The Reservoir: Cengiz Yar Stories


The Reservoir — Romke Hoogwaerts in conversation with Cengiz Yar


Romke Hoogwaerts: You were one of the people who bought a book I briefly sold at a discount online to raise funds for Standing Rock, which astonished me, because I’ve been following your current photojournalism at the Battle of Mosul. You share a great deal of heart-stopping images to Instagram, both as regular posts and as Stories. They’re powerful. There’s so many questions I want to ask you. Let’s start with what’s happening there, because I get the sense that the significance of this battle isn’t as widely known as it should be here in the West. Is it even possible to briefly summarize why this battle is so important?

Cengiz Yar: I appreciate that. It’s encouraging to know people back home are following along with what’s going on here. Your Mossless sale was an easy way to send what I could one of many shameful moments for our nation in 2016. While we’re on that topic I suggest your readers check out the work Daniella Zalcman, Alyssa Schukar, Hossein Fatemi, and Nima Taradji did at Standing Rock.

Simplistically put – the future of Iraq is tied to Mosul, the future of the Middle East to Iraq, and the future of global terrorism to ISIS. The fight for and control of this city has impacts at a global level. It’s the second largest city in Iraq and officials estimate that over a million people remain inside. ISIS has controlled Mosul for the past two and a half years. How this battle plays out and what happens after it will have long lasting repercussions.

RH: What brought you to Mosul? Are you shooting independently?

CY: I’ve been based in the Kurdistan region northern Iraq for the past year. I came here initially in 2014 doing a long project on Syrian refugees and was drawn back for a number of reasons – one of which being the fight against ISIS and the inevitable battle to retake Mosul. Yes, I’m shooting independently for a variety of clients in the news world and humanitarian sector. Once in awhile I’ll write or shoot video.

RH: You were selected to be on Getty’s Emerging Talent roster. What does that mean for your work on the ground? Are they helping you distribute your work?

CY: It’s an incredible honor to be selected for Getty’s list and especially alongside such a strong group of photographers. It hasn’t changed what I’m doing on the ground. They aren’t distributing my work but they do help promote my projects.

RH: The way you publish Stories on Instagram is informative, thoughtful, smart. It’s inspiring to see you work with it in such an educational way. What prompted you to use Instagram that way?

CY: The ways people are consuming content is changing. We saw it over the years through Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram but it shifted even further with Snapchat. When I was home in Chicago last summer, I had a friend tell me that he couldn’t look at the Syrian refugee crisis the same way after watching my Snapchats. Which I found hilarious at the time, like, how was that the medium I got through to you with. But if vertical social video is the way I can reach people then I should, at the very least, be trying to use it. Visual journalists have a wealth of ways to tell stories instantly with a growing mobile audience and it’s exciting to see how it evolves.

Helicopter Families

RH: Who else do you see using Instagram stories like that?

CY: I don’t see many people using Stories at this point in a journalistic way, but I think that will begin to change as people find new ways to use it and see its possibilities.

RH: That’s true for me too, most people I know use Stories for personal snippets and save their regular posts for the good stuff. I tried to use stories to show a bonfire project I was shooting in the Hague to get people familiar with the scene before they saw my photos, and I like that they disappear so that I don’t have to worry about giving away too much information. I like how Stacy Kranitz uses her Stories, she’s a documentary photographer that incorporates personal elements in her work so it’s a perfect dissemination medium for her. But yeah, I’d love to see more photojournalists use it too.

The black and white photos you post on Stories, they’re not also taken with your phone, are they? Are those photos you also license?

CY: Almost everything I’ve been sharing through stories is shot on my iPhone and then uploaded in a sequence at the end of the day. So yes, those black and white images are from my phone’s camera. They could be [available] for licensing but for now I’m just using them for daily storytelling.

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RH: Is there a photographer or photobook you’ve been spending time with lately? What kind of influences do you like to mix into your work?

CY: I’m most influenced by my peers and colleagues. Shooting alongside people like Hossein Fatemi, Alice Martins, Ivor Prickett – how we see things and stories differently. Lots of learning happens through working on stories alongside other people.

I’ve always mixed a lot of music into my workflow. Mainly grindcore and death metal. This year it’s been a lot of Nails, Within Destruction, Aborted, Gatecreeper, Angelmaker, and Ingested. Not so much on the photobook front.

RH: We’re doing this interview over email and some time has already passed since we started. What have you experienced in the intervening time?

CY: For the past month I’ve almost entirely focused on the civilian displacement in and around Mosul. Over 125,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since late October and that number grows daily. I’ve been doing lots of interviews with people who recently fled the city. Horrific stories – both of life under ISIS and during this fight. Officials estimate over 1 million civilians remain in the city and as the fighting continues many are stuck in the crossfire. When people finally make it out of the fighting and into the camps, there’s safety but not much else. Tents and roads flood and medical staff are under-equipped.

RH: What does the Battle of Mosul’s future look like? Are you going to stay through its end?

CY: This month [January, 2017] Iraqi forces swept through and secured the last ISIS held neighborhoods on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. So they have roughly taken back about half the city and now have the western bank in their sights. They have however lost a significant amount of men and fighting capability. On top of that the west bank is the historic section of Mosul with narrow streets and old buildings. This will most likely force troops to advance by foot instead of in Humvees like they’ve done elsewhere – drastically changing their battle plan and increasing risk. The west bank is also said to be where ISIS has dug in most fiercely with defensive positions, booby traps, and tunnels. Iraqi forces have secured a significant amount of ground but the hardest fighting may still lie ahead.

RH: What can we in the West do to help those who are displaced by the conflict?

CY: It’s incredibly important to educate ourselves and others about conflicts and those affected by them. Unless we understand what is happening, we are unable to help. Blind assistance is ineffective. Our governments are directly involved in conflicts around the world and it is our responsibility to hold them accountable and direct their actions and aid. Find out everything you can about the situation, get your facts straight, and go lobby your senator or congressman.

I’d also suggest joining a refugee resettlement community team. Welcome new people to your city and make them feel at home. Very often families move to America alone and can be a very difficult adjustment. They need friends and help getting use to life in the States.

You can also simply send your money to an aid organization (I’d suggest MSF), but again, your government probably has more money than you do to help – force them to use it correctly.


The Reservoir is a forthcoming newsprint made in partnership between Jack Harries and Lindley Warren. The publication provides a space for photographers to discuss the current political and social climate.

Cengiz (b. 1986) is an American documentary photographer based in northern Iraq. His work is focused on mass displacement, religious and ethnic minorities, and the fight against the Islamic State.

Cengiz’s work has appeared in The Guardian, The Telegraph, Maclean’s Magazine, Foreign Policy, Huck Magazine, The American Scholar, Vice, Makeshift Magazine, and Mashable among others. His humanitarian clients include UNHCR, UNICEF, UNDP, and Mercy Corps. He has been featured for his work in a variety of places including BBC World News, Juxtapoz Magazine, and Roads & Kingdoms.

He was awarded ONA’s inaugural 2015 James W. Foley award for conflict freelancers and is listed by Getty Images Reportage Emerging Talent. He was part of the Associated Press photography team listed as 2017 Pulitzer Prize Finalists.

Cengiz is a board member of the Frontline Freelancer Registry, an Ambassador for the Matador Network, and RISC certified.

Romke Hoogwaerts  is the founder/editor of Mossless and a freelance photo editor living in NY.

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