The battle to defeat ISIS involved some of the most brutal urban combat since World War II. Between 2016 and 2018, Irish photographer Ivor Prickett worked on the ground in Iraq and Syria on assignment for the New York Times, reporting on the events that culminated in the final days of the so-called ‘Caliphate’.
But what is left in the wake of conflict? What happens when the news cycle ends? Since his early days as a photographer, Prickett has been interested in the aftermath of war and its humanitarian consequences. Published in 2019, End of the Caliphate is the enduring result of the photographer’s time embedded with Iraqi and Syrian Kurdish forces; a record not only of the combat he witnessed, but also its tragic toll on the civilian population and urban landscape it unfolded in.
In this interview, he speaks with Eefje Ludwig for LensCulture about how the book came about, his work process on the ground and the impulse to create an impact with photography.
Eefje Ludwig: Your book End of the Caliphate came out recently, rounding off the years you spent documenting the battle to defeat ISIS for the New York Times. Why did you decide to bring this work together in the shape of a book?
Ivor Prickett: Well I shot most of the work in the book while on assignment. I was working as a photojournalist, documenting this slowly unfolding news story over the course of more than two years essentially. As much as doing the stories for the New York Times was the best platform I could have had at the time to tell the story of what was happening to people on the ground, they did have certain shelf life. That is, as with all news cycles, the tide would change and people would move on and forget about places like Mosul. So after about a year of covering the story I started to think about putting this into book form. Really that’s where it came from—the feeling that I wanted the stories I had gathered to live on after the news had moved on.
EL: Shooting reportage and building a body of work for a book seem like tasks that require two very different ways of working. Can you talk a bit about making the book? What did you want to convey with it?
IP: The book came about after I started putting together a rough edit and design of how I imagined it to be. The thing was I was still in the middle of shooting the work so it wasn’t a finished article. But I was kind of able to project how it would turn out and what I wanted it to say. I pitched the idea to a number of publishers and while most got back to me pretty quickly to say they liked the work, all would inevitably say they didn’t really publish photojournalism or war photography anymore because it didn’t sell. Some proposed crowdfunding the book but I wasn’t really interested in doing that because I wanted someone to publish the book because they believed in it. I held out and a few months passed before Gerhard Steidl called me up to say he wanted to do it. This was a dream come true for me. Steidl had been my number one choice but I had sent in the proposal with little hope that I would hear anything back.
Through making the book with Steidl, I wanted to chronicle the incredible hardship people endured during and after the fight to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria. I wanted to create a lasting document of what had passed in places like Mosul and Raqqa because I really felt they were monumental moments in the regions’ history and were in many ways the result of failed intervention in the region. They were not problems we could distance ourselves from and say we had simply come in and done a good thing by bombing ISIS. I want people to remember that—and a book far outlasts any other form of published photography.
EL: During your career, you have worked in different situations and countries struck by war or where the population were living and dealing with conflict. How was working and documenting life in Mosul different from the other stories and situations you have covered since you started working as a photographer?
IP: Working in Mosul was very different from anything I had really covered before. It was incredibly brutal fighting and hundreds of thousands of people were caught in the middle of it. I was also, in the end, able to access the frontlines more than I ever had been and maybe ever will be able to again. I was able to get into a position where I could see the violence that was affecting people unfolding in front of me. More often than not in modern day conflict situations, or at least for me in the past, you are coming in after something has happened and seeing the aftermath.
In Mosul I was seeing people at the moment they were fleeing their home under fire, being on the scene seconds after people had been killed in a bombing, walking into ISIS dens where there was still warm tea on the stove. It was incredibly dangerous work but at the same time I felt incredibly privileged to be there. In a way, that’s why I was so compelled to try and make meaningful work, because I knew I was lucky to be there and had an important role to play as a photojournalist.
EL: In your work you focus on the civilian aspect of the story adding another layer to a more traditional photojournalism. Can you tell me more about your approach?
IP: I have always been more interested in the toll war takes on people rather than the war itself. I think in the beginning when I first started out, I was working more like a documentary photographer and would work in post-conflict environments because it allowed me to get closer to people and spend time with them. I think that early understanding and learning curve I went through as a young photographer has informed what I do now in more hectic conflict situations. That is, I am still trying to connect with people on a very human level even if it is a fleeting moment.
I am accustomed to using my heart and empathy to make photographs and I still try and apply that even when working in places like Mosul. It’s not easy when things are moving so quickly and you very often don’t even have the chance to speak with people you are photographing, but I am still looking for that unspoken connection or pang of empathy that has always compelled me to make photographs.
EL: What would a ‘working-day’ look like in the years you were there?
IP: Well a working day when I was in the field was a pretty gruelling one. When covering the battle for Mosul I was mostly embedded with various units of Iraq’s counter terrorism forces, who were leading the fight against ISIS inside the city. Along with my fixer and security adviser/medic we would be living with the soldiers near the frontline inside Mosul, which at times was still largely controlled by ISIS. When the unit you were with was involved in an operation that would usually mean getting up at 4am in the morning to get ready to move out before the sun came up.
I was there all through the winter, spring and summer so experienced the whole spectrum of varying Iraqi weather. It can get quite cold in the winter so 5am missions were usually a pretty frigid affair. In the summer, getting up that early was lovely because it was the only time of day there was any respite from the intense heat. The day would then involve moving with the troops as they battled to retake areas from ISIS and in the process save civilians who were caught in between. There was a lot of sitting and waiting around the move and then intense moments of battle.
They were adrenaline fuelled days where you would sometimes be on your feet or in a heightened state of awareness for 12 hours or more. By the time it came to lying down, in whatever abandoned house the troops had taken over, you were so exhausted it didn’t matter that there were constant explosions or sounds of radios crackling, you just passed out.
EL: When we met at the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass in 2011, you were based in the Middle East and had produced work in East Libya. Nine years later you seem to still have an interest in covering the aftermath of a war and the human consequences. How has interest and approach changed over the years? Would you describe your work back in 2011 the same way as you would now?
IP: The basic premise remains the same but I think I have changed the way I work in order to get the message across better. Back in 2011, I was of course much younger and had a lot to learn but I was also working in a much quieter, understated way. That kind of approach suited my personality and in a way I was just trying to define myself by doing something different. Slowly, as I began to cover more breaking news type stories, I started to realize that I wasn’t really reaching a big enough audience or making much of an impact with my work. It was too quiet to break through all the noise perhaps.
So I started to develop a more photojournalistic approach. Not so much stylistically but more in terms of content. I started to think about more than just trying to make beautiful, surreal pictures. Largely it was just a natural progression but I began to understand that in order to make impactful work I needed to make striking images that were imbued with humanity and pathos but at the same time told important stories. I began to be able to combine these things better I think and in a way let go of my own artistic desires which I started to feel were holding me back from making work that really reached people.
EL: You have won several major photography awards in the recent years with your images. What does this mean to you? Do you feel it is of any value to the people who are in your photographs?
IP: To me, being involved in awards like the World Press Photo or the Prix Pictet are simply other platforms where you can share the message in your work. If that is what you are hoping to do through your photography, then awards like these that have these massive exhibition programs are the perfect outlet. I have had some amazing feedback from people who have come across my work through such events.
For example, when the World Press Photo exhibited for the first time in Iraq last year, a family looking at my work from Mosul recognised a little girl in one of the pictures. Apparently they broke down and told the organizers all about the girl, who I had known little about. To me it was a beautiful example of how recording these moments of history can be cathartic for the communities where the work is made as much as it can be a call to action for the rest of the world.
EL: You have heard and seen stories of loss and grief. I am sure this must have a great impact on you as a human being. As a photographer, a professional, how do these experiences affect you and your work?
IP: It begins to take its toll for sure. I have noticed it more and more the older I get and the longer I keep on doing this kind of work. It’s no wonder that a lot of people burn out pretty quick in this line of work. I have certainly been close to that point but I am lucky to have a good support network around me and a good organization behind me that is aware of the dangers and pitfalls. To be honest I don’t think I would continue doing conflict reporting if I wasn’t working for the NYT.
In terms of how the things you see affect your work, I think there is a very fine line between being compelled to cover these stories because of the atrocities you witness and wanting to walk away from it all because it is too much. It is in this no-man’s land that the best conflict reporters seem to exist. The problem is, it is very easy to go too far and never come back, or to not go far enough and therefore fail to tell the full story.
EL: Are you still going to Mosul and the region to continue this work? Or is it finished?
IP: The book is of course finished and in a way that brought some closure to that chapter of work. I am still covering Iraq and Syria. I haven’t been back to Mosul in over a year. There has been a lot of new unrest in the region, so in a way I have been pulled on by the neverending cycle of news I spoke about earlier.
EL: What are you currently working on?
IP: I am still based in Istanbul and continue to cover the region for the New York Times, with a focus on Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Work has been somewhat slow due to Covid but is starting to pick up again as we tentatively get back out in the world and continue to document what is going on besides the global pandemic. It has been an incredibly tough year for freelancers in every field and I am incredibly lucky to be able to have the chance to continue working and travelling. So far this year I have been covering stories in Turkey, Syria and Iraq. Including the Pope’s historic visit to Iraq earlier in March, which despite the concerns was a beautiful moment to witness in a country where we have documented so much suffering.