The project had previously been gathering momentum with Gaylan visiting the frontline and refugee camps between Iraq and Syria, alongside two university friends, for around a year. “We tried to capture the feelings of people being dislocated from their homes without any shelter or food,” says Gaylan. “I saw so many people killed but I thought, ‘Hang on, this isn’t the end of everything. What are the consequences of all this?’”
After documenting, editing and eventually meeting Ben, Gaylan sat down with his new partner and went through the photos one by one, analysing them. “It was a fantastic process, and I learned a lot,” says Gaylan. “The name of the book, 101 Beads… is derived from a prayer bead necklace used by men in the Middle East. I saw a man die when a sniper bullet went through his wallet in his pocket, through his banknotes and into his heart. He died with the prayer beads in his hands. I didn’t photograph his face, but showed death through his belongings. I don’t just want the viewer to be familiar with the violence and blood in death; I want them to contemplate it rather than see it as an event or an act.”
The “101 beads” act as a metaphor for the perpetuation of war in that it’s unclear where the beginning or end is. The 101-page book includes 101 photos to reflect that concept, but whittling it down came with its woes: “I witnessed things that shouldn’t have happened; brutal events,” says Gaylan. “It was very hard to take out some of the photos. My family in Kurdistan won’t be safe if I show everything, and I don’t want to bring more sadness to them. The rest of the photos could be released one day, but not now.”
The book is made up of four chapters: Materiality, Grief, Dislocation and Violence. Ben and Gaylan purposefully designed it to move away from the idea of a linear story, fragmenting and distorting the reality of war in an expressive way. “We call the chapters theatres of photography,” says Ben. “The first deals with objects and materials; the second discusses grief in a metaphysical way, dealing very closely with faces and how they tell stories; the third looks at the flight and flux of war, reconciling the contradictions between place and non-place, identity and non-identity, through documenting the refugee camps. Despite the name, the final chapter isn’t graphic, but is still very violent, showing the brutality of war as well as what liberation means to different people.”
After launching at Nottingham’s City Arts earlier this year, the pair are pleased with the reaction from the audience and have had independent bookshops showing interest in stocking the publication. Gaylan and Ben express that despite all the legwork done so far, they’re only just getting started.
“One of the main aims of the book is to counteract the Western, leftist politics which tend to romanticise the Kurdish movement. In particular, women’s role within that,” says Ben.
“One of the main aims of the book is to counteract the Western, leftist politics which tend to romanticise the Kurdish movement. In particular, women’s role within that,” says Ben. “She’s only interesting if she’s carrying a gun. And we want to avert that idea; it creates a narrative that isn’t necessarily about the people involved. People tend to be very pro-Kurdish without understanding the contradictions within the Kurdish state. There’s a photograph in the book with young lower-class soldiers on the frontline wearing trainers, while others show the officers wearing very sophisticated American war gear. There’s a disconnect that’s not normally demonstrated; we see that ISIS is impure and bad, while the Kurdish are pure and good. It’s very secular, and we want to juggle with the antagonism.”
“We’re just trying to say something against the horrible stuff in the world,” says Gaylan. “We are against the dirtiness of war and what’s happening in the Middle East and we just want to do something small to counteract what’s going on.”
101 Beads: Kurdistan in War is available to buy now.