PHOTOGRAPHS BY EDOUARD ELIAS | TEXT BY OLIVIER LAURENT
When Islamic State militants fled the villages surrounding Mosul as Iraqi forces mounted their assault on the strategic town, they left behind ruins – destroying houses and buildings, and setting fire to entire oil fields.
That was in the summer of 2016. Now, more than six months later, the fires rage on and a small group of Iraqis risk their lives every day to put them out. “These firefighters in front of these bursts of flames, it’s like David and Goliath,” says French photographer Edouard Elias, who shadowed a squad of them earlier this year.
“I’ve been following Iraq’s battle against the Islamic State,” he tells TIME, “but I wanted to cover a less temporal aspect of that conflict. I wanted to show a different angle that focused on Iraqis themselves. I felt these fires were extremely symbolic: [oil] is the country’s principal resource but also the cause of its destruction.”
Elias’ approach is part of a larger desire to slow down. While in his early years on the job, he sought to cover conflict from the front lines; now, he prefers to take a step back and focus on more intimate human stories. “I want viewers to find themselves in the people I’m photographing,” he says. “I want them to understand what they’re going through.”
With this attitude, Elias was able to form deeper links with his subjects. “They were surprised to see us come back each day,” he says. “They kept on telling us that usually journalists just come and go, often staying less than an hour with them.”
Elias’ images are a throwback to the first Gulf War, when a retreating Saddam Hussein set Kuwait’s oil fields on fire. “The antagonists are different, but everything else is the same,” he says. “I wanted these images to form part of this ongoing story.”
Edouard Elias is a French freelance photographer.
Olivier Laurent, who edited this photo essay, is the editor of TIME LightBox. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @olivierclaurent.