For three years, photographer Erin Trieb has been covering the conflict against ISIS in northern Iraq. She followed Kurdish women fighters and shadowed some of the 5,000 U.S. soldiers involved in the fight against the extremist group. But, looking back at that work, the American photographer realized she hadn’t photographed “much of the beauty of Kurdish culture,” she tells TIME.
So, in a bid to show that Iraq is not just “one giant pit of terrorism and despair,” Trieb says, she turned her lens on some of the cultural traditions that set Iraq’s Kurdistan apart from the rest of the country.
“[There], picnicking is like an extreme sport,” she says. “If there is a square-meter patch of grass and the weather is nice, you will find Kurds picnicking on it. Even if that patch of grass is on a median between two highways, they don’t seem to mind.”
With cars loaded with food, drinks and musical instruments, Kurdish families often take to the roads in the early morning, en route to “idyllic places like Dukon Lake and Goizha Mountain,” says Trieb. Once they settle on a patch of grass, the men will start the barbeques. There may be a roast of spiced goat and lamb meat with pots of oily rice, or grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables. There are baskets of fresh fruit and a drink called mastow, made of yogurt, salt and water.
To photograph these lavish picnics, Trieb chose to celebrate their colors using an old film camera which she bought at a market shop in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan’s capitol. “I thought it would be fun to shoot the project with an old camera that I imagine someone in Iraq probably used in the past to take their own family snapshots – that felt special to me,” says Trieb. She had planned to use a simple double-exposure technique (rewinding the film to shoot over images already exposed) but the camera often jammed when she tried it. As a solution, she combined the images in post-processing. “This led to a slightly less surprising outcome,” she says, “but it gave me a greater latitude of which images I wanted to combine.”
The result is a surprising feast of colors and combinations that seem to complement the Kurds’ extravagant social rite. “I wanted to portray the strong connection the Kurds have with their land, a connection which is affixed to a seemingly endless dream,” she says. A dream of prosperity, stability, and most of all, independence.
Erin Trieb is an American photographer based in Istanbul.