As the Islamic State group (IS) retreated from territory around Mosul in northern Iraq, thousands of former IS prisoners were liberated, many in severe states of trauma.
The photographer took posed portraits of displaced Yazidi people and other minorities who had suffered human rights violations perpetrated by IS, in camps for displaced people in northern Iraq.
The Yazidi religion is monotheistic and can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamian and Abrahamic roots. Due to their unique beliefs, the Yazidi people were seen by the Sunnis of IS as “devil worshippers”.
When IS occupied ancestral Yazidi lands in northern Iraq in 2014, IS fighters massacred around 5,000 Yazidi men. Women and girls were abducted and forced into sexual slavery, and boys forced to train as child soldiers.
Some 500,000 Yazidis were displaced. Many now live in refugee camps in Iraqi Kurdistan and Nineveh Governorate in Iraq. Jan Kizilhan, a psychologist working in one such camp at a centre for people who survived the atrocities, points to the effects of this severe personal and cultural trauma. These include feelings of helplessness and powerlessness, tension, and a variety of physical illnesses.
You'd covered the Yazidi exodus from ISIS back in 2014. At what point had you entered the unfolding story then, and did that experience inform the way you worked on this follow up?
I was already working in Iraq when ISIS swept through the north of the country taking Sinjar, a predominantly Yazidi district on the Syrian border. On August 11, 2014, I photographed tens of thousands of Yazidi streaming across the Iraqi border after fleeing their homes.
Many had their children kidnapped and husbands executed by ISIS. After clearing the Tigris River, most of the women collapsed in exhaustion with tears and grief.
On Aug 12, I flew on an Iraqi military rescue helicopter into the Sinjar mountains where many Yazidi remained trapped. The helicopter crashed and the pilot and four of the Yazidi died. This experience and my own trauma no doubt informed the work I made in 2019.
I understand you were now returning to the story five years later, with so many people still displaced and some of the abducted by ISIS beginning to be reunited after its fall. But they were not straight forward reunions with easy closure. What were your initial thoughts on how to approach the largely invisible and interior story of trauma visually?
It was my intention to create a set of portraits that convey the immense emotional toll of the war in Iraq.
It was important to make images that asked an audience to feel the psychological trauma that exists for many of the civilians who endured those recent years.
Most of the families I met were extremely open and welcoming. The Yazidi population in particular had suffered some of the most severe persecution and I believe they wanted to share their stories, they wanted to be heard. It was my intention to make photographs that honoured each subject with a sense of dignity, although I also attempted to make portraits that felt fraught and sad, for their experiences contained those emotions on a very raw level.
How long did you have to make this work on assignment?
Why was it important to you to put a human face to this issue and their experience?
I believe this story is incredibly important to hear and engage with.
The rise of ISIS can be partly attributed to the foreign intervention in Iraq, and now that intervention has been reduced, we cannot forget about the civilians most impacted by the larger geopolitical decisions and policies that have been supported by the US, European and Australian governments.
Do you have a sense of what was next for the people you photographed? Were they planning to return home or was that no longer an option?
The families I met had a lot of healing ahead of them. Some of the children had been kidnapped at four and reunited with their parents at eight years of age.
After spending half their lives with ISIS families, many of the children now spoke Arabic better than Kurdish. All this created a very complex assimilation when returning to their families. Some of the children missed their ISIS captors.
Noora Ali Abbas (60) sits with her grandson Harreth (6) in their tent in Salamiyah IDP Camp 2, Nineveh, Iraq. Noora says Harreth’s father was taken by IS in 2015, but Harreth is stateless and unable to get an Iraqi government ID because the authorities believe his father was an IS fighter. Noora suffers from depression and anxiety and doesn’t like to let Harreth out of her sight.