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Territory has long been the motivation for war and controlling a geographic area has been the ultimate index for winning and losing. The rise, fall, and persistence of ISIS, however, at once reinforces but complicates the centrality of territorial conquest to warfare. Born out of the same genealogy that gave rise to Al-Qaeda, going back to Soviet-occupation Afghanistan, ISIS, which was born of subsequent rivalries between jihadist factions, illustrates the logic of viral mutation so central to the war on terror in the increasingly digital age. There can be no doubt that this mutation was catalyzed by the fateful U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; but how it will end is impossible to tell.
As many observers have noted, mediation plays a pivotal role for ISIS as it seeks to mobilize the disaffected and aggrieved from across the world through online recruiting. Yet the group’s project is deeply cartographic, its ambitions laid out in black maps that project fantasies about a future Caliphate, roughly akin to the Roman Empire at its height. But what does this look like on the ground? Alice Martins is one of the few intrepid photographers to track the multi-actor battles across eastern Syrian and western Iraq.
As Martins documents the trans-border fight against ISIS, she gives us a sense of the fluidity of a conflict that is charged by a multiplicity of state and non-state actors that are gaming fickle alliances as they fight. She does so with great sensitivity to the people stuck in this conflict zone and an eye for the subtle ways that everyday life becomes infused with the conflict. Take, for example, her image of a refugee tent converted into a shop window for wedding dresses. In Martins’s images, the war is inescapable. It infects the air. Iraqi soldiers wear gas masks, men working to dig graves shovel up clouds of dust, the Civil Defense of Raqqa wear face masks as they write on body bags, and women and children cover their mouths in horror. Simply put, Alice Walker, has walked through hell and documented its fury, but has been sure to leave us with glimpses of humanity. She shows us a conflict in continual motion, as complex as it is tragic.
— Alexander L. Fattal
University of California, San Diego
Copyright information: Photos are copyright © Alice Martins.