In 2014, Christian Werner was on assignment for Der Spiegel, photographing a story about arms shipments from Germany to the Kurdish Pershmerga, the military forces of Iraqi Kurdistan, when he began hearing about the genocide of the country’s Yazidi minority, a mostly Kurdish-speaking people who adhere a religion with roots in ancient Mesopotamian beliefs, Zoroastrianism, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Werner stayed to tell what he believed was an “incredibly important” story. “At that point, there was just very little coverage about the Yazidis,” he says.
Over the next two years, Werner took 10 more trips around Iraq to continue photographing the Yazidi people, who have been targeted by Islamic State troops since their rise to power in portions of Iraq. Under IS, many Yazidis have become displaced, given the choice to convert to Sunnism or be killed. Werner traveled to Mount Sinjar, where 50,000 Yazidis were under siege for nearly four months; the Syrian border city of Rabia, during its liberation by Iraqi Kurds from IS rule; and Zakho, where refugees lived in squalid conditions, among other locations. “All in all, I was on the ground for four months to tell this story,” Werner says.
Cultivating respect and a sense of safety for the protagonists in this body of work was of utmost importance to Werner, as his subjects were often afraid to show their faces or speak out against IS for fear of retribution. “Unethical behavior of journalists can result in death and prosecution of them and their families,” he says. “Of course you have to accept their decisions.” Those ethical standards are especially important now, when photography has become a much more accessible medium. “In these times, photojournalists are more important than ever.”
Christian Werner was the Grand Prize winner in this year’s Storytellers competition. You can see all of the honorees at pdnstorytellers.com