Discovering the Iraqi Militias against ISIS with Yassin Yassin.
Photography: Yassin Yassin
Yassin Yassin’s interest in photography was sparked on his journey from Iraq, his place of birth, to England at the age of 10. As well as calling these two very different countries home, he also spent two years in Syria and a further two years in Moldova. He says that this world experience broadened his understanding of different cultures and inspired him to use the camera as a means of interaction. Yassin recently returned to Iraq for his latest project, Iraqi Militias Against ISIS, to document the current state of the country and the soldiers dedicated to battling ISIS. We caught up with the British-Iraqi photographer to discover what he learnt capturing the front line of Iraq.
Could give us a brief introduction about the project?
The idea of the project was to follow the Iraqi people’s mobilization (Hashd Al Shaabi) that is fighting against the so-called Islamic State and to explore its concept as well as the stories of its soldiers. The Popular Mobilization Forces consists of 40+ militias (although they prefer not to be referred to as militias). These forces emerged in 2014 right after Iraq lost two of its cities to the so called Islamic State; Tikrit, home to former president Saddam Hussein and Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. These groups appeared at a time when the Iraqi military proved to be weak due to corruption and betrayal by some of it’s commanders that had intel about the dangers and the rise of Islamic State. The Hashd Al Shaabi were set to collaborate with the Iraqi military as a way to keep them under the control of the Iraqi government and to stop them from becoming Iraq’s next crisis post ISIS.
What was your approach? Did you have a specific story you wanted tell, or did you just follow the soldiers and see what happens?
My main goal of the project was to gain access to the soldiers of the Hashd Al Shaabi on or near the front line; this was my biggest challenge. Trust is key with such subject, especially when national security is a key factor. My aim was to get inside and then figure out what I was going to do, that being said, I really wanted to show the state of Iraq, the challenges and consequences its facing. I didn’t really know much about them when I began the project, apart from a few positive stories I was told by Iraqi civilians and a couple of negative reports I found online.
How was the experience?
Working on a project close to the heart is very stressful and upsetting. Once I finished I could leave, the soldiers though were stuck and had no way out. Seeing 18-year-old soldiers risk their potential last days in bad conditions made me feel very guilty of my safe life here in the U.K.
What did you learn about the country in the time you spent working on the project?
The positivity of the soldiers is very inspiring; it’s a representation of how strong Iraqi’s will be no matter what difficulties they will go through. Iraq has been through many conflicts in the past and as much as I hope I’m wrong, the country will probably face more challenges up ahead. The strength of the Iraqi’s gives me hope.
How many trips did you undertake over the period of working on the project?
The whole project was shot in around four days and two nights. Access was a great challenge, as I previously mentioned, so shooting time was spread over five weeks. At the time of my visit, Baghdad, the capital of Iraq was constantly on lock down due to terrorism and protests, which slowed the process right down. This was very frustrating for me and made me question how the citizens of Iraq put up with it from day to day.
How comfortable were the soldiers being photographed and documented?
The soldiers of the Hashd Al Shaabi I met were regular civilians who’ve had minimal arms training. Once I gained access to spending time with them everything was relaxed, they were easy going, had a sense of humor and we became friends. They let me photograph them with open arms, however there were a couple that didn’t want to be photographed or recorded for security reasons.
What was their reception to you and your work?
They received it well; being Iraqi born certainly gave me an edge with their trust. I simply explained that I just wanted to document what they were doing as a way of understanding what’s happening in Iraq.
Where you in danger at any point during the production?
There were a couple of dangerous scenarios I went through thinking back. On the last day of the project, I was spending time with some of the soldiers up in a guard tower just 200 meters from a building site, which ISIS militants creep into at night to fire from. I was told by the Hashd Al Shaabi that the site was clear of any danger in the day and so I let my guard down. 30 minutes later the Iraqi military struck the buildings with two mortars indicating a presence of ISIS militants. The Hashd Al Shaabi remained relaxed, [and] it was at that point [that] I realised it’s hard to judge when times are dangerous through the reaction of soldiers. They were desensitised and unafraid of danger.