Here’s an extract from my latest project from Syria that should be ready for publication within the next two months.
Broken Boy Soldiers
A dark, starless night wraps its arms around us. We are floating in its deep, black nothingness and only the white reflective lines on the asphalt road caught in the one surviving headlight reveals our movement. We are rapidly being absorbed into the Syrian night, removing our self with increasing speed from the relative normality that comes with the Turkish border.
It’s been a while since we last passed the burning oil drums marking the start and end of cities, all revealing bearded faces of city elders that peer out of the darkness, the red warmth of the fire reflecting in their eyes. They stop us: Who are we? Or more importantly, who are we not? The two people in the front seats are well known faces on these roads so we continue onwards.
Momen and Yahoo are members of the Tawheed Brigade and fights for the revolution. Yahoo is 21 years old and experienced. He used to be a fighter, but due to his technologic abilities, he is now in charge of media and communication. Yahoo is driving the car. Moomen is 16 and carrying the Kalasnikhow. They are best friends.
A few hours earlier, walking down the main street of the Turkish border town Reyhanli, I stopped at a street stall selling army fatigues and belts for ammunition. I had recognized a black nylon vest with pockets on the front and back large enough to hold AK47 magazines and grenades.
This type of vest is the highest fashion among the rebels along with the black headscarves that carry the Shahaada (Muslim declaration of faith) in white writing.
A couple of men come up and look at the headscarves. With their long white robes and full-grown beards they are as foreign as me. They smile and I smile back. They are here to join the rebels and crossing over the border today. They ask me to come with them, but to their disappointment I politely decline and explain that I already have made arrangements. We wish each other safe travels and as I turn the corner I find my Syrian contact waiting for me.
As we approach the border barrier on foot I see a sea of faces through the metal bars marking the end of Turkey. A policeman stands blocking a small opening in the gate, not letting anybody in. We sneak behind a truck and walk up to the guard with our heads down. My friend grabs my arm and starts to press through the opening. The officer barely notices us. He’s too busy keeping the many Syrians out of Turkey to notice anybody trying to get in. Why would he?
This is the first time I’ve been smuggled over a border and I can feel the adrenalin pumping. The contrast of this other territory hits me immediately when we enter…
Stay tuned for the publication of the full story shortly.
I’ve been back in Syria since Saturday, doing a so-called ‘NGO-run’ with a Danish charity. We’ve been at a few refugee camps and also visited a string of hospitals. Mostly we’ve been in meetings trying to arrange the next batch of emergency relief.
Now I’m back in the country, this time on my own. I am travelling the Idlib province with a group of rebels called the Tawheed Brigade. I am gathering photos as we go along and working on a range of different projects but as I’ve been feeling a little like a photojournalistic cliché lately (that not necessarily meant as a bad thing) I’ve decided to do an old school black and white series for the first blog.
Hope to have some more time soon to get the different pieces together, but right now it’s all loose strings tying them selves together here and there and not always in the right order, so bear with me while I find myself in this mess of a conflict…
I’m back in Turkey. Hotel. Bed. Facebook. A friend request pops up, name written in Arabic. It turns out it’s a captain in the Free Syrian Army that I met earlier in the day. He’s stationed in Aleppo but has one night off to see his wife and four kids that are in Gaziatep, a large city just 20 kilometers from Kilis, Turkey.
He tells me that I should get to the Syrian city of Azaz tomorrow by 8 a.m. as there should be a funeral for an FSA soldier.
At 6 a.m. I wake up the receptionist to check out of my hotel and at 7 I wake up the Turkish border official to check out of Turkey.
Inside Syria I decide to go straight through the border area and find a car that can take me to town. I negotiate a price of 10 Turkish Lira (£3) and am about to jump in the car as a man in army fatigues carrying a Kalashnikov stops me. I need permission to leave the area and there’s no way around the media center.
While we wait for the media center to wake up the soldiers manning the control post invite me in for breakfast consisting of flat bread with spicy pickles and hot Arab tea cooked on a large gas burner standing between the two beds and a television that frames the room. The sweet tea cheers us all up and I start feeling less grumpy about being withheld. They don’t speak any English and I’ve soon used up my one Arabic word saying “Shukran” (thank you) every time I can get away with it. We still have a good time though and after a while I start playing around with my camera to see what reaction that will bring. As I hoped it doesn’t take long before they are posing and I’m snapping away freely.
It starts to pour. Again. It has been raining almost every single day since I arrived at the border. I curse my suede shoes for the tenth time on this trip, and stop. Realizing that all my worries have a warm bed, a bankcard, wireless Internet and a Christmas full of food and presents waiting just a few hours away. In the meantime a large queue has gathered outside in the rain. Men, women and children are getting drenched as they wait for the weekly handout of diapers…
I meet with my media “escort” from the day before and he tells me that the body of the captain is still in Turkey. They don’t know when he’ll be buried as his mother is on her way to the hospital to say her final goodbyes. Not much to argue about there, so I fold out my umbrella and go exploring in the camp.
I spend the day organizing. First of all I need to change hotels. The one I’ve been staying in for the last two nights costs 90 Turkish Lira, about £30. My previous one was only £13. I’m here on my own budget so money matters every single step of the way.
People here are always offering to take me to Aleppo. I’m tempted but at a price of 300 American dollars each way for the 40km drive, it’s simply not possible for me. The steep price also indicates the level of danger. I met an Italian photographer that had been there. While I share a beer with Michele he tells me of his eight hours trip. The way that he grasps his head and looks down while he explains how a bomb landed just two blocks away says it all. It’s not worth going. From his eyes I can see that he is right.
After changing hotels I work for a few hours. The organizational side of things takes up a lot of my time and with the sun setting around four I have to be economical with the hours. When done I grab my camera and head out to locate a NGO run medical clinic for Syrians injured by the war.
On my way there I collect imagery not directly connected to the Syrian conflict. These pictures are meant for another project in my diary build on a scientific exploration of the so-called ‘Arab Felix’ that was sent by Danish king Frederick V in 1776 to explore the Arabian Peninsula.
I come across sheepherders and men blowing out the engines on their Yahama 4-gears. For these people this is just everyday life. But for me as a foreigner this is something absolutely stunning. It’s the power of looking, catching a glimpse and trying to comprehend.
A man in an impeccable suit stops on his motorbike. He talks to me in Turkish. I smile and say ‘hospital’ and he gestures me to get on. He speeds up and the wind in my face feels great.
We get to a three-storage house looking stranded. The wall is crumbling and Syrian number plates identify the cars parked outside. Inside is another world. Four small rooms are packed with hospital beds. In each bed lies someone wounded in one way or the other by the Syrian conflict. Some are FSA soldiers, some aren’t. Some are civilians and others are not. One thing that almost all of them share is that they’re just kids…
While I talk to patients that have lost arms and legs in the constant Aleppo bombing, a guy sees me and starts to yell. He’s angry and aggressive. I’m guessing that he is not Syrian, as he looks different from everybody else here. He shakes one of his crutches at me and I walk away.
“Don’t mind him, he’s just al-Qaeda” the other patients explains.
It’s clear that they don’t like him much. I ask if there are many al-Qaeda warriors in Syria and they tell me that there’s quite a few. Right now they are all fighting Bashar al-Assad, so it’s okay. But when the fighting is over and the winner has to be found they will become a problem.
“I’m Syrian and a Muslim and I am scared of them” one of the wounded tells me.
The prints are back home and as you can see they are not receiving nearly the same amount of attention as earlier…
The Photographers’ Gallery was the first independent gallery in Britain devoted to photography and today it is the largest public gallery in London dedicated to photography.
I love the big rooms, natural light and the central location (right next to Oxford Circus) of the gallery. Furthermore they have a quite remarkable book, print and photo brick-a-brack shop in the basement with some real gems. I recently stumbled upon a book signing by Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2012 shortlist Rinko Kawauchi and acquired her book ‘ILLUMINANCE‘. Beautiful work!
It was a very strong group of photographers exhibited and genres going off in all directions. One of my favorites were Paula Gortázar’s ‘Common Space’ that ‘depicts the interiors of the European Parliament in
Brussels and Strasbourg, an institution which, despite being little understood
or liked by many citizens, is gaining a prominent role in legislating our
everyday European living circumstances.’ (From the website)
Another excellent piece of work was Nadège Mériau’s makro photography recreating cosmos. Wow!
My good friend and fellow photographer Steve Mepsted dropped by the gallery, snapped these two shots and later retold the whole scene to me…
‘There were a group of kids with their teacher and they were looking at the painted mural image and one boy was saying ‘I swear that’s Photoshop’. The teacher said they didn’t know as the artist wasn’t there. I was able to fill them in on details!! They were delighted and amazed at the image and the boy couldn’t believe it was a painting on such a scale – ‘Shows they’ve got power’ he said!’
Just amazing getting this kind of invaluable feedback!
This has been a great experience and I’m truly thankful that I’ve been a part of it. The staff at The Photographers Gallery have done a great job in pulling this together and especially curator Karen McQuaid for getting it all to run smoothly while having to deal with 22 photographers at the same time, not an easy job I would imagine!
I’m now in touch with a range of galleries, working on getting a solo show up and running while I’m preparing for the next leg of this story that includes a trip to Jordan in the near future. More on this next time.
As a part of my long term project on new media and social revolutions I’ve been visiting Barada TV which is a privately run Syrian television channel broadcasting from London.
Barada TV is available through satellite and online all over Europe and the Middle East and is critical of the Syrian regime. The channel interacts with it’s audience through Twitter, Skype and Facebook and broadcasts videos taken from Youtube, filmed by rebels and activists inside Syria.
I am now working on the next part of the story where I am photographing Syrians in exile and focussing on the way they interact with other Syrians in and outside Syria and how they stay up to date with developments in the conflict.
Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you have a question, critique or ideas!
Proud to announce that I’m one of 22 selected in this years FreshFaced+WildEyed annual graduates exhibition.
My work from Syria will be showcased at The Photographers Gallery, (16-18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW), from the 15th to the 30th of September.
Here’s more about the judges and my fellow exhibitors (taken from the website):
“The Judges for 2012 are Bridget Coaker, Night Picture Editor, The Guardian and co-founder of Troika Editions; Anthony Luvera, artist, writer and lecturer, Karen Newman, Curator, Open Eye Gallery and Brett Rogers, Director, The Photographers’ Gallery.
This year’s finalists are Brendan Baker & Daniel Evans, Alison Bettles, Anders Birger, David Birkin, Jonny Briggs, Emma Critchley, Helen Goodin, Paula Gortázar, Maria Gruzdeva, Hallgerður Hallgrímsdóttir, Gemma Marmalade, Marianne McGurk, Nadège Mériau, Vilma Pimenoff, Minna Pöllänen, Martin Seeds, Chloe Sells, Alison Stolwood, Elisavet Tamouridou, Helen Thompson, SeoYeoung Won”
See the whole story here: This Damn Weather
and please drop by the gallery!
There are reports of violent clashes and untimely deaths pouring in from all over Syria. These are getting mixed up with whispered rumours and half-truths that are all being fed into a virtual world build of binary ones and zeroes. In this second reality all information is chopped up, mixed together and handed back to the people in bite sized, 140 character packages easy to consume but hard to digest. The people of Damascus live in a world shaped by another world that in reality doesn’t really exist. The only thing real is the fear. The fear of what will come.
This project is an exploration of the modern theater of war. In a reality shaped by a digital battlefield, the roles played are not always clear. Feeding on pieces of often violent and graphic information issued to us from second realities such as Twitter & Facebook, we recreate the world around us and mould it into shapes that bounce off our predetermined mental imagery.
A pair of tired eyes peers over the photo page of my beetroot coloured passport. “Occupation?” he asks me. “Student” I reply.
Next to the custom official hangs a poster showing the Syrian dove caught in mid air, wings spread and proudly carrying an olive branch in its beak, all around it cannons are aiming. Each can- non is branded with one promi- nent news channel logo after the other, CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC. They are all there trying to shoot down the peace dove of the re- gime. Another glance through the passport then my details are thoroughly noted into the sys- tem. First in fluent Arabic, then
in slow shaky capital letters, “TOURIST”, two quick stamps reiterate his verdict. “Welcome to Syria”, he hands back my documents and ges- tures me towards the door.
Syria is a country being swept by a storm that refuses to quieten down and Damascus is the eye of the hurricane. With all tourists long gone the streets are left un- naturally quiet. From walls and rooftops all over town president Bashar Al-Assad and his father Hafez, the leader of the 1970 coup are scouring the city look- ing on from posters and pedes- tals. Here in a city besieged by
secret police and undercover agents the people would never discuss politics openly, instead they refer to old president Hafez as “The Lion King”, this turns Bashar into Simba and the Jack- als are the ones you always fear might be listening in.
Inside the national museum ev- erything is quiet, I’m walking the long empty halls of history cast in clay, iron, silver and gold. A lone guard sits on his footstool surrounded by 10.000 years of history, here are lives lived and lost, battles fought and civiliza- tions crumbled.
Outside in the overgrown garden the last of the evening light throws long shadows of the an- cient stone statues of the ones that were, among them sits one that still is. We talk, he tells me of his life, a good life, well at least it used to be. Things have changed recently.
“It’s because of the weather”, he says, looking me into the eyes. “This damn weather”
There are reports of violent clashes and untimely deaths pouring in from all over the country. These are getting mixed up with whispered rumours and half-truths that are all being fed into a virtual world built of binary
ones and zeroes. In this second reality all information is chopped up, mixed together and handed back to the people in bite sized 140 character packages, easy to consume but hard to digest. The people of Damascus live in a world shaped by another world that in reality doesn’t really ex- ist. The only thing real is the fear, the fear of what will come.
I’m walking through the streets of the old city observing the hopelessness, feeling the ten- sion thick in the air. People look at me like I look at them, here we are all strangers. The act of rais- ing my camera feels like a threat
to shatter this carefully con- structed glass citadel so I tend not to. A street sweeper stops me, he demands to look through my pictures, there is nothing in- criminating there so he nods and lets me go, I hurry down a side street aware of his eyes fol- lowing me.
Looking back I notice anoth- er shadow on my heels, I take a right then a left but he’s still there, our eyes meet and he stops, turns around and gets his phone out, I disappear. My heart is pounding, who was he? I slowly realize that I have become a part of it, this theatre of war.