Can Photographers Reframe Western Perspectives on the Syrian Conflict?
In June of 2014, with the sky “raining mortar bombs,” Catherine Ward and a fellow photographer put on a photography exhibition in the Syrian city of Aleppo, a metropolis ravaged by fighting but one that Ward still calls her home. Titled “Decorating Pain,” the show drew 250 people to the hospital garden where it was held. To risk life and limb for an art exhibition (the first open-air photography show of its kind in the city, no less) at first seems surprising. Yet, even as violence continues to grip much of the country, such acts of bravery are commonplace for Syrians and refugees who endure harsh conditions across the Middle East.
In his moving requiem for Aleppo, Syrian-American writer Amal Hanano laments that he never took photos of the Old City before unless he was with a visitor. For him, the city of “milk and marble” seemed an immutable presence. “Who would ever have thought that we would stay and she would burn?” Hanano writes of the damage the city has sustained. “We excavate what we can find, using our photographs as references for the city that we mistakenly treated as an unchanging background.”
The crisis that has affected Aleppo and the rest of Syria dates back to at least the Arab Spring in 2011, with the ensuing conflict and rise of various rebel groups (including the radical ISIS)—engaged in pitched battle with each other and with the brutal regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad—leaving civilians caught in the crossfire. In this climate, cameras are as much preservers of memory as they are simple tools that matter-of-factly document death. On January 29, 2013, for example, the bodies of roughly 110 men and boys, each one shot in the head, were found on banks of the Queiq River, which runs through Aleppo, in territory controlled by rebels. Relatives used photographs of the bodies to try and identify their loved ones. (Though the regime blames others for the massacre, family members and others spoken to by The Guardian point the finger at the government.)
The relationship of many Americans to photographs of the conflict is quite different to those of Syrians for much the same reason that our collective response to the recent Paris attacks differed from that of the Beirut bombings, which occurred just a day earlier. Most of us have never been to Syria, fewer to Aleppo. Those bodies along the Queiq are impossibly foreign, washing up on the banks of a river we did not know existed.
Artist Tammam Azzam touched on this distance when he wrote to me about his series “Syrian Museum,” which imposes images from Western art onto photos of decimated Syrian cities, saying, “Goya created a work to immortalize the killing of hundreds of innocent Spanish citizens on May 3, 1808. How many May 3rds do we have in Syria today?”
Motivated by complex geopolitical interests, state representatives of the international community—many of whom will gather in Geneva this month to begin uneasy peace talks—won’t be swayed by an artist’s plea or a single image of bloodshed. Yet, for the individual viewer, photographs can offer a nuanced perspective on the war and its consequences. Amid the Islamophobia directed towards refugees and armchair machismo by commentators and Republican presidential candidates who frame the war in the most reductive terms, photographs can help challenge our false beliefs—as well as provide catharsis for those still in Syria.
For many outside the country, perpetual conflict may seem the norm in the Middle East, with the Syrian war being just a current incarnation. But for Ward and other Syrians, its realities remain unintelligible and traumatic. “There were things I couldn’t explain even to myself,” Ward writes of the outbreak. “Places I loved destroyed, people I love killed brutally; nothing made sense.” Still based in Aleppo, she draws from her photography practice a modicum of sanity, with each image quelling “the little wars taking place in parallel inside my head.”
For Ward, photography offers an answer to news reports that are “all blood, death, and politics.” Amid all these tales of brutality, she argues, Syrian humanity is lost. “Everyone must make an effort to put faces to the headlines,” she says. “We are not numbers, nor statistics. We are souls.” Her images of people, often up-close photographs of children, are the visual manifestation of her belief that “humans are the most important thing.”
The art of Issa Touma reiterates this refrain (indeed, Ward’s words about emphasizing Syrian humanity rather than statistics echoes a motto of Touma’s, one he often expresses through his work.) Touma heads a gallery in Aleppo and has been organizing a photography festival in the city since 1997, though it was cancelled in 2015 when the fighting became too severe. His work, which emphasizes humanity over politics, is partly a reflection of Touma’s deep skepticism of Western politicians’ binary and spin-laden understanding of the Middle East and the Syrian conflict. “I consider myself on the third side,” he says, referring to a contingent of Syrians whose desire for the war to end trumps any feeling of allegiance to the government or rebels.
In a series of his own photographs titled “Women We Have Not Lost Yet,” Touma highlights what he says are “liv[ing] people who are refusing to become just a victim or number in the media.” Accompanying the images is text telling the stories of people like Shahi, a 20-year-old girl who left the city of Kobani when it was surrounded by ISIS to travel to Aleppo to study art. The emphasis on women is an attempt to “show...the people who don’t have a voice in this conflict,” Touma told me.
Shahi and others who remain in Syria face the risk of being killed every day. But such violence is not what Touma chooses to focus on, a radical act for someone whose nation is at war. At the end of his film 9 Days: From My Window in Aleppo, which chronicles conflict taking place on the street outside his house in 2012, he wearily declares, “I don’t want to film the war any longer,” before turning his camera off. When I asked what he meant, he responded, “I will continue to photograph people but not war.”
In the photography of Mahmoud al-Basha, it’s difficult to separate the two. Like so many other students at the time, when the revolution broke out, he participated in demonstrations. After returning to his home of Aleppo in 2011, Basha was picked up by government forces and tortured for four months before his father bribed his way out. Following his release, he captured images but also began work as one of the many “fixers” (locals who help foreign journalists) in Aleppo, until he was kidnapped by rebels.
He escaped, but during the process most of his images were lost. Of those low-resolution images that do remain (accessible on his Twitter), some are gruesome, able to shock even the most desensitized eyes, while others are almost quotidian, and some blur the two: a doctor tending to a wounded child, soot-covered bodies, smiling members of the white-helmeted Syrian Defense Force (known for undertaking perilous rescues) in a moment of respite.
These are not the images of a detached photojournalist. Basha’s home was destroyed and most of his friends were killed. He moved to Turkey in 2015, and has since married. “I was no longer able to make or do anything in Aleppo,” he wrote me, adding that he began to feel “useless” as the fighting raged on. “The war exhausted and tired me a lot,” he said. “In Turkey, I will try to complete my studies and improve my abilities and start a new life.”
An Italian living in the U.K., David Brunetti has photographed refugees across the Middle East, including in Lebanon, a country of less than 5 million that is struggling with a refugee population of some 1.2 million. For his series “Scattered Pieces of a Homeland,” Brunetti took his camera to the country’s camps, photographing women refugees who experience beating, rape, and other forms of violence, and accompanying his carefully composed images with text telling their stories. Brunetti often omits their faces in hope that viewers will place themselves in the images and be moved by empathy to donate to relevant NGOs.
It’s a truism that mainstream news images and stories often reinforce stereotypes. Photojournalism, Brunetti told me, his voice laced with bitter anger, is “dog-eat-dog.” He recounted the time he saw photojournalists fighting each other to get a cliched image of a crying child on the Syrian-Jordanian border. “And you know why he was crying? He was crying because he was so afraid of having all these people hound him.”
A counterpoint to that impulse, Brunetti’s images present intimate portraits of complex individuals experiencing a spectrum of emotions such as anxiety, happiness, hope, and fear. In one image, a woman holding a child is seen in a spare room, looking out towards a luminous window. The accompanying text tells us her name is Yasmeen, that she is middle class and trained as an accountant. She is pregnant, and though she is unable to find a job and her husband can’t make ends meet, the women’s center in the camp has offered her some solace. “I can meet with other women, talk, and forget about my worries for a little while,” the text quotes her as saying before she echoes the sentiment of so many refugees: “We just want to go home.”
Photographer Liam Maloney is similarly interested in capturing images that challenge hackneyed and numbing visions of war. While on assignment in Lebanon in 2013, Maloney spent time with a group of Syrian refugees who were sleeping in an abandoned slaughterhouse. They had set up tents that gave them privacy from prying eyes but did little to shield them from the smell wafting from the gutters that once collected pools of blood. Maloney began to photograph the refugees at night, their faces illuminated by glowing cell phone screens, and, though initially wary, some let him see their matter-of-fact texts.
When the work is exhibited, these texts are sent to onlookers’ phones, effectively collapsing the distance between viewer and subject. Observers are confronted with a refugee’s experience in the strange, neutral space of a cell phone screen. These might take the form of texts from loved ones about dodging sniper fire, or a picture of black smoke rising from an apartment building, as one photo shows. “There is something incredibly banal about sending and receiving messages,” Maloney says, but for the refugees “these messages are issues of life and death.”
Photographer Tommie Lehane’s images remind us of the easily forgotten but important truth that refugees weren’t always refugees, and that—just a few years ago—Syria was a place of relative normalcy. “It was a fabulous place, it was very open. I could go anywhere I wanted, I could do anything I wanted,” he says, speaking of the country he visited in 2005 and again in 2009. He readily admits that as a foreigner (Lehane is Irish), he didn’t have insight into the political repression there. But he resists letting the current crisis retroactively impose itself on those earlier images, despite ominous precursors sometimes appearing to surface in them. One such photograph shows a smiling man outside a bakery as another man off camera points a handgun at his head. As Lehane explains, however, “It’s not an image of war, it’s not an image of an aspect of war before the war.” The two men were friends, he told me: “They were having a bit of fun.”
Answering the question of whether images can bring about concrete change remains difficult. In Touma’s estimation, the erosion of artistic and intellectual circles—and hence the freedom of cultural expression—is what helped destabilized the nation to begin with. “When you remove the intellectuals, you have fanatics hiding behind the door,” he says. Intellectuals and artists (who have fled Syria in droves) “are the balance of any society. When organizations or right-wing governments close cultural centers or cut art funding, they don’t know that they are killing themselves.”
It follows, then, that art could equally play a role in bringing an end to the conflict. Brunetti is more cynical, though he remains adamant that even small donations to nonprofits can make something of a difference. “I think we’re so saturated,” he says. “I even wonder myself, why am I doing it? It’s not going to change anyone’s views. Yeah, you’ll feel sorry when you see it, but then you go back to your life and everything is all forgotten.”
Many point to the now-famous photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi lying dead on a beach as a pivotal moment in the refugee debate. Though it inspired some grassroots movements across Europe, it has ultimately had little systematic impact, and is rarely mentioned today as subsequent bodies wash up on the shores of Mediterranean beaches and don’t receive the same degree of attention. If there’s one true takeaway from the reaction to the Aylan image, it’s that sadness can coexist with indifference, that being moved emotionally isn’t the same as taking action—a fact worth keeping in mind long after you close this article.
“I’m not really a believer in iconic photography or the ability of one picture to change the world,” says Maloney. He may well be right. But Syrian photographers and images of the conflict, when imbued with an emotional complexity absent in the pages of newspapers, can perhaps, ever so slightly, shift our focus for the better. Given the luxury of having a choice, the least we can do is not look away.