Claire Felicie, Daughters of the Sun

JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2018 (here). Hand-bound leporello with linen-bound hard cover in cardboard slipcase, unpaginated, with thirty original black-and-white photographs, 4.25 x 6 x 4.25 inches. Includes quote by Emily Dickinson, as well as two texts (one a fold-out) by Claire Felicie, all of which are handwritten by the photographer. In an edition of 25 hand-made, unique copies. Designed by Ellen Korth and Claire Felicie. Binding by Brown Cartonnages. (Cover shots and spreads below.)

Comments/Context: On the evening of November 13, 2015, Dutch photographer Claire Felicie and her daughter were having dinner outside at one of the small bistros in Paris’s Marais district, when a gunman opened fire about two-hundred yards down the street. As people were crouching behind tables and chairs, or scurrying to hide inside the restaurant, Felicie made the decision to, instead, take her daughter back to their camper.

“I was afraid of being trapped,” she told me, “of my daughter having no escape. Perhaps, it was because I had spent time in Afghanistan photographing the Dutch Marines, but I thought we’d be safer on the street. I knew that they were looking for masses, not two women. We found a taxi that took us back to the camper, where we spent the night, and left for Amsterdam the next morning. There were police and military everywhere; it made a big impression on my daughter.”

The impact on Felicie was different: “As a parent, as a mother, the only thing I worried about was to protect my child. It is an instinct, something you don’t think about; you just do. But as we were walking the streets, and then in the car, I realized that, actually, I could not have protected her – not from something like that.” Felicie knew about ISIS, and the related the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, “But until Paris, it felt far away – as it does with any conflict.” She thought about the implications of carrying a gun, “I obviously don’t carry one (and am not allowed to), but even if I did, I would not know how to use it. So, I began to wonder: Who is fighting these people over there? How do they protect their loved ones?”

Her research eventually led her to the Peshmerga fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq and one of the territories where the Kurds – the world’s largest ethnic group without a country – have been battling, for decades, to establish an independent state. Mountainous and landlocked, it is surrounded by Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey (and not to be confused, both geographically and ideologically, with the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava).

Thanks to diplomatic connections formed during previous photographic projects, Felicie was able to visit Iraqi Kurdistan twice. The first time in 2017, she stayed with the Dutch Marines, who trained with the Kurdish troops, and she met both male and female Peshmerga fighters. While the Peshmerga originally existed only as guerilla organizations (today, they are the official forces of Iraqi Kurdistan), developing a conflicted history and schisms due to the region’s two political parties, they have proven to be the most effective military force to fight the Islamic State in the Middle East. The Kurdish warrior tradition, however, including a long line of female fighters (in fact, the largest percentage of female fighters in the world), has existed for centuries.

Intrigued by – and strongly connecting with – the women, Felicie decided to return to northern Iraq to learn more about Kurdish culture and focus exclusively on the female fighters. The following year, Chnar Hessin, a Peshmerga and mother of a sixteen-year-old daughter, hosted Felicie in her Erbil (the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan) home for two weeks – and served as her guide and translator. In order to meet other female fighters, both women visited Peshmerga generals to introduce Felicie and her project (“During the first week, I drank a lot of tea. It was very nice, but I was anxious to get started”); then her journey began.

Hefty, like a well-chiseled brick, then unfolding as an intricate, emotional cartography, each copy of Daughters of the Sun distills Felicie’s encounters with several Peshmerga women. She captured them in nuanced, full-bleed, black-and-white photographs, which alter from volume-to-volume, except for the two initial, as well as the final, images. Half of the book’s photographs depict landscapes, urban and rural, from changing vantage points. At times they are populated by people, men and women in uniform, sitting on plastic chairs, as if holding a meeting; relaxing on a blanket spread across patches of grass, rocks and boulders; or moving between carefully assembled sandbag barricades. Others show the aftermath of destruction, ranging from the cracked façade of a once proudly inhabited country-house; abandoned, never completed apartment buildings, standing like defective skeletons amidst a slowed-down nervous system of streets and family homes; to ruins, echoing the outlines of the mountains against which they stand. Despite the melancholy embedded within these photographs, life is tangible, in bushes and trees – the land itself, stoically withstanding the undoing of basic human needs.

A similar resistance also characterizes Felicie’s portraits of the Peshmerga women. Most literally in three, almost full-body, photographs, each of which captures a woman dressed in camouflage, their hair pulled back or let down, decisively holding her gun, and so unflinchingly focused on a point beyond the frame, that no words are needed to convey that failing is not an option. While these three images feel like archetypal, heroic depictions of contemporary warriors, another group of portraits render the women in a subtle, more individual manner. Shot from close proximity, showing only their heads and shoulders, their eyes, at times, directly confronting, at times avoiding the camera, we begin to search for small details, hints of personality, and linger on the suggestive lines of their muted faces. Their lives, though, remain secret, as Daughters of the Sun does not reveal their names or ages, where they are from, or why they became Peshmerga fighters. What we do learn, however, is how Felicie sees and looks at these women – their expressions adamantly defying any inclination of pity or victimhood.

Photographs have never been able to capture the invisible, such as beliefs, convictions, or of any sensation residing in the heart, the mind, or in-between – yet, in the hands of the right photographer, they can be evoked through metaphors, both visual and verbal. Felicie has done so, elegantly and sensitively, in her previous projects, such as Only the Sky Remains Untouched, exploring the syndrome of post-traumatic stress disorder of Dutch veterans (reviewed here); and Here Are the Young Men, investigating the visual effects of war upon the faces of young marines. In Daughters of the Sun, emotional clues about who her subjects might be, or rather, what motivates them to fight, are palpable in the tender close-ups of the women’s hands, affectionately holding objects given by, or reminding them of, their loved ones – such as necklaces and pendants, an old passport, or the photographs of a deceased brother, of a small child, kept on their phones; which, through cracked screens, invoke an uncanny feeling of sad intuition.

Indeed, the sentiment of loss becomes more concrete in Felicie’s handwritten texts, included at the book’s end. Explaining her motivation and context for the project, it becomes clear that for Felicie photography is not a mere career or medium found by coincidence, but a vehicle to confront and transform trauma. Losing her mother at a young age, she writes: “Death itself governed my life. At first, I was terrified, but by experiencing its proximity on the battlefield, it lost part of its horror. I was able, in a sense, to make peace with death.” However, only when reading how she felt a solidarity with the female Peshmerga fighters, that they felt like sisters, I began to wonder about her calling the objects these women carried “souvenirs”, instead of talismans, implying that the loved ones, were also lost.

Photography and death, its suspension and depiction, as well as the inescapable act of mourning, have had a longstanding relationship – not just within conflict or war photography, but emerging shortly after the medium’s invention in the mid-19thcentury, and permeating the writings that have since been published. For instance, Roland Barthes’s Chambre Claire, a piece of photographic theory emerging from the grieving process over his late mother.

Daughters of the Sun can be regarded as part of this photographic tradition, joining the works of photographers such as Rineke Dijkstra, Suzanne Opton, and Louie Palu. While diverging in approach and aesthetic, all of these examples explore the soldier’ not as part of a unit or collective, but as an individual, to, ultimately, engender empathy. What makes Felicie’s approach, however, entirely her own, is her affirmative, even kindred, yet unsentimental connection with life – and therefore with the subjects she explores, as well as the people she captures in front of the camera. This outlook is not only reflected in Daughters of the Sun’s opening quote, the first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem Death (“Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me / The Carriage held but just Ourselves / And Immortality”), but the book’s carefully composed, touch-inducing design – a hand-made leporello – its delicate balance between sentiment, respect, and silence.

Among her most important influences, Felicie mentions the late British photographer Tim Hetherington (along with Caravaggio, Anselm Kiefer, and Rembrandt). I see their connection not necessarily in their photographs, that is, their subject matter or style, but in both photographers being counterparts of a similar mission. Hetherington phrased his as such: “Trying to understand my own fascination with conflict and war has become something that’s started to focus on what it means to be a man. What is it about war that really draws men?”

Felicie grounds her connection with the female Peshmerga fighters primarily in the experience of womanhood. To be clear – these Kurdish women fight to protect other women and their offspring from profoundly sexist, pedophile, and inhuman ideologies of the Islamic State. She writes: “Because these women are first and foremost, like me, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, and daughters. Powerful, resilient, protective.” A trait that is also reflected in the Kurdish flags yellow sun, and referenced in the books title.

We tend to look at soldiers, male and female, without being able to grasp their motivations, their decisions to go to war. Daughters of the Sun perceptively unlocks this perplexity. The word Peshmerga translates to “those who stare death in the face”. What connects their gaze through the riflescope with Felicie’s viewfinder, is a fighting spirit grounded in love.

Collector’s POV: Claire Felicie is represented by Amstel Gallery in Amsterdam (here) and Galerie Pennings in Eindhoven (here). Felicie’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail or direct connection with the photographer remain the best options for those collectors interested in following up.

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