Fighting ISIS: Joey L's Insight and Vanity Fair Italia
It's hard to find trust in a war zone, especially if it's a war whose realities are almost entirely misunderstood at home. When Joey L first traveled to the Middle East to embed with the YPG (People's Protection Units), it took him a while to warm up to the war zone, and understandably so. It's not like what you read in the paper. Well, it is, but it's one thing to read about a firefight and something completely different to be in it. Joey recently returned to the conflict areas towards the end of 2015, spending a month and a half photographing the the newly formed alliance "Syrian Democratic Forces" in Syria. These are the people fighting ISIS and each of these groups has their own power structures, their own brigades, and their own goals. Joey’s goal is to get as big of a picture of these people as possible, but this month Vanity Fair Italia is running eight of Joey's images in an attempt to help us all understand better what's happening in the fight against ISIS.
“Even to this day I don’t try to pretend to be some hardcore photojournalist who’s not afraid of anything,” Joey explains. “These groups really have their stuff figured out and they’re well organized, they’re not just a bunch of rag-tag guerrilla fighters that hit and then run away. They have frontlines, several resistance lines, and exit strategies.” As the American presumptions of what a “rebel” is fell away, Joey was able to relax a little into the flow of what he was seeing and doing. That didn’t mean it wasn’t an easy place to be, of course. “A lot of things you see are quite frankly terrifying,” Joey reminds us, but it did allow him to focus on photographing his subjects so he could bring the story back for us to understand better.
There’s so much more that goes into fighting a real war than firing bullets. There’s minesweeping after taking over cities, and life at the base. There’s cleaning weapons and cooking lunch. There’s life. When journalists come through for just a few days they don’t typically get the full picture. Joey’s extended stay offers a view of what it’s really like for the rebels in a way we don’t typically get to see. But this commitment has compounded in on itself. His access has made it able for him to tell a richer story, which in turn builds trust and gets him even more honest access. “After my first trip, the spokesman/commander for YPG shared my video on his Facebook page,” Joey says. “All his forces saw it and they all know about it so when I went back he was the first person that we reached out to and he helped facilitate more access. I was seeing a lot more things because they trusted me to be honest about what I observed and tell the real story.” There’s an international effort to discredit these forces, with propaganda coming out of Turkey and ISIS. But Joey is committed to showing the truth of what he sees.
After everything that Joey has seen and learned he gets why America's plan is what it is. It makes sense to go full force after ISIS right now, but that plan has its limits. ISIS is causing the most damage right this moment, but if they're rooted out our problems don't end. It's far more complicated than that. ISIS rose in a power vacuum whose solution is political. “[The US] also has to honor political projects of the Syrian Democratic Forces and give special attention to what they plan to do afterwards,” explains Joey. It’s one thing to understand a war from clips on the nightly news and from Presidential candidates on the stump, but something completely different on the ground. As Joey says, it's not crucial that everyone on American soil understand everything that's happening in the Middle East, even in wars being fought in our name. But if we refuse to examine any complexities or refuse, to support systems that are different than ours, we can expect this fight to go on for a very, very long time.
You can find the Joey L Vanity Fair Italia story here.