plus one

No Sun Over Qayyara

November 27, 2016 //  Travel Stories Back to posts

Families Watch as Firefighters Attempt to Extinguish the Flames of an Oil Well in Qayyarah - October 26th, 2016

THE DAY THE SUN NEVER ROSE - Photographs by Joey L. Text by Benedetta Argentieri 

QAYYARA (Iraq) - A haze of thick black smoke obscured the view of the sky. The only source of illumination was a wall of flames at least three-stories high. A constant humming drone came from boiling oil which looked like lava ready to spill out from a volcano. Suddenly a small pin prick of light revealed itself through the thick, noxious clouds- a reminder that it was actually the middle of the day.

On October 26, the town of Qayyara, Iraq, seemed to have become the real life interpretation of the Apocalypse. The Islamic State (ISIS) torched at least 15 oil wells before retreating from the area on August 25, perhaps reinforcing the wildest jihadi-dream that the end of the world was near.

In reality, the act created an environmental and health disaster for the communities in the surrounding area. Air pollution is so grave that thousands of people have been poisoned. Mosul is nearly 60 kilometers north, and the black sky is a serious impediment to the advance of the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga. It also prevents coalition warplanes from targeting ISIS positions on the frontline.

Burning oil wells in Qayyara - October 25th, 2016 

Nadak Aziz and Kharim Ali - October 25th, 2016 

Portrait of Kharim Ali - October 25th, 2016 

Children Play by the Burning Oil Wells in Qayyarah - October 26th, 2016

Smoke Engulfs the Houses of Qayyarah Town - October 26th, 2016

Zaer Ibrahim, 8, Poses with Homemade Toy Rifle by the Burning Oil  Fields in Qayyarah - October 25th, 2016

Portrait of Hana and Children - Hana Caclar, 37, stands in her burned home with her children. October 24th, 2016

A Burning Oil Well in Qayyarah - October 26th, 2016

Families Watch as Firefighters Attempt to Extinguish the Flames of an Oil Well in Qayyarah - October 26th, 2016

Firefighters Battle the Flames of an Oil Well in Qayyarah - October 26th, 2016

Engineers and oil workers understand the urgency and the importance of drowning out the fire. Pressure to quickly resolve the situation came all the way from Baghdad. "We received the order from the Ministry of Oil, we need to extinguish the flames in one week," said Basheer Murad, senior chief of the Nineveh Oil Fields. His optimistic view contradicted one of the other engineers on site, Ayad Aljaburi, who said the operation might take up to one month. In the past two months they were only able to douse six fiery wells.

To further complicate the situation, ISIS placed IEDs around some of the other wells. "American engineers inspected several sites and told us to be careful, we will have to wait before approaching them," added Aljaburi. The current focus was a specific well on the outskirts of Qayyara, right in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

The latest operation began when a generator was brought on site. In the area there is no electricity-- powerlines have been cut south of Mosul. As soon as firefighters started pumping water from nearby pools, the flames intensified and the smoke became thicker. As the inferno expanded, workers struggled to contain it by using dirt walls pushed by bulldozers. The temperature rose so high that the windshield of the vehicles had to be sprayed with water to stop them from melting. Firefighters operated from home-made metallic cubicles in an attempt to protect themselves.

More than 150 inhabitants gathered around the scene, worried about their nearby homes. The burning oil had already spilled over to at least twenty other houses, turning them into blackened hollow shells. The onlookers were covered with a thick layer of soot. Some protected their faces with worn-out cotton masks. Most didn't seem to mind the toxic gas, as if they had grown used to the polluted air.

A group of at least 30 children were staring at the flames. In the days before, they had been playing around here, regardless of the danger and the warnings by the oil workers. But today was different, and everybody was eager to help even when their assistance was not needed.

Nader Yassim Co-ordinates Hoses Running Water to Firefighters - October 26th, 2016

A Bulldozer Driver Takes a Break to Splash Water on His Windshield - October 26th, 2016

Flames Encroach on a Residential House Beside a Burning Oil Well in Qayyarah - October 26th, 2016

Thousands of people have been treated in field hospitals. The symptoms range from severe headaches, breathing problems, chest pains, to skin rashes that look similar to eczema. The British NGO Oxfam, which is operating in the area expressed deep concerns about the health situation and the severe lack of services.

Officials tried to convince civilians to relocate somewhere else, at least for the time being. But most of them refused. "We are not going to leave our homes and live in camps," said Mohammed Abdul Jabba. His house is the closest to the wells and the flames are just outside his windows. He had lived there under ISIS but fire will not move him. 

Portrait of Rami Akan - October 26th, 2016

The photographs and text published yesterday in Sunday Times Magazine. Special thanks to Amy Christian and everyone at Oxfam, Benedetta Argentieri, Patricia McMahon, Russ O'Connell and Emily McBean. 


Back to posts


Avan Patel // November 28, 2016 06:43

This is journalism reinvented! words can't describe your work, simply perfect!

David Bathgate // November 28, 2016 09:04

Beautifully and "heart-fully" done Joey. Real caring journalism.

Ali Naqi // November 28, 2016 11:14

Wow. I am just blown away right now. truly insane documentary

Daniel Nandi // November 28, 2016 11:22

Amazing and inspiring altogether.

andrew harrington // November 28, 2016 11:46

F**k me thats good. Be save.

Ryan Connors // November 28, 2016 18:13

Wonderful imagery!

Brian J. Magnuson // November 28, 2016 19:53

Joey- Beautiful and moving images. Living through you and your work! I truly believe your work will live on long after we are gone.

Alfred Chamois // November 28, 2016 22:13

Using a drone to do porn-journalism is as indecent as using a drone to assassinate an enemy.

Athena Plichta // November 29, 2016 02:59

Incredible work, Joey. As a mother, it hurts to see children living in those conditions. Thank you for bringing awareness to this disaster. Please stay safe.

Anna Zofka // November 30, 2016 12:35

I love how you captured this story. Just perfect.

Deborah Menezes // December 01, 2016 16:05

I REALLY love your work!!!

Dylan Goldby // December 03, 2016 17:57

That portrait of Rami Akan... haunting. Love your work, man.

Joel Bear // December 05, 2016 18:19

Wow, journalism reinvented is right! The shot with the man stepping into the tracker is breathtaking.
You feel in the moment looking at it. Thank you for sharing and capturing this story!

Joel Bear // December 05, 2016 18:19

Wow, journalism reinvented is right! The shot with the man stepping into the tracker is breathtaking.
You feel in the moment looking at it. Thank you for sharing and capturing this story!

shengyuan hsu // December 05, 2016 20:39

a Fan from Taiwan!!

Duke Henry // December 05, 2016 22:47

Love to see you use some of natural light here.
As always great images !! thats why i follow your works.

Mike Kenneally // December 05, 2016 23:28

Burning black smoke silently pollutes the sun
A boy in the desert stands with a plastic gun
A dark veil spreading with nowhere to run
Toy gun melt away replaced by a steel one
From deep below a silent river fuels a flame
Vengeful ignitor announcing it's new war game

Har Rai Khalsa // December 05, 2016 23:55

You never cease to amaze and inspire. Absolutely stunning imagery!

William Henry // December 06, 2016 00:31

Truly incredible Joey, I have been a long time follower of your work and it continues to amaze me. The addition of aerial drone shots and footage on this project is fantastic, seeing the size of the fires from that distance along with the portraiture helps give a glimpse of not only the magnitude of the damage ISIS has caused in Qayyara but also the people that have been effected by them as well.

Joel Bedford // December 06, 2016 11:05

Thank you for sharing these incredible images. Work like yours continues to elevate the consciousness of the masses. Keep up the important work. It's your calling.

Nicholas Syracuse // December 06, 2016 12:48

Gorgeous work. Thank you for putting in the effort to bring these to us. All my best to you on your future explorations!

Rosengarten // December 07, 2016 09:44

These are moving images Joey, thank you for putting your safety on the line to tell these stories and get these images for the world to see. Stay safe.

Jeremy Hatcher // December 13, 2016 03:39

great work Joey. Such a pro.
One of my referent today in photography.
keep the excellent work. A fan from Chile.

Cooper Neill // December 30, 2016 11:21

Great work, Joey - I've always been a fan of your studio work and love the editorial approach to this one

Flo // January 26, 2017 13:46

The most remarkable peace of work in the field of journalism I have seen!

Amanda joy // January 27, 2017 03:37

truly inspiration

Javin Lau // December 20, 2017 13:09

Being out here now, it's wild how much has changed.

Ajay Walia // October 16, 2018 22:06

Great work Joey
A true jounalism

Ajay Walia // October 17, 2018 01:05

Wowww every thing is perfect graphics,resolution,picture quality etc.
Awesome pictures

* Mandatory fields

Your comment has been posted