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Holding a Satirical Mirror to ISIS: Guy Martin’s Notes from the Field

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Watfe, Youssef Helali, Mohammed Damlakhy, and Aya Brown are all Syrian refugees from Aleppo. On the face of it, there is not much to laugh about as they sit in their apartment turned makeshift studio in a suburb of Gaziantep in southern Turkey. The curtains are drawn shut and cigarette smoke from the four young Syrians fills the room. They recount tales of being warned by ISIS sympathizers in Gazientep that they ‘knew’ who they were and what they were doing; that they should expect another ‘Charlie Hebdo’ if they continue to work on what they are working on. 

The reason for the threats? They are one of Syria’s burgeoning groups of ISIS parody makers, making fun of the men in black. They are finding black humor in the darkest corners of a brutal civil war by holding up a satirical mirror to ISIS in Syria, making them a group to be reckoned with in the growing online world of the anti-ISIS activism.

I had decided to continue my work in Turkey by photographing soap operas, TV footage, and film sets and combining this imagery with images from my documentation of Turkey’s tumultuous recent events. This work has been an evolving process since completing a similar series, City of Dreams, in the year leading up to an including the Gezi Park protests in 2013.

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But if City of Dreams was colorful–sun drenched images of glamorous, sexy protesters and equally glamorous soap stars–I was conscious when starting this new body of work that it must somehow communicate not just Turkey’s spiraling involvement in the conflicts on its southern border but also its seemingly endless struggle with the Kurdish issue and its deep, dark links to Sunni extremist groups fighting in Syria. And, of course, also find a way to communicate Turkey’s hidden, murky links with ISIS.

But back to the four Syrians, smoking in their darkened apartment. Photographing them was perhaps the most surreal, terrifying, and liberating experiences I’ve had. The landscape of southern Turkey, particularly south of Gazientep, has a distinct light, landscape, and mood. It’s the route that one would take if they wanted to walk between Syria and Turkey, as many of my colleagues used to do at the beginning of Syria’s bloody civil war. 

Along with a colleague, I meet with the group in the centre of Gazinetep at the beginning of the days forthcoming film shoot. Details of the plot were scarce; soon we were driving around looking for a live chicken. We swing by the poultry market, part with some cash for a sizeable white chicken, and head off into the countryside. 

As it turns out, the plot line was a rather clever twist on the spate of ISIS executions at the beginning of 2015. The group decided to tell a story where prisoners, dressed in bright orange jump suits, seek bloody revenge on their ISIS captors. Scene after scene of mock executions were carried out by the orange clad prisoners in the rural landscape on that bright spring day.

As dusk began to fall, the chicken was painted blue. In a twist of dark comic humor, that Black Adder would certainly have been pleased with, the storyline moved on to include a subplot in which ISIS tries to ‘assassinate’ twitter. It’s a deeply subversive piece of comedy made that much darker by a black abyaya. A balaclava wearing Watfe, brandishing a small dagger, cut off the head of the spray painted blue chicken. The plot had reached its logical conclusion; ISIS had eradicated twitter, or had they?

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The thing I’ve noticed the most about working on sets and locations for the duration of this project is that the time spent photographing yields very few usable images. Maybe after two or three days of working I would end up with just one or perhaps two images. That’s a terrible rate of return. But it’s one I’m willing to work with. While working on this project, and shooting in Turkey at other times this year, I have found that my images seem to be searching for scenes and scenarios that act as metaphors for the story. The photograph of the dead chicken, for example, is a giant metaphor for the struggle for identity in the region. It symbolizes the struggle to control the airwaves, TV channels, and social media pages. It’s an image standing in for any time the Turkish government decides to ‘shut down twitter’ for security reasons, most recently being after ISIS linked Ankara suicide bombers left over 110 people dead in the run up to the November elections. To look at another image–the image of the blonde haired woman grappling with her lover–perhaps it is a metaphor for the shocking rate of domestic assault and murder of women in Turkey. Just this year 256 woman have been murdered, with a very low conviction rate for those responsible.

The film sets of Turkey’s modern, post Gezi Park soaps, TV shows, and YouTube channels are not the over the top, glitzy, costume filled pantomimes of other world regions. In their own, very quiet way, as strange as it might seem, they are a sounding board for the issues and politics of the Middle East that are otherwise off limits to documentary photographers. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. Perhaps in an image-saturated region of the world, it’s time to start taking a closer look at the actors and actresses in a real life Game of Thrones.

– Guy Martin, 2015 Emergency Fund Grantee

Katerina Voegtle