Syria: the shots that shook the world – By Mick Brown
Five photographers who have borne witness to Syria’s civil war tell the stories behind their defining images of the conflict
All war is brutal and dangerous, but for the journalists and photographers assigned to cover it the civil war in Syria has proved more brutal and dangerous than most. According to the International Press Institute ‘death watch’, 52 journalists and photographers have been killed in Syria since the beginning of the war in 2011. Many of these have, it seems, been deliberately targeted by government, and, in some cases opposition, forces. Historically, as non-combatants journalists and photographers have tended to enjoy a certain degree of immunity in war zones. But not in Syria.
In February 2012 the Sunday Times journalist Marie Colvin and the French photojournalist Rémi Ochlik were killed, and two other Western journalists injured, when government forces shelled the makeshift media centre in Homs, apparently in an attempt to silence reporting. (The Syrian Foreign Ministry denied that the media centre had been targeted, and insisted that foreign journalists should not enter ‘Syrian territory illegally to access turbulent and unsafe places’.) The vast majority of these deaths, however, have been among Syrian ‘citizen journalists’ using camera phones and social media.
The position of the media has become even more dangerous and compromised as the complexion of the war has changed, with radical jihadist groups beginning to gain the upper hand among opposition forces. Journalists and photographers have become targets for radical groups who accuse them of spying, and for criminal gangs taking hostages for ransom.
Last month Marc Marginedas, a special correspondent for theBarcelona-based newspaper El Periódico de Catalunya, became the 10th foreign journalist to have been kidnapped or gone missing since 2011. An unknown number of Syrian journalists have suffered the same fate.
Yet still photographers go there and bring back to the world images that remind us just how brutal this war has become. Here, five photographers tell the story behind one of their images: where they took it, how they took it, and why they were there in the first place.
GORAN TOMASEVIC Serbian, 44, Aleppo, August 2012
I was following a group of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters when they went into this house. They told me that it was a former Syrian army position and that they had killed three soldiers in there – I could see tracks of blood in the corridor – and taken over their position.
To me, the picture shows that in war personal belongings don’t exist. There is destruction, and with the sniper looking out of the window there is no mercy. I don’t know who had lived there, although I did think a lot about that. I tried to imagine a family inside the house and what they were doing. Family pictures or possessions in any abandoned house in a war zone always look sad and make me think of the people who lived there.
In Aleppo, and in Damascus, where I was with the rebel fighters in February [this year], it is urban-guerrilla-style fighting, which means it is a sniper war. I don’t think there has been much change in this kind of warfare since the Second World War. It’s the same in the ruins of Beirutor Sarajevo as it was in Stalingrad. I wish I could have covered the battle of Stalingrad.
People ask why would I want to work in a place like Syria. Because I want to tell the story. That is what I do for a living. I was a freelance photographer when war broke out in my country, and there was no option other than to go and cover it. After the war I simply continued photographing in other combat zones as my regular job. In Syria I wanted to show the hardest moment of combat operations: when fighters are in battle and struggling for their lives.
I never go for easy things – the harder the assignment, the bigger the challenge. I follow the fighters to the end of the battle or until the light goes or I have no chance of shooting pictures. If I leave the battle early, I feel as though I am betraying the fighters I am following. I wanted to photograph all aspects of war.
The central things are the front line and combat, because you can see suffering, fear, violence, comradeship – it’s all there.I have been in a lot of combat zones and it is hard to measure which place has been the most dangerous. I know about the risk of kidnapping, but in any war there are lots of risks and I am trained to deal with them. Most of the fighters, rebels and soldiers I have followed have been very respectful and helpful.
I think fear is useful to minimise personal risk, but there is really no time for any emotions doing this job, not even fear. I learnt that a long time ago. I know I must focus fast on what I am doing. I have been injured in the past and I hope that will not happen again. But I take care of myself. I exercise every day. I feel good.
NICOLE TUNG American, 27. Aleppo, August 2012
The Dar al-Shifa had been a private hospital before the revolution, and because it was in opposition-held territory, the revolutionaries had decided to take it over to treat the wounded. It was less than a month after the fighting in Aleppo had begun, and the government had already targeted the hospital seven or eight times. The upper floors were not being used – they were too exposed to artillery fire. But the lower three floors were being used for surgery and triage. Some of the doctors there actually lived in government-controlled areas and crossed over to this revolutionary-controlled area every day, which made it even more dangerous for them. But they felt so compelled to treat the civilians and wounded rebel fighters that they somehow made it work.
I documented the hospital for a week, and this was a typical day, with civilians streaming in. A lot of them were children who had been in their homes and had been hit either in air strikes or by shells. Sometimes they had been hit by sniper fire. The government forces were aiming not only at adults but at children as well. Completely indiscriminate.
This little boy was injured by shrapnel. He was very fortunate; he was able to leave the hospital. It’s heartbreaking watching children suffer. They’re not privy to religion or politics; they’re completely innocent. But I hope my pictures not only show them at their most vulnerable, but also give them dignity. I want people to realise that these are very resilient people, and they are very brave – especially the children.
It’s really hard to disconnect from other people’s pain, but I purposely tell myself that it’s not my pain to bear. Although I am responsible for recording it, if they survive, that’s fine; if they die then people will grieve. They have their own ways of dealing with things and I shouldn’t linger on it. If you didn’t switch off you’d go crazy and not be able to function.
I went into the project knowing that the hospital could be hit at any time. There were planes coming over, and at those times you think, I’m risking my life for this. But I had already seen a lot of civilians and children being killed, maimed – really, really terrible injuries – and I felt that what they were doing in this hospital was so remarkable that I was willing to risk it. Three months after I was there the hospital was destroyed in an air strike.
For a journalist, covering conflicts does involve a bit of selfishness, because if we die, we die, but it’s the family and friends left behind who have to bear the pain. I learnt that lesson in Libya when the photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed, and it was devastating to be the one left behind, knowing that your life will never be the same without these big people, your friends, in your life. But unfortunately, war and conflict is highly addictive. Your senses are heightened because it’s about survival – the survival of the people you’re documenting, and your own. You taste everything and you smell everything in a more vivid way.
Would I go back? Right now the kidnapping of journalists is rampant in northern Syria and elsewhere, and it’s very difficult to know what kind of access you can get. So I’m weighing things up. But I would like to go back, yes.
JEROME SESSINI French, 44. Aleppo: February 2013
This was the second time I had been in Aleppo since the war started. I wanted to make a cold and accurate profile of what a city in war, under siege and attack, looks like, without the classic pictures of fighters and people suffering. In some way this could almost be an architectural photograph, but I want whoever looks at it to keep in mind that this is a war situation.
This picture was taken right on the front line, so only the fighters were still occupying the buildings as positions. All the civilians had gone. At some points we were only 200 yards from government lines. You could hear the soldiers and the rebels shouting to each other, to join the army or join the opposition. It’s quite dangerous, because of the snipers. They are always moving, so if you are not with someone who has told you exactly where they are, you can cross a street and get shot in a second.
I had been in Aleppo in November 2012, and the opposition and the Syrian army were still in the same positions. But what was very different was the tension between the opposition groups. I saw many checkpoints in the city manned by al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. There were tense, sometimes violent discussions between the fighters from those groups and the FSA.
When I first went to Aleppo it was arranged through contacts that I had made with citizen journalists who put me in touch with opposition fighters in the city. If you want to go to the front line, you have no choice but to trust them 100 per cent.
I wouldn’t go to Aleppo now. My contacts tell me it would be suicide. The jihadist groups have taken control of the city; all the north of Syria is now under the control of radical militia. So now I have applied for a government visa to go to Damascus. I want to see how the people there are living. The government will know I was with the rebels, but if they approve my visa I think there will be no problem. Sure, there would be a press officer with me. But it’s the same when you are working with the rebels – you depend on what they are telling you, what they are showing you.
As a photographer, you are always in some way risking your pictures being propaganda; my duty is to try to be honest and avoid that. I believe in some kind of universal justice – that the good guys win in the end. The difficult thing, particularly in Syria now, is to know who are the good guys. One of my motives for doing this job is to understand all the nuances in this conflict, and go beyond what you see at first sight. It’s for my own personal understanding of the situation. But also it is important that in 50 or 100 years there is some documentation about what happened at that time.
When you are a young photographer you think war is glamorous; you want to be in the middle of the action, seeing people shooting Kalashnikovs. But after you have seen it once or twice you realise that it is not that easy, not that funny and not that glamorous. If there is an addiction it is to following the story for as long as it goes on. But you have to know your own limits. And you have to know when you’re running out of luck. Your instinct tells you when luck is not on your side any more. But you must be able to accept that. That is more difficult. I think my wife will be the one to tell me. If one day she says, I think you should stop now, maybe I will listen to her.
LYNSEY ADDARIO American, 39. Lebanon, January 2013
I have been working on a series on Syrian refugees, going to all the neighbouring countries – Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan – to look at the different ways in which they manage refugees. Lebanon was particularly interesting because the government has been averse to setting up camps, so refugees live in nooks and crannies all over the country. I heard that there were people living on farmland, so a local man took us, and there was this woman with her children, living in what was almost like a nomadic tent plopped down in a corner of a field.
I have photographed refugees for the past 13 years all over the world, and Syrian refugees are probably the hardest of all to photograph. They don’t want people to see their situation. A lot of them are middle-class, and they’re very proud. And also they’re terrified that their picture might be seen back in Syria, and they’re reluctant to talk about themselves because of the fear of reprisals. This woman’s husband was still in Syria.
One of the things I have come to recognise covering wars is that people might assume that an entire country is in mayhem, but it’s not like that. What in a newspaper or on the news looks like Armageddon is sometimes happening only within a one-block radius. In February I was in Aleppo Governorate, near the Turkish border, and it was fascinating to see people working in the fields, children going to makeshift schools. Somehow life always continues in a war zone. We needed to stay away from government-controlled areas; you’re entering illegally, so if you get picked up by government forces, you could go to prison. In Libya I was kidnapped by Gaddafi forces and we were held for a week. It was terrifying.
A month after I came back from Libya I got pregnant. My son is 18 months old now, so I am trying to modify my work and do things not directly in the line of fire, although maybe a normal person who doesn’t do this for a living would think the places I go to are dangerous – in the past month I have been in Afghanistan, Iraq and Jordan. It depends what your concept of danger is. That was part of my ambivalence about being a mother, because this isn’t just a job for me; it’s my life, it’s what I believe in and what I think is important.
We in the West are born with certain advantages, and when something like Syria happens and you have two million refugees and more than 100,000 dead, then I think it’s important not to turn a blind eye to that. We all have some sort of responsibility to try to stop it, or at least be aware of it. I’m not emotionally disengaged. I’m not the kind of journalist who thinks they’re above that or doesn’t get involved – that’s not me at all. When I’m shooting, the camera is a kind of shield. I get my work done, but I am emotionally very affected by what I see, and I want other people to be emotionally affected, too.
LAURENT VAN DER STOCKT French, 49, Damascus, April 2013
I have made four trips to Syria since the war began, but I wanted to go to the rebel side of Damascus because almost no journalists have been there. There are a lot of army bases all around Damascus, and it is hard to cross the countryside even if you are with the best of the fighters. You have to cross front lines, and you have to wait days or weeks to find a road that’s passable.
The issue with chemical weapons popped up in front of us. I could see gas masks all around and [the fighters] were all talking about it. Everyone was having problems with their eyes. These guys are used to shelling, fighting, snipers. But with chemicals, you never know. It has a psychological effect. You cannot smell it or see it for certain. At first I didn’t even notice I was affected. The guy I was with, a media man from the katiba [battalion], heard an explosion and said it was chemical weapons, and the same information was coming over the radio. Someone arrived with gas masks but the guy I was with said, ‘This is gas. We have to go.’
I learnt that a microscopic amount of sarin on your skin is lethal: you can die. It can be carried on the wind, and this is what happened to us. My pupils were constricted for three or four days. You have headaches and it becomes hard to breathe. The next day we saw fighters at the hospital who had had double the exposure – they were really bad. You start bleeding from the lungs.
My colleague from Le Monde, Jean-Philippe Rémy, and I treated it with suspicion at first – not that we didn’t believe it was chemicals, but we knew there were no other journalists there, and there would be a big debate. So we tried to collect as much data as we could, to bring out with us.
It has almost never happened for a journalist to be in such a situation.Obama had talked about the ‘red line’, then we came out with proof. It had a huge impact and it made a real difference to the knowledge of the situation in Syria. But in the end there was no intervention, because public opinion was against it. It is not for me to talk about what sort of intervention there should be. I’m speaking about the principle: do we help the population of Syria? They don’t have the medicine for the people who have been gassed by sarin – they don’t have anything. People are dying because of that.
Our job as journalists is to give information to the population to make their own opinion freely, in a democracy. And obviously it didn’t help. So I was very disappointed. I have 18-year-old twins. It’s difficult. I was wounded in Croatia in 1991, before they were born; I had mortar shrapnel in my arm and it took two years to recover. So they were more used than most to seeing that side of it. But I think you can’t be a great father if you change yourself for your children. I’m not the guy that’s always flying from one conflict to another.
I first went to Bosnia because it was my job, and then I was obliged to continue because slowly you become connected and trapped in the story and so you go back. But after the story was over, I didn’t want to go to another war, ever. OK, so then there was Chechnya, then Iraq… But now I must admit that I cannot go back to Syria to work seriously because the situation for a journalist is too bad. For a year the jihadists were keeping a low profile. I could speak with them, or even travel with them and that was OK. Now they are taking control. The guys you can trust from the FSA cannot protect me any more. They have a hard enough time trying to survive themselves. I think for a photographer, the hunting is over.