A Photographer’s ‘Surreal’ Access to ISIS Prisons

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together. The New...

Times Insider explains who we are and what we do, and delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how our journalism comes together.

The New York Times recently visited two prisons in northeastern Syria where former Islamic State fighters and residents of ISIS-held territory are being detained. Ivor Prickett, a photographer based in the Middle East, and Ben Hubbard, the Beirut bureau chief for The Times, documented the conditions and interviewed prisoners, some of whom were young boys, for an article that recently ran on the front page of The Times.

The prisons are part of a network run by Kurdish-led forces that holds more than 10,000 men captured in battles with ISIS, whose status is now uncertain.

Mr. Prickett’s images and videos show men, many seriously wounded and emaciated, dressed in bright orange jumpsuits and packed into tight quarters on the floor. Other images show young boys, some smiling and some not, jostling to be photographed.

Mr. Prickett reflected on what it was like to step inside the prisons and capture what he saw. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How were you able to get access to these prisons?

It is really difficult. But the Kurdish authorities really want this story to be told, so the world will help them deal with this massive problem. But they don’t just let anyone go in. The situation is getting worse for them, and they’re losing their grip on power, and they are worried about this problem getting worse.

What are the concerns of the Kurdish authorities?

They’re worried that the prisoners in their care are either going to break out, because of the fighting that’s going on, or they’re going to fall into the wrong hands. That has heightened the whole issue.

How would you describe your work?

I’ve been based in the Middle East, and covered the Middle East, for the past eight years. I’m a photojournalist. I cover conflict, but I also do a lot of work around conflict and the aftermath of conflict and the humanitarian consequences of war.

What was it like to first step into the prisons?

It was really shocking. It was really surreal.

What felt surreal?

I have never seen a room of so much human suffering. It is always a surreal moment to be inside a prison, but this was on a different level altogether. Not only were these guys locked up, but a lot of them were really badly injured and near death.

When did you feel like you could pick up your camera and start to photograph?

We had to work pretty quickly because we knew our time there was going to be limited. So I started taking pictures pretty quickly. In those situations, it’s about making yourself very obvious and giving people the option to be photographed.

What do you hope viewers take away from these images?

It was really shocking for us to discover that kids were there. That was not something we expected to find. So, that became the story more than anything. Regardless of what you think about a man or a woman who joined ISIS, these kids were really young, and had no choice in the matter.

You took a picture of a group of young men facing the camera. Can you talk a little bit about the image?

That picture is kind of an unconventional picture for me. A picture where the kids are standing for me, waiting to have their picture taken, is not something I would usually even submit to my editors. I kind of took it for them, in a way, because they were joking around with us and asking me to take pictures. And so I said, “O.K., back up, back up.” I showed it to them afterward and they went nuts.

I didn’t think it was going to be a particularly strong picture. But when I looked at it afterward, I realized that they looked so young and normal in that picture. That was what got me, and that’s why I think it’s really powerful. It’s a really conflicted image. They’re innocent young boys tarred with these orange jumpsuits.

Each young man has a very distinct expression.

I think that’s nice. In photojournalism we rarely give people the chance to present themselves how they want to be seen. It’s a pretty unconventional picture for me to take and for us to use. But it ended up saying so much more than some of the other pictures I had.

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Newsrust: A Photographer’s ‘Surreal’ Access to ISIS Prisons
A Photographer’s ‘Surreal’ Access to ISIS Prisons
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