.’”

Enter the (war) zone

For more than a year, journalists and photographers had been blocked from this region owing to a strict embargo enforced by all surrounding countries. But Joey found a way in. “I’d followed the conflict since 2011. A lot of people, like myself, were interested in the social media aspect of the Syrian Civil War. For the first time, it was being broadcast online. It was like reading old World War Two journals but broadcast in real time. I didn’t actually go out there until 2015; I was too naive and too scared before then.”

It was only when he saw another project involving his guide, Jan, that his mind was made up. He wanted to tell the story of what was happening on the ground from the Kurdish point of view. Self-funded and totally independent, he headed to Syria alone.

Three years and four trips later, the result is We Came From Fire: Kurdistan’s Armed Struggle Against ISIS. This photographic collection – part reportage, part portraiture – is both epic and intimate. The images across this feature don’t do justice to the scale of the work, but they should at least give you a feel for it.

Joey’s passion for the project is palpable: “As a photographer it’s impossible not to be drawn back again and again to a conflict that is writing new pages of history every day.”

I never thought the day would come when I would be so thankful to see an *NSYNC poster

The territory he covered is peppered with landmines and IEDs, not to mention the very real threat of an armed attack from ISIS fighters at any moment. As he highlights in one of the book’s revealing essays, “Unfortunately, Google Maps doesn’t have an ‘avoid ISIS’ button, as it does for traffic and tolls.” So no matter where you are, there’s risk.

Did he learn to suppress his fear? “Oh, I was scared of everything,” he tells me on a call from his studio in Brooklyn. “Especially on my first trip, my paranoia level was very high. But I built up a trust with the people that I was with, and my paranoia reduced. If you let these things get in the way, then you’re not going to achieve anything out there. If you do a project on fighters, you have to go where the fighting is. By the time of the second trip I was asking to go to the frontline. ”

Of course, frontlines in this region aren’t clear-cut: there are no trenches or barbed wire, but rather ever-evolving gradients, and a landscape littered with shells – from both sides.

In fact, territories are marked by rather different banners than you might expect. On his first trip to Iraq, Joey explains the relief he felt when he discovered the area they were in was controlled by the Kurdish guerillas: “I never thought the day would come when I would be so thankful to see an *NSYNC poster, but when I did, I let out an audible sigh of relief. There it was, faded but still visible in all its glory, hung in a makeshift CD shop. ISIS’s fundamentalist laws would have banned such a poster, especially of an American pop group.”

Fighting females

Some of Joey’s most striking images from his time in the Middle East are of the Free Women’s Units (FWU). For example, you have sweet-looking Sarya, who can’t be more than 20, propped up by her rocket-propelled grenade launcher. Or Silava and Berivan sharing a laugh in an abandoned ISIS base, while both holding onto their Kalashnikovs.

The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (known as the PKK) are fighting for their democratic rights. They’re warriors but also pride themselves on being intellectuals. And they are strong believers in gender equality; at least half of their ranks are female fighters.
The female militias have autonomy; all of the people in these units – from the foot soldiers to the commanders – are women. They may join forces with other groups such as the People’s Protection Units (YPG), but ultimately they are just as independent as any of the other groups are.

As one of the fighters explained to Joey: “If feminism’s goal is for women to take on an equal role to men in all aspects of society, then they must also be fighters. A woman holding a weapon is not a display of desperation, but rather a symbol of equality.”

There are other groups in this war that solely use females for propaganda – saying they have an armed female arm. But when it comes to the PKK and the YPJ (the all-female brigade of the YPG), there is no spin: “The women fight and die like anyone else.”

As an outsider, Joey found these FWUs the best people to embed with. “They will protect you well. They really believe in that. They are sweet to you, but harsh to their enemies. I wouldn’t want to be their enemy.”

When [ISIS] hear the voices of the women during battle, they draw back... their morale falls immediately

As one of the guerillas from the YPJ explains to Joey: “When [ISIS] hear the voices of the women during battle, they draw back. When they hear the women’s voices, their morale falls immediately.”

Usually the men’s and women’s units have separate bases; nearer to the frontline they will sometimes share outposts. Although their status may be equal, it’s here that one difference between the units did become obvious to Joey: “The men’s quarters were just filthy, and the women’s were very clean.” Another good reason for him to stay with the FWUs.

Many fighters are from the countryside; normal people, family people. But there comes a time when remaining passive is no longer an option. To these Kurds, it doesn’t matter if you’re man or woman, soldier or shepherd; what matters is the liberation of the land.

The Kurdistani fight against ISIS still receives relatively little media attention, so the locals are desperate to be heard. Early in his first trip, Joey was invited to a funeral of a soldier who died fighting in the city of Sinjar. The family were desperate for him to take photos of the funeral because they wanted people to know what was going on. “I’m a shy person. I was at a funeral of a culture I didn’t really understand. I felt a real reservation about pointing the camera in people’s faces. But they were the ones encouraging me to do it. I was filled by a sense of honour but also burden to do a good job.”

It’s rare to have such an open collaboration between subject and photographer in any walk of life, let alone within a conflict zone. Wherever he travelled, the locals were receptive; everyone had a story to tell.

This project is first and foremost about Kurdish culture; it happened to arise in the power vacuum of war

The ancient homeland of the Kurds, an ethnic minority of 40 million people, is carved up among the modern-day borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. They are the largest ethnic group in the world without their own country. Historically, the Kurdish people have found themselves forcibly assimilated into the fabric of nationalistic states, persecuted as second-class citizens, their language banned. ‘We came from fire, and we will return to fire’ is an ancient Kurdish proverb that is kept alive by oral tradition – spoken in the privacy of the family home, well away from the watchful eyes of rulers and regimes.

Joey’s project was never designed to be a report of war, but rather a reflection of culture.

“There’s a role for artists to be more focussed on culture. When the government of Syria retreated from these areas, they left Kurds on their own to defend themselves. They were a repressed minority group – and this was their cultural renaissance.

For the first time they were allowed to speak the language and wear their traditional clothing in public. It’s very hard to capture a cultural movement like this in the news. But it’s just as interesting and revealing of how people think.

“This project is first and foremost about Kurdish culture; it happened to arise in the power vacuum of war. The war provided the apocalyptic background.”

Endless conflict

What frustrates Joey, is that the situation has been made worse not better by foreign intervention: “What started as a civil war has developed into a proxy war between superpowers. Being out there and seeing it on the ground, you realise how unfair the world actually is. Any outside country participating in this only cares about their own interests.

“In the west, we’re not involved in these wars enough to actually feel it. It’s not like there’s rations, or the economic problems, or every young man is off fighting. The wars drag on so long because regular people don’t feel the ramifications – too busy with their jobs to pay attention to what’s happening.

“We have these slow mission-creep wars; these wars that drag on for way longer than World War Two. The Syrian Civil War is in its seventh year now. America has been involved since the very beginning but it’s so slow-drip that no one really cares.”

And that’s where Joey comes in. In his own small way, he’s trying to spread the word, to raise awareness of the unfolding conflict as the world looks the other way.

If humans are at the heart of the conflict, then the most appropriate choice to cover it is portrait photography

“Humans have a problem with compassion fatigue. If you look at too many photographs of people suffering they all start to blur together and you don’t care anymore. If I can elevate those problems to something stylistically different you can make people spend more time and make people look twice.

“If humans are at the heart of the conflict, then the most appropriate choice to cover it is portrait photography.”

You mightn’t have experienced a mortar attack, and hopefully you never will, but you’ll still recognise the people in Joey’s photographs; their despair and their resilience, their humanity and hope. ■

We Came from Fire: Kurdistan’s Armed Struggle Against ISIS, published by powerHouse Books. See more at joeylshop.com