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Ivor Prickett: On the front line in the Battle for Mosul

Nadhira Aziz looks on as Iraqi Civil Defence workers dig out the bodies of her sister and niece from her house in Mosul's Old City, where they were killed by an airstrike in June 2017. Taken on 16 September 2017 on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

An exhausted young boy rests on the shoulder of a battle-hardened soldier; war-weary people stand in line for aid; a car is ablaze in streets already reduced to rubble. Ivor Prickett's powerful images, shot during the battle to wrest control of the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS, focus on the aftermath of war and its devastating consequences for communities and individuals.

Canon photographer Ivor has worked in the Middle East since 2009, developing his own long-term projects while completing individual editorial assignments. This often-dangerous work has included on-the-spot coverage of the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and Libya, and the Syrian refugee crisis.

Christian Ziegler’s

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Born in Ireland and a graduate of the documentary photography course at the University of Wales, Ivor has won several major photography awards, including the Ian Parry Scholarship and the UK National Portrait Gallery's Godfrey Argent Award.

At the 2018 World Press Photo Contest, he won first prize in the General News Stories category for his work in Mosul, taken exclusively for The New York Times in 2017. He also had two images from that story nominated in the Picture of the Year category – one of only five nominated.

Here he talks about his background in documentary photography, how it feels to work in a war zone and what drives his work.

How did you come to be in Mosul during the battle to retake the city?

"I'm based in Istanbul, Turkey, and have been covering the region for the past eight years. So, when Mosul fell and ISIS appeared on the scene, it was obviously one of the biggest stories in the region. I positioned myself there before the beginning of the battle to retake Mosul, which officially started in October 2016. Initially I was doing my own thing, then the New York Times picked me up and we started working together in January 2017."

How did you get access to the front line?

"I was embedded within the Iraqi Special Operations Forces (ISOF), who were in many ways the spearhead of the ground forces in Mosul. You could come in and out on a daily basis but, as a documentary photographer, I knew I wanted to be with the guys on the ground. Not many people were embedding and staying inside Mosul with the troops. It was very hard to get the permission to do it, and it was incredibly dangerous, so most news organisations didn't really let their staff do that. But I was able to bend the rules a little bit to find a way."

What was it like to work in that situation?

"It was a huge challenge and I was learning as I went, because this was a new level of brutality and combat for me. I would be with the troops as they were moving into areas that were still under ISIS' control, and maybe only a couple of phases back from the actual advancing units. I would have air strikes landing less than 100-150 metres ahead of where I was. It was really hard to comprehend and hard to capture in a photograph."

Four men's faces look out of a tiny barred window of a prison cell. The door and wall are battered.
Suspected ISIS members peer out from the cell in a jail just south of Mosul city centre. The jail is an initial point of detention while suspects are questioned. If they are proven members of the militant group, they are transferred to court to be tried. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L USM lens. © Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

What aspects of life in Mosul did you focus on?

"I was most interested in, and focused on, the civilian aspect of the story. I was waiting for those moments of liberation where people were coming out of their homes just after they'd been freed from ISIS' control. They would either be fleeing the area or deciding to stay. These moments where civilians were caught up in the fighting, and on many occasions were sadly killed or injured, I felt were really important to document. So that's what I was really looking for while I was there, as well as trying to document the fighting."

You were seeing terrible things in Mosul. How do you deal with that?

"You see [inexplicable] things, horrific things, when you're in the middle of something like that. The only way I deal with it at the time is by reminding myself why I'm there and what my job is, and by doing my job. If I was just there as an observer and didn't have a purpose, I think I would fall apart very quickly. But I was determined and focused. I was assured in myself as to why I was there and why it was important that I was there, which is what kept me going."

An Iraqi woman stands in the doorway of her home, crying and holding out her hands. Steps leading to her front door have blood on them; a young boy stands behind her.
A woman screams out in horror shortly after her son was killed in an ISIS mortar attack in the Jidideh neighbourhood of West Mosul. Having been injured by the blast while standing on the street outside, the man was dragged to the doorstep where he was bleeding severely. Although he was rushed for medical treatment he was reportedly dead on arrival. Taken on 22 March 2017 on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

Have you experienced an emotional reaction to what you've seen?

"A lot of that stuff hits you after the fact, when you finally calm down while at home editing your pictures or writing the story. Then you think about what you witnessed. But really, it wasn't so much the things that I saw, but rather the stories that I heard. What I mean is, the sight of a dead body is not as disturbing as listening to and witnessing someone's pain.

"For example, I took a picture of the woman standing by steps covered with the blood of her son, moments after he'd been killed in a mortar attack. We were in the middle of all of that, and I watched that moment of mourning where she realised she'd lost her son. The picture itself isn't particularly graphic but, for me, witnessing that moment was incredibly hard and hit me at the time as well as afterwards. I couldn't stop thinking about it. They'd already been displaced, and had been living in this house, and then this happened. It's stories like that, of loss, that really affect you."

Soldiers stand on and around a tank in a bombed-out city street; a car on fire a few metres away.
Iraqi Special Operations Forces soldiers survey the aftermath of an ISIS suicide car bomb that managed to reach their lines in the Al Andalus neighbourhood of East Mosul, Iraq. Taken on 16 January 2017 on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Ivor Prickett/Panos Pictures

Can you tell the story behind the picture of the young boy being carried by Iraqi Special Forces (nominated for the 2018 World Press Photo of the Year)?

"This was in July 2017, a couple of days after the official announcement that Mosul had been liberated, but there was still fighting going on. Some of the men from the unit I was with brought in a man who was apparently carrying the boy when they found him. They immediately presumed that he was an ISIS member, and had just picked up the boy to use as a human shield. The commander said one of his men would take care of the boy. He was wearing these really tattered, dirty rags and he was filthy. So they took his clothes off and washed him right there, just on the edge of the front line.

"I took this picture when he finally closed his eyes and just rested on the soldier's shoulder. It was a really poignant scene because these guys were battle-hardened fighters, and had been fighting up until that moment, and for a second, 20 of them put down their guns and were just doting over this kid. To see the kid finally find some peace and rest on his shoulder was a very powerful moment."

What equipment were you using while in Mosul?

"Throughout Mosul, I was using Canon EOS 5D Mark III bodies. I have a couple of these bodies and they've been my go-to cameras for the last couple years. I'd usually carry one and have another one in my bag back in the car. And I used a range of lenses, such as the Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II USM and Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM, and also my workhorse, which is the Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM."

A line of girls and women wearing hijabs stand close together, close to the camera. A few metres away, men and boys also stand in a long line.
Civilians who have remained in Mosul line up for an aid distribution in the Mamun neighbourhood of the city. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark III with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens. © Ivor Prickett/The New York Times

What do you look for when choosing equipment?

"I stick with Canon, and really love the 5D series. I've been using them for years. The Canon EOS 5D Mark III has been great because it's pretty light and durable. I need something semi-robust, but also easy to handle and small. I also need the fast processing speed and the smaller files to work with on my laptop in the field. The Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM was my go-to lens on a lot of occasions because I didn't know quite what I'd be seeing that day. I would usually stick that on and carry one other fixed lens. That was my go-to lens because of its versatility and speed."

Have you ever been in a situation where you've pushed your equipment to the limits?

"Yeah, I think most of the time in Mosul I was doing that. So whether it was when I was jumping in and out of a Humvee or when I was jumping on the ground to take cover, they took a lot of beating and never gave out on me. In the summer in Iraq, temperatures are up to 50°C. And while I was shooting, my camera was working double time. Again, I never had a problem with it. It was quite remarkable, really."

What drives you to do this kind of work?

"I always wanted to be in places where I felt nobody else was really there any more, telling the stories of the people who were caught up in conflict, or the aftermath of conflict. It's important to me to be a witness and a documentarian – someone who gathers that information and brings it back. Whether that ever makes a difference, I don't know, but I still think it's vital for us to be there."

Avtor David Clark


Ivor Prickett's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their photographs

Photojournalist Ivor Prickett sits on the roof of a truck to take a picture of a boy sorting crates of tomatoes.

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

This full-frame 30.4MP DSLR captures incredible detail, even in extreme contrast. Continuous 7fps shooting helps when chasing the perfect moment, while 4K video delivers ultra-high definition footage to the DCI standard (4096x2160).

Lens

Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM

This professional-quality standard zoom lens offers outstanding image sharpness and a robust L-series build. Its constant f/2.8 aperture enables you to take superb photos even in low light, and to control depth of field with ease.

Lens

Canon EF 50mm f/1.4 USM

With its fast maximum aperture and rapid focusing system, this compact, high-performance standard lens can be relied on for superb quality in any field of photography.

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