Louisville-based photographer Clay Cook recently shot one of the most intense, life-changing projects of his life. He traveled to Iraq to highlight the thousands of families that are finally able to return to their homes in Qaraqosh after being over-taken by ISIS.
In 2014, ISIS swept through many cities near Mosul, Iraq. One of those cities was Qaraqosh, which had the largest Christian population in the country. ISIS attempted to erase Christianity by burning churches and destroying icons. 70,000 people left in one night and anyone who did not was thrown into slavery, tortured, or killed. In 2016, the Iraq Army, at last, pushed ISIS out, and people are now able to return to their homes. Though the city is in ruins and stands as a ghost town, different organizations are coming together in an effort to restore the city back to what it once was.
Remaining unnamed, a dedicated charity is on a mission to provide relief to these families who need help to rebuild their destroyed homes and communities. Clay has been partnered with Nadus Films for the past two years, a non-profit film production company that makes documentaries and promo projects for non-governmental organizations (NGO). They recently partnered with Unseen, which is also a non-profit that provides support for NGOs. The goal was to make a 20 to 30 minute documentary and capture stills to be shown at fundraisers, speaking engagements, ted talks, etc. to raise awareness about the destruction caused by ISIS. Clay, who’s known to be a wiz behind the camera, was responsible for photographing images to match the equally impactful documentary.
With only three days in Iraq, the team was eager to capture all that they could in the short period of time they had. The planning for this trip was incredibly stressful as everything was mapped out and strategically organized to a tee, as the most important thing to keep top-of-mind was the group’s safety. Luckily for Clay, Courey Deeb, Director of Nadus Films, had an entire narrative he wanted Clay to follow which alieved Clay of any stresses relating to a shot-list of images. The thoughts of security and overall logistics regarding the project swarmed the wider team’s minds, but no matter how many questions were answered, there was still a lot of uncertainty regarding the task at hand. Iraq is considered one of the most dangerous places in the world, and Clay admits he was fearful, even hesitant, to enter the country.
I’ll never forget flying in – I was really nervous. We had been briefed on every detail and many different plans to go through incase anything went wrong.
With safety being the most significant and crucial factor with this project, the group needed to blend in, meaning Clay had to grow his facial hair and wear clothes that avoided sticking out like a sore thumb amongst others. On top of this, the team was prohibited from bringing high profile camera and film equipment leaving them supplied with minimal items including a camera, on-camera accessories, and a basic lighting kit.
After a successful landing, the team didn’t waste any time and began capturing content, almost immediately. Armed with security and translators to help them along the way, they interviewed many people over the course of the three days and visited the destroyed towns. As victims were brave enough to share their traumatic stories, the group listened and, low-key continued to capture footage to illustrate the state of loss these native people have suffered through. It was vital the team did not become too invasive with their questions as many of the people they had the chance of connecting with, understandably, have PTSD from such trauma. For Clay, it was about being strong for others and doing exactly what he needed to which was to create effective and heartfelt images.
It wasn’t about being a photographer, I was more interested in the aftermath of war, going into a zone that had already been destroyed and helping people pick themselves up off the ground.
In the end, for such an intense, unpredictable project, it was a fantastic and life-changing experience for Clay, which he will never forget. He was thrilled to be a part of such a moving project and having the chance to capture behind the scenes footage (video below) and images to help spread awareness about the trauma local people suffer from and the physical devastation that remains in many Iraq communities.
Since its inception in 2014, this Iraqi NGO has served nearly 16,000 Iraqi people. This year, with the help of our content, the organization helped move 1,929 Iraqi people from crisis to reconstruction, and eventually to sustainable living through relief aid and development programming.
See more of Clay at claycookphoto.com!