Joey L Sees Through The Smoke with Oxfam
The current conflicts in the Middle East have been waging for well over a decade, and when we talk about them it’s easy to think of the whole region as a black pit of horror and devoid of any real life. We’re lead to think that it’s terror and death, but in reality there are families, school children, and budding curiosity. Even under the pressures of terrorism and gunfire life finds a way. At the end of last year, Joey L traveled with Oxfam to Iraq to photograph not only the oil wells that had been set alight, but also the people that live in the shadows of black clouds rising from the flaming wells. The goal was to tell a story to inspire aid from afar, and that’s exactly what the results were. “Projects like this are why I became a photographer in the first place,” Joey told PetaPixel in an interview.
This trip was to be Joey’s third time in the region, making him an experienced navigator of political and security concerns. For some with the ability to translate human stories into visual communication it’s a moral imperative to use their skills to do just that. For Joey, he keeps going back because it’s become a calling. “When I first started planning the project with Amy Christian, the head of Oxfam media based in Iraq, we knew we wanted to do something unique,” explains Joey. “I proposed using both aerial and portrait photography, two styles a little different than traditional photojournalism. The war in Iraq and Syria has drawn on for so long, that the average viewer can actually grow fatigued by the daily bombardment of visuals. We needed a different perspective so that Oxfam could call upon people to care.” It’s not that Joey and Oxfam wanted to shock viewers so that they would send charity to Iraq, but they did need to reveal different stories and show that there’s more to the conflicts than what breaks through on the nightly news.
Joey knows how to handle the weather and the social complexities of photographing in a warring region, but that doesn’t mean the project was easy by any measure. “The challenges never ended,” Joey says. “On our first day, we had to get permission to fly the quadcopter from the various mukhtars [community leaders] and armed groups that control the region because ISIS uses similar drones to drop explosives or to scout out military formations to plan counter-attacks. ISIS drones are commonly shot down, so we didn’t want to risk it. This area was close to the frontline and the civilians had just been freed from ISIS, so as you can imagine the tension was high.” But thanks to the work that Oxfam every day, Joey and his team were able to convince the leaders in the area to let them use the drones, and communicated effectively enough to ensure that their drones were left untouched. Even though their drones weren’t under direct fire there were still incredible challenges thanks to the thick, black, oily smoke spewing off the wells.
When looking at Joey’s photographs of families, running school children, and an Earth that seems to be aflame, it’s easy to forget that we get to see these incredible images thanks in part to his equipment. Equipment that was never designed to be in the midst of war and burning oil “Working with electronic cameras in this was a nightmare - fumbling around with a flashlight, the gear itself became oily to the touch and even putting your hands on anything would turn them black,” Joe explains. “The lenses would get fogged over with black soot and had to be wiped clean every twenty minutes. Sometimes I had to fly the drone back to us by just relying on just the internal map /guidance system, because the smoke was so thick we couldn’t see our way from the air by using the aerial camera. I remember having a shower afterward and the water running brown. If this is how bad it was for us after just a few days, imagine being a local and living there.” The imperative to imagine that situation is exactly why we need people like Joey L traveling to these areas so we can remember that what’s happening is more than just statistics. It’s more than clips on your TV at 7pm, narrated from a studio. Joey’s subjects find love, life, and joy, even when everything around them is on fire.