Editors’ note: Sonja Hamad’s series “Jin - Jiyan - Azadi: Women, Life, Freedom” was selected by Lesley Martin, Creative Director of the Aperture Foundation, in the Magnum Photography Awards 2017. We reached out to Sonja to learn more about this remarkable series, which follows an all-female group of fighters combating ISIS in Kurdistan.

LensCulture: “Jin - Jiyan - Azadi: Women, Life, Freedom” provides us with a powerful, unique look into the all-female fighting units in Kurdistan. Being born in Syria and having Kurdish parents, you must have felt a strong connection to the women you documented. What was it like for you, on a personal level, to spend time with these fighters? What did you learn from them?

Sonja Hamad: The story of the Kurdish female fighters is a very personal theme; it’s a piece of home for me. My cultural background made it easier for me to access the fighters and hear their stories—our shared background allowed me to get really close to them.

It was very important for me to let the women tell their stories without reservation or ideological influences. I was keen to avoid sensationalist images of the fighters, especially the kind of imagery that is often shown by the international media. I’ve found that Western media outlets are fascinated by the Kurdish female fighters who risk their lives in the fight against ISIS, and yet, the hundreds of headlines and photographs of these women are largely homogenous: they depict them as little more than glamorous pistol divas, precursors of “eastern” feminism.

Serjin, 22 years old. Sometimes at night the women sing Kurdish songs while lying on the roof of an occupied house while bombs detonate nearby. Their voices are tender and calm. The song brings courage for the next day, the upcoming fight, for the future. © Sonja Hamad

In their representations of these iconic figures, the western media has co-opted the fluidity of Kurdish female identity and added on a variety of ideologies and experiences, creating a static and summative signifier. Through my documentary work I wanted to achieve exactly the opposite—I want to give the Kurdish woman real identities and faces.

LC: Did you travel there alone, or were you working with a team? How did you establish contact with the women?

SH: Before I could travel to Kurdistan for the first time to realize my documentary work, I did a lot of research in Berlin and had different points of reference. The most important contact, however, was Civaka Azad—the Kurdish Center for Public Relations in Berlin. They finally gave me a good way to get to the fighters.

I traveled alone to northern Iraq without any journalists or people from the media. This allowed me to establish a deep and honest connection with the people there. When I reached the fighters (you need to receive permission to spend time with the women), it didn’t take long before they trusted me. I became like a sister to them.

Rüksen, 20 years old. Rüksen is 20 years old and is fighting in the mountains near Sindscha, Iraq. Rüksen, who decided very early to dedicate her life to the liberation movement, likes to talk about her older sister, who lives in Berlin. © Sonja Hamad

Our shared cultural background allowed us to understand each other quickly. I was able to get to know and document, as a photographer, a very personal side of these women.

LC: What was your process like? Did you speak with the fighters at length before shooting their portraits?

SH: I talked with the women for a long time before taking their portraits; I believe it is very important to create trust first. Honesty and trust are the most important things when you’re photographing in a situation like this. But while photographing, I usually say very little—I like the quiet moments that come to pass between me and my subjects. And yes, I had the feeling that I knew all of the Kurdish fighters personally—they all became like sisters to me.

LC: What was your biggest challenge during those intense days, and how did you tackle it?

SH: There were many dangerous moments where I was very afraid. One can hardly believe it, but the fighters don’t often feel this fear. They have deliberately chosen this path and taken their fate into their own hands, so they are aware that things can change at any time—they are prepared.

Two Stand Still. The fighter Shirin, 21 years old, has been a member of the YPJ [the all-female Kurdish fighting units] for three years already. Her parents were very concerned about her, and they visited her several times during the battles in Hasake. Despite severe injuries, Shirin wants to remain in the militia after the war. © Sonja Hamad

It sounds terrible, but your last hand grenade is always meant for you. You save it in case you end up alive in the hands of IS. With the last grenade, you can prevent them from harming you in the worst way. In those cases, suicide represents the best way to die.

On my third trip to north Iraq, I learned that one of the women I photographed on my first trip to northern Syria was killed by IS shortly after my departure. These moments are, for me, the most difficult.

LC: We know a lot about the obstacles that women have overcome in this field—but there must also be some advantages. What are the benefits of being a female photojournalist?

SH: In countries where gender equality is unfortunately still lacking in society, life is difficult for women, as they are still being abused, raped and killed every day. It is then usually difficult for them to open up to male photographers or journalists. It’s perhaps easier for them if a female photographer or journalist tells the story—I believe that I’m also able to show many sides to the story.

LC: In general, do you think being a woman changes the way you do your job? Do women photograph in a different way?

SH: I do think that women and men photograph differently. They also feel and think differently. They deal differently with their fears, emotions and feelings. And I believe that you can see those differences in the resulting photographs.

The Space Between. In the twilight, the wounds of the liberated city of Kobanî appear almost soft. After the attacks by the “Islamic State,” the tattered buildings have a melancholic quietness that is even more reminiscent of the destruction. © Sonja Hamad

LC: What is the most important thing for you to communicate to your viewers through these portraits?

SH: Considering the past Kurdish history in countries like Iraq or Syria (and still today, Turkey is the best example), it’s simple to see how thoroughly people can be oppressed. I think this is one of the reasons why the Kurdish people feel such a strong closeness and connectedness to one another.

—Sonja Hamad, interviewed by Winifred Chiocchia

Project Statement:

They say that death by a woman’s hand blocks the way to paradise for potential martyrs. As more and more Kurdish women take up weapons and join the fight against ISIS, more male jihadists are forced to consider this possibility.

This project attempts to trace the collective desires held by these Kurdish freedom fighters. In the course of my effort, I have tried to capture not only the individual traits of these women, but also their shared destinies. At the same time, these pictures uncover a perspective on their environment, especially the poetic way that the Kurdish culture views itself. Finally, it presents a view of Kobanî, a city in Syria, which has become a ghost town: buildings often only exist in memories. Walls are shot to pieces; empty window frames only show lost spaces. And yet, a ragged, melancholic coziness exists amidst all this destruction.

Through this work, a bridge between the photographer and the fighters emerges. These women give up their old names when they join the fight. In this act of autonomy, they choose a new one: “Haval,” which means something like “friend.”

The women depicted here have been at the forefront of a brutal, deadly struggle against the monstrous ISIS. These individuals risk their lives on behalf of a country that has never existed—though every Kurd knows its borders. This narrow strip of a homeland—the wild Kurdistan— is a mountain and valley spot of longing; it is attacked from every angle. However, this fight is not only about their survival: it is also about a self-determined existence, freedom and independence. This fight for deliverance has an existential note to it.

Sanctuary. All around this area, one passes pictures of female and male martyrs; often enough one also finds big posters with photos showing PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, who announced that the liberation of women is even more significant than the liberation of the nation. Even from his Turkish jail cell he sends mental ammunition for their emancipation. © Sonja Hamad

If one of the fighters dies, the others mourn for only one day. In a sparse cemetery, where only plastic flowers can blossom, the comrades shoot their Kalashnikovs in the air to honor her. The hazards and losses are real, but there is no time to process them. When the fighters are frightened, they sing it away. Even while they grieve for a comrade killed in action, they sing.

These are the fragile, beautiful moments—moments where brutality meets poetry. Yet the reality is grim. There is bombing every night: under one’s feet, one feels the detonations. No one sleeps, and yet the fight goes on.

Still, as soon as this war is won, says one of the “mountains’ daughters” [their name for each other], the real fight will begin.

The threat comes from the outside, by ISIS incursions—but also from the inside. The fight for deliverance is equally directed toward the old social traditions that will continue to suppress them. In the no-man’s-land these women occupy right now, they are outlawed—but in the Kurdish tradition in which they grew up, they also lived without rights. Now, this emergency context has opened up the possibility to change something. These are the women who have the least to lose and the most to gain.

Sonja Hamad’s pictures show young women, almost girls, who are still vulnerable—and yet also utterly determined. They believe deeply that they can be stronger than the men who have suppressed them for decades. They all carry their scars like prizes. And once in a while, colorful shirts that are almost childish come to the fore under their uniforms.

—Hannah Zufall

If you’d like to see more work like this, we’d recommend these features: Women of War presents an all-female fighting unit in Aleppo, Syria; Joanna: From Denmark to Kurdistan delves into the journey of a Danish-Kurdish Peshmerga soldier; and Mourning Kobanî further explores the YPJ (the female Kurdish fighters) in the Syrian city of Kobanî.