Guerrilla Fighters of Kurdistan

“Em ji agir hatin û em ê vegerin agir.”

“We came from fire, and we will return to fire.”

Ancient Kurdish proverb 

This ancient Kurdish proverb has been kept alive with the oral tradition of an endangered language—spoken in the privacy of the family home away from the watchful eyes of rulers and regimes, or sung in the mountains by dissident poets and rebels.

The ancient homeland of the Kurds— an ethnic minority of forty million people— is carved up across the modern-day borders of Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. 

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire near the end of World War I, the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement was approved by the United Kingdom, France, and the Russian Empire, and was set to grant the Kurds with their own contiguous sovereign territory. Eight years later, though, the Treaty of Lausanne amended the original agreement, and effectively abolished the Kurdish dream of independence. With this piece of paper, Kurdistan was slashed up among spheres of colonial influence, forming modern Turkey and establishing the northern borders of Syria and Iraq. The land of the Kurds was now divided into four different countries, splitting tribal lines, villages, and even families. 

The culturally distinct Kurdish people found themselves forcibly assimilated into the fabric of ethno-nationalistic states or were perceived as stateless nomads without documentation, their language banned, and persecuted as second class citizens.

As the latest conflict in Iraq and Syria spiraled out of control starting in 2011, the governments that once kept the Kurds down found themselves spread thin fighting against both rebellions and jihadist insurgencies. The Kurds were left on their own to defend themselves from the extremist groups ravaging the land. The indigenous, pre-Islamic faiths, as well as the secular nature of the Sunni Kurdish community was perceived as heretical by fundamentalist groups like ISIS, and were targeted for conversion or extermination. The Kurd’s war became one of cultural survival or genocide. 

Lawrence’s portraits are first and foremost an ethnographic study, highlighting Kurdish fighters as defenders of a distinct way of life, as well as the civilians caught between warring parties. During his initial research he couldn’t help but notice that there were many theories as to whom these Kurdish guerrilla groups were. The foreign press often romanticized the females in their ranks as fearless warrior women, while some of the photographer’s Turkish friends suggested that they were terrorists, operating more as opportunists in a bloody war. This work is aimed to uncover the truth, or at least to better understand the nuances behind the headlines. Portrait photography has a strange way of humanizing even the most distant of situations, and that was Lawrence’s goal with this project.


Joey Lawrence is a photographer and director celebrated for his unique balance of personally felt humanitarian projects and high profile commissions. His work ethos is one of self-determination and passion. As a self-taught professional photographer, he has built his style by dedicating vast amount of time and resources to personal projects designed to help expose the humanity in unseen communities and circumstances.

The Mosul Corridor, a portrait and aerial series the photographer shot in collaboration with Oxfam, was used for the fundraising and political effort to extinguish the oil well fires in Qayarrah, Iraq. The fires were eventually extinguished in part due to media pressure, allowing Iraqi families to rebuild their communities after the retreat of ISIS.

For WaterAid, Joey worked with a small village in Sierra Leone on long-term photography assignment to document a cultural study of the local community. 

Joey has traveled four times to Iraq and Syria to document the ongoing civil war. He has embedded with multiple sides of the conflict, from the government-held areas in Damascus, to the Free Syrian Army opposition rebels, Kurdish fighters of the YPG, and American coalition partners Syrian Democratic Forces. His ongoing work from Iraq and Syria has been published in Sunday Times Magazine, Vanity Fair Italia, the Independent, Rolling Stone, and many others. Portrait of Sarya with RPG, a Kurdish guerrilla fighter, was featured in London’s National Portrait Gallery as part of the Taylor Wessing Prize exhibition. Joey has further chronicled these incredible stories in his recent book, We Came From Fire: Kurdistan’s Armed Struggle Against ISIS (powerHouse books, 2019).

In his spirit of harnessing creativity to break boundaries by telling personal stories Joey wrote and directed his first scripted film entitled People of the Delta entirely in Southern Ethiopia. The film not only starred the local population as actors and invaluable creative collaborators, all of the film’s dialogue was in endangered languages of Dassanach and Hamar. 

Joey’s work has been consistently sought out by top brands and advertising clients, including notable work for National Geographic Channel, Canon, U.S. Army, Vanity Fair, Canada Goose, and Lavazza. His images are regularly featured in magazines and billboards around the world. Joey has photographed a recognizable faces including Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey, Robert De Niro, Danny DeVito, Jennifer Lawrence, Jessica Chastain, and two-time Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas, to name a few.