First of all I would like to say thank you to Ana for allowing me to write this post for her blog. Before I write about my experience photographing the war in Syria let me give you a brief bio. My name is Russell Chapman, I’m 45, from the UK but now living in Lugano, Switzerland. I first got into photography when I was about 10. I was fascinated by the ability to capture a moment in time and loved how the scene in the viewfinder became, for a moment, my entire world. In fact this is something that has always stayed with me. I started off with a very simple point and shoot 35mm film camera, yes I’m from the pre-digital age. I got books from the library on photography in order to learn the science behind the art. It was quite a learning curve for a 10 year old to teach himself about f.stops, shutter speed and depth of field etc, but I loved it. I saved up my pocket money and got myself a rangefinder camera. I don’t remember the make, but it was all manual and didn’t have an exposure-meter. By trial and error based on what I had read in the books, I learnt how to see light, how it illuminated the scene and based on this, what exposure to use. Waiting to see my pictures come back from the developer I was always full of anticipation. Had I got the exposure right, would the picture be the same as I remember seeing it? I sometimes wonder if I had started with digital photography, would my approach to learning it have been the same. I don’t think so.
I met Asmaa 5 days after she had been freed from a regime prison. The Free Syria Army made a prisoner swap to gain her freedom. She was in prison for 13 months. She told me how she was tortured as they tried to make her say the names of those she was working with. She is the fiancee of Abdul Razzaq Tlass, the first officer to defect from the Syrian army.
So there you have it, a guy who loves photography who ended up going to Syria to photograph a war as well as the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. What posses someone to potentially risk their life for the sake of photography? I have a lot of friends and contacts in the Middle East and my Syrian friends were all telling me that what we see in the news and how the situation is portrayed is quite often very inaccurate. I wanted to see the situation for myself so I would be able to to show and tell people what is really going on.
Zaatari is a vast camp in Jordan with well over 100,000 Syrian refugees
After weeks of planning we were ready to go. I went with my friend Mustafa and we had organized our contacts and security beforehand. You don’t just arrive in a war zone without knowing people on the ground. With regard to equipment I needed to travel as lightly as possible, everything for the month I planned to stay in Syria had to fit inside a 55 liter capacity backpack. My choice of camera to take also had to be given some consideration. In the end I took a Nikon D600 with only one lens, the Nikon 24-120mm f4. The reason for this was because I knew I would want to make exhibitions when I came back and a full frame 24 mega-pixel would allow me to create some really large prints. I just used the single lens because of weight considerations and also its zoom range was perfect. Another factor was that fact that changing lenses in dusty, dirty conditions is going to make the sensor dirty and screw up image quality.
Father rushing his son to help after he was hit in the leg by shrapnel
So what is it like to take pictures in a war zone? You have to be very aware of your surroundings, when you are looking through the viewfinder you are limited in your peripheral vision where there can be potential danger. I found that I became hyper alert, always looking around to see what might be coming. Saying that, there are times when it doesn’t matter how alert you are, you can still be killed. I give you an example. I was in a part of the city Aleppo, away from the fighting, talking to a taxi driver when all of a sudden a cannon shell came whizzing out of the sky, hitting a building on the other side of the road. There was a huge bang, I have to be honest I ducked behind the taxi for a second, the big danger is shrapnel and there was a lot of it, in fact the shrapnel often causes more injuries than the actual explosion. But I was quite proud of myself, after ducking behind the taxi I got up and was able to get a photo of where the shell had hit the building within a couple of seconds of the blast, capturing the smoke as it began to drift away and revealing the hole it had made in someones apartment.
Checking to see if all is clear
As soon as I got the shot and aware that a second shell could be on its way, we ran into the building to see if anyone needed help. We sprinted up several flights of stairs, others joining us as we made our way to the apartment that had been hit. People started banging furiously on the door, it was metal and not the sort you can kick in. The shouting and banging in the confined space as more people joined us, the sense of urgency, trying to get to the people in the apartment is a moment I will never forget. Finally a woman opened the door, the men wanted to go in and check on her but she wouldn’t allow them, she said that nobody was hurt, she and her mother were in a different room to the one that got hit. It really struck me how despite the very close shave with death, her cultural upbringing would not permit her to allow a man that was not a relative into her home, even if it was only to check if she was OK. With nothing more to be done we left, but you can be sure that the other women in the building went to her after to offer help.
An idea of how close and intense the fighting can be
What amazed me was the warmth of the Syrian people. They are going through hell, yet despite all this, they keep on going and more often than not always welcomed me with a smile. These people are now in very poor circumstances but they were always ready to share with me, even if it was only a glass of their hot, sweet chai tea. I have to be honest, as time went on I felt myself developing a real affection for them. Sometimes there would be situations that made me smile. One time, I was walking along a road in Aleppo, coming towards us were 3 women, all with veils, one of them lifted her veil to have a better look at me and then gave me a smile. My friend Ammar started laughing at the look of surprise on my face. She likes you, he said. But is she allowed to do that, I asked. No problem, he said. This wasn’t the only time I had this experience. I came to understand that Muslim women wear the veil for many different reasons and it is something that we in the West fail to understand. The veil question is not as straight forward as many think it to be.
Some children became agitated when I pointed my camera at them. It reminded them of soldiers pointing their weapons.
Something else I saw that made quite an impression on me was when I was very close to the front line. In a school yard, surrounded on all sides by the school building, a group of the rebels were playing a game of soccer, the occasional mortar round whistling overhead. What struck me was the normality of the scene. A group of guys blowing off some steam, I spoke to some of them, they were students, construction workers, a farmer, shopkeepers. Yet here they were in the middle of a war zone, fighting for their freedom. People are people, they all want the same basic things, a job, a home, family, security and dignity. This is what they told me they were fighting for. I’m not going to get into the politics of what is happening in Syria, it is too big a subject for this post, but what I saw is not how the rebels are portrayed in the news. Yes there is now a big problem with extremists but you will find that the vast majority of them are foreigners who are using the war in Syria for their own ends. As a result there is now a situation where the rebels have two battles to fight, one with the government and the other with the extremists.
They are simple people who want a simple life. Now they are fighting for their freedom
I also spent a month in Lebanon and Jordan, visiting the refugee camps. You can’t help but be affected by the suffering of the refugees. There is always a shortage of food, medicine is in very limited supply and in winter it actually gets very cold and many refugees don’t have sufficient, warm clothing, particularly for the children. I took a lot of photos of the children, I was quite surprised by the younger ones, they quite often were smiling and laughing, I think they are too young to really comprehend the situation. Other children would become quite disturbed when I pointed my camera at them, it reminded them of how soldiers had pointed their guns at them. There were yet others, I remember a boy in particular, who are severely traumatized, you only have to see their eyes to know this. Often I wonder what their future will be.
You can see his trauma. What future does he have?
I have very recently self published a book of my time in Syria as well as the refugee camps. It is a photo book but I also write about my time there and give a history of the revolution in Syria. Sales of the book will fund my return to the refugee camps and Syria, I want to continue showing what is happening to the Syrian people. Here is a link to my book, Syria: Refugees and Rebels
A celebration of the liberation of the city Al Bab from the regime. The question I was always asked was ‘When will the killing end’
I hope that my guest post gives you a small idea of what it is like in Syria. The people need all the humanitarian aid they can get. I am also close to a charity, run by Syrians, that is focused on helping women refugees who are on their own, who have lost their families. The situation of these women is desperate because they no longer have the support of an extended family. If you are interested, then donations can be sent to this charity based here in Switzerland. 100% of money donated goes direct to the women.
Association Femmes Syriennes pour la Démocratie
Account Number 12-437349-1
IBAN CH30 0900 0000 1243 7349 1
Bénéficiaire: Femmes pour la Démocratie
Adresse: c/o Wajd Zimmermann, Neuf 48a, 1028, Préverenges, Switzerland
You can find out more at my blog