Among the warriors: Extraordinary photos portray the lives of the Kurdish volunteers resisting Isis in Syria and Iraq

Joey Lawrence's challenge lay in 'humanising the most distant of situations'

Joey Lawrence
Saturday 06 June 2015 01:06
Kurds on patrol in the Makhmour district of Iraqi Kurdistan
Kurds on patrol in the Makhmour district of Iraqi Kurdistan

In Kurdish regions of Iraq and Syria, volunteer fighters have played decisive roles in battles against Isis and other militant organisations. Despite meagre official government support and only light weapons, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), People’s Protection Units (YPG), and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) guerrilla groups are unwaveringly motivated.

Brothers, sisters, farmers and university students have taken up arms together against a common enemy – radical jihadiist groups that contest the secular social reformations in Kurdistan.

During my initial research, I couldn’t help but notice that there were many theories as to who these Kurdish guerrilla groups were. The foreign press often romanticised them as fearless warrior men and women, while some of my Turkish friends suggested that they were operating more as opportunists in a bloody war. I set out to uncover the truth. Portrait photography can have a strange way of humanising even the most distant of situations, and that was my goal with this project.

Amara and her kin were the target of a violent genocide (Joey Lawrence)
The aftermath of an Isis attack on Yazidis as they fled from the city of Sinjar in Iraq (Joey Lawrence)

I met Amara – above, wielding a Kaslashnikov rifle – in the mountains of Sinjar. As a young woman of the Yazidi religious minority, she and her kin became the target of a violent genocide by Isis that killed over 5,000 and displaced 200,000 others from the region. It was this atrocity that compelled Amara to join the newly formed Shengal Resistance Unit. After training, she will join the fight against Isis.

Members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party in Makhmour (Joey Lawrence)
A portrait of Ronahi, a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, taken in the Qandil mountains of Iraq (Joey Lawrence)

These young women may be diminutive but they are extremely formidable. Some carry the signs of a gruelling conflict: chemical burns, chapped hands, scars. All the women are treated as equals by their male counterparts – but it is the men who tell me that a woman can fight better because she is a natural creator of the world, so she therefore has more to lose – and therefore more to fight for.

Kurdish fighters gather round a fire after they have liberated Tel Hamis (Joey Lawrence)
Ugab, a member of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, photographed in Tel Hamis, Syria (Joey Lawrence)

Upon my arrival into Sinjar, it was claimed that Isis still held 70 per cent of the city, Kurds 30 per cent. I spent a few days on a PKK resistance line, observing the battle unfold in the city, sometimes a little too close for comfort. But although I was witness to an endless barrage of gunshots, shelling, and even a vehicle-borne suicide bomber, as a portrait photographer, I had the luxury of going home. The guerrillas have made the pledge not to retreat; they have visions of a free Kurdistan – and that does not come without a hard-fought war.

Joey Lawrence is a photographer, director and author based in New York. He blogs at

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