Following the Shadows

 2020 Banff Mountain Photo Essay Competition Grand Prize, Shadows of Kurdistan, Murat Yazar

 2020 Banff Mountain Photo Essay Competition Grand Prize, Shadows of Kurdistan, Murat Yazar

A profile of the 2020 Mountain Photo Essay Grand Prize Shadows of Kurdistan by Murat Yazar

Over a hundred years have passed since the geo-cultural region of Kurdistan was divided across four borders following the Sykes-Picot agreement in 1916. Today, there are almost 35 million Kurds separated and living in Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. 

Photojournalist Murat Yazar grew up in the town of Urfa, a small Kurdish village near the Euphrates River in Turkish Kurdistan. He has been documenting the people of Kurdistan since 2011, when Syrian refugees started flowing across the border to his hometown. Of his winning photo essay, Shadows of Kurdistan, Yazar says, “I wanted to include images of daily life, alongside work that addresses the political situation in our cities and villages. It was also important to me that the vibrancy of Kurdish culture shone through.” These five images were part of his larger project from 2011 through 2019, featuring 85 images and compiled into a book by the same name. 

Over the past decade Yazar has travelled across the borders of the four parts of Kurdistan into cities, villages, and the countryside to document and share stories and traditions of the people. “I wanted to bring them together in a single book – together and without borders.” He adds, “I tried to show my culture in all its colours. My camera was my canvas and brush, my culture was the colours, and the views were my composition.” Says Yazar, “In many places in Kurdistan it is still forbidden for us to live in our traditional ways or to study our language – we live in our land like shadows, without colour.” 

Yazar says that it was extremely challenging to document his home region due to the severity of the political situation and civil war coupled with a fear ingrained in the people of sharing their lives and identity. “It took time for me to be allowed to enter inside their lives, but when I did, it was truly rewarding to see and understand them.” He adds, “As the walls between us fell, I realized how close I was – and yet, still so far from my culture and the people who enrich it.”

This project has become part of the tapestry of Yazar’s own life story. “For me, photography has been the key to discovering my identity and making my culture visible.” He also recognizes his work is still incomplete. There is an area of Kurdistan in Rojava, Syria, where he was unable to cross the border due to the war and says he only has images of Kurds at the Turkey-Syria border escaping the violence. “I wait and dream that one day peace will come to my land and I can finish the story,” says Yazar. “Ultimately, I hope to create an archive of my culture and homeland, uniting the four parts of Kurdistan."

Yazar’s essay was selected as the Grand Prize Winner of the 2020 Banff Mountain Photo Essay Competition. The international trio of jury members includes Pat Kane, Robin O’Neill, and Jim Herrington – the latter saying that, “There is a narrative tension that runs through his work, an electricity even, the photos crackle. They feel very alive and take me somewhere – leaving me wanting to know more.”


Murat Yazar is now based in Rome, Italy and his work has been exhibited in Paris, Milan, Rome, and Barcelona. Shadows of Kurdistan was recognized by the 2020 Sony World Photography Awards, and the book was published in Rome, Italy in June 2020. His images have been published in National Geographic Magazine, The Times of London, Le Courrier, and The New York Times

The Banff Mountain Photo Essay Competition is presented by Nikon
A 2020 Special Jury Mention was awarded to The Last Shepherd by Mauro Cironi

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This article is from the 2020/21 Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour Magazine. Flip through the pages of the online magazine here.
Find out more about competitions and learning opportunities at Banff Centre in mountain and adventure photography, writing, and filmmaking. 

For me, photography has been the key to discovering my identity and making my culture visible.
- Murat Yazar