In October 2012 Ivor Prickett made his first trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. Since then he has returned a number of times, not just to Iraqi Kurdistan, but also to the Kurdish area of Syria. I wanted to speak to Ivor about working in such a unique region of the world and pick his brains on the differences between going in alone or on assignment.
Ivor’s work over the years has focused largely on ideas of nationhood, displacement and national identity, especially in the Balkans.
“In my previous work in Croatia, Serbia, Kosovo and Abkhazia” Ivor said “I had looked at various issues surrounding displacement as a result of war. In particular I became fascinated by the notion of home and peoples’ desire to ‘return home’, even when it is clearly not the most sensible or practical option in the aftermath of conflict. I have a huge amount of respect for people who are willing to do this, and this respect is what drives me to document the struggle. [Iraqi] Kurdistan is in this sense a beacon of success, a place where the Kurds, who have been displaced and dispossessed over and over again, have managed to reclaim and rebuild a stable homeland for themselves. So in a way it is a continuation on my interest in the notion of home and returning after war, but in this case it is more about self-determination.”
As one of the largest stateless groups in the world, the Kurds make up the majority population in areas of Iraq (where they have the most autonomy), Syria, Turkey and Iran, with numerous nationalist organisations in each country. Some seek a fully independent Kurdish state, others simply more autonomy within their existing nation. The Kurds have their own language, culture and keenly developed national identity. It is a deeply complex, pan-border region, that is difficult to navigate physically, let alone psychologically.
“The first time I went to Kurdistan” Ivor recalls, “I traveled with a writer friend of mine and we intended to visit the PKK [Partiya Karkerên Kurdistan, or Kurdistan Workers' Party] in the mountains of Northern Iraq and also to cross into Northern Syria to explore the Kurdish areas there.” But perhaps expectedly, things didn’t go particularly smoothly. Or as Ivor described it, “two of the most frustrating weeks of my life.”
“With the PKK we were simply there at the wrong time to organise a visit as they were under heavy attack from the Turkish air force and essentially on the run. But with Syria it was a different, bureaucratic problem. In order to gain permission to cross into Syria we were told we needed some sort of ministerial approval. The problem was, no one seemed to know which ministry gave out such permission. We spent a whole week running from one ministry to another, even traveling to different cities hundreds of miles apart only to run down one dead-end after another! I left rather disheartened, without much appetite for going back anytime soon.”
In fact, Ivor found himself back in Iraqi Kurdistan less than a month later. This time on assignment for the Telegraph Magazine, covering the Syrian refugee crisis in Domiz refugee camp near the city of Dohuk. Traveling back on assignment so soon after leaving the area in a state of despondency was vital Ivor says to cement his interest in the region and the stories with it. “I took some relatively OK pictures and more importantly started to understand the situation in the region better, to realise the potential there, and my desire to create a more in-depth body of work… Although I probably initially thought it was a very separate issue I quickly realised that the Kurdish Syrian refugee crisis was very much part of the same story. This was not your usual cross border refugee crisis. For the Iraqi Kurds they were helping their fellow people and for the Syrian Kurds many felt they were coming to their new homeland.”
Having an assignment such as this can help focus a photographer’s work. Working on a (relatively) concise story can lay the foundations for something more personal and expansive. This was exactly the case for Ivor. Whilst on assignment for the Telegraph Magazine the groundwork was laid for the following trip and he could start piecing together in his mind the story he wanted to tell.
During this next trip Ivor went back alone to work on his own story, but not long after re-entering Iraqi Kurdistan, he picked up an assignment for Time magazine. “For the Time assignment I was with a fantastic writer, Jay-Newton Small, and of course when you work with such an experienced colleague it helps you to further your understanding of a story.”
This proved a vital step in the development of Ivor’s work in Kurdistan. “I had the chance to listen to [the writer’s] discussions and interviews with other people, but perhaps more importantly you can talk between each other throughout the day and in the evening about what you are seeing and learning. As we all know being a photographer can be a very solitary existence so having someone to share thoughts and ideas with on the ground is invaluable. It is also worth mentioning that I benefited hugely from the great connections that both Jay and Time had and the access that brought us. I was able to see and do things that I never would have been able to on my own, such as visiting the frontline of an armed stand-off between Kurdish and Iraqi forces on the outskirts of Kirkuk.”
After returning home to Istanbul, Ivor began editing the work from Kurdistan he had shot so far. There was something there he felt, but it wasn’t finished. So, he began pitching again for further assignments. Ruth Eichorn at GEO Germany showed some interest and commissioned Ivor to return in September this year to work with a writer.
“I think both GEO and I were interested in the speed of development and apparent success story that is Kurdistan. I had started to touch on these things during my various trips, photographing the malls and newly built-up areas in places like Erbil, but also vignetting this with the surrounding instability and conflict that is going on nearby. I presented it as a surreal, juxtaposed region trying to find its identity in the midst of ongoing upheaval.”
Ivor’s pictures, which will be featured in GEO in the New Year, have a quiet and somewhat contemplative sensibility. The images are both subtle and surprising, depicting a ‘nation’ full of contradictions. Ivor’s Kurdistan seems to be a place that is on the verge of a new phase in its history.
Josh Lustig – SOCIAL Editor