Joey L: The Guerrilla Fighters of Kurdistan
For almost all of us, the wars that our government engages in overseas are impossible to understand. They are happening on the other side of the world for reasons that are either too complex to understand, or apparently not worthy of our government explaining or debating those reasons. But the truth is, they are partially our wars. This is a democracy, so what our government does, we do. The system doesn't always look like that, especially in our latest conflict fighting ISIS in the Middle East. That conflict has yet to even be discussed formally by our Congress whose constitutional responsibility is to debate and approve our military action. But here we are, nine months into this quasi war being fought by our Executive Branch of government with the work of our men and women in uniform. With so little formal debate over this conflict, it’s been up to our media to simplify the conflict. But what’s happening in Kurdistan is complex. Between state militaries, local forces, and guerrilla fighters, there’s a lot to keep track of, and it doesn’t fit squarely into how the Western world has traditionally compartmentalized and reported on conflict.
Photographer Joey L was so captivated by what was happening in the region of Iraq and Syria known as Kurdistan, that he felt compelled to head into the fire and see what he could discover there. “I set out to uncover the truth, or at least to better understand the nuances behind the headlines,” he explains on his blog. “Portrait photography has a strange way of humanizing even the most distant of situations, and that was my goal with this project.” He knew it was going to be a terrific challenge, so he opted to venture out on his own – with the incredible support of his fixers Jan and Ipek Ezidxelo. What he found on the ground is almost unbelievable.
When Joey got to JFK he was halfway expecting an ordeal and was not let down. After learning his passport was flagged he had a half hour conversation with two plain clothes Homeland Security officers that was as much about subtext as the content of their words. After finally being cleared to leave the states, Joey headed first to Turkey, then Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, and then to meet the PKK (Kurdistan Worker’s Party), a mixed gender guerrilla group who is officially a terrorist group according to the US Government, but is supported by coalition airstrikes.
Joey arrived at their camp informed only by their varied reputations of both “Warrior Women” as the American Press has gushed, and as terrorists like Joey’s Turkish friends had called them. In person, it was a very different situation. “My first encounter with the PKK took me by surprise,” says Joey. “As much as I had been told in advance of their kindness, I was not quite prepared for the hospitality I was treated with when staying at their base for four days. The guerrilla’s warm and bubbly nature can almost be deceiving and their reputation of fear fighters almost seems to vanish after spending just a few hours with them.” By imbedding himself with these fighters, Joey achieved the access required to capture the images he traveled there to get.
His portraits show these usually faceless fighters in a way that Americans, especially, are not used to seeing them. But these photographs remind us that they are human beings fighting for a land that they love and a people they are a part of. “Most residents and refugees will tell you that guerrilla groups like these play extremely decisive roles in battles against the Islamic state. To many, they’re like local heroes,” Joey explains. In his photographs you can imagine the families these fighters go back to, and the local residents who admire them. No longer shadowy figures gliding through thermal footage, we get to see them as people.
Joey’s time with the PKK represents only a small part of his trip to Kurdistan. To get the full story behind his journey, check out his full journal here. Before Joey left, he grabbed his GoPro at the last moment, just in case “anything interesting happened.” He ended up cutting all the footage together into a half-hour documentary about his time in Kurdistan. The accompanying video can be found here.