By Sarah Abu Assali
Syria Today Magazine
Young amateur photographers document the war in their own cities.
Since citizen journalism debuted with the first spark of the uprising, it has played an enormous role in revealing the heart of the Syrian conflict. Recently, however, citizen photo-journalism has been sweeping virtual space, with dozens of online news pages publishing images shot by amateur photographers from governorates across Syria.
All pages bear the same logo and slogan– “courage in covering events”—and each is run by its own team. Most have Twitter followers and Flickr accounts, but their main outreach is through Facebook.
“The Lens of a Young Homsi” (person from the city of Homs) kicked off first in mid June 2012, followed by pages focused on Damascus, Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zor, and even smaller towns including Douma and Zabadani.
Encouraged by their keen followers, these young photographers not only challenge the state-imposed ban on non-official media coverage of the uprising, but also risk their lives to bring to world attention the suffering clashes are inflicting on their hometowns.
“Thanks to the success our page has managed to achieve, nearly every place in Syria now has its own lens,” says the Young Homsi page administrator, whose identity is kept hidden for security concerns.
He told Syria Today that the Facebook page, which in the span of just three months has attracted more than 55,000 fans, was established “to show the world the truth about what is happening in Homs in a new and different way,”—referring to amateur videos that have circulated since the uprising erupted as almost the only source of visual reporting.
“While some people prefer videos because they provide better insight into the event reported, one still image can convey the intended message instantly and effortlessly… Capturing an entire scene within a single shot, with an immediate impact, is definitely what makes images more influential than videos,” Syrian photographer Nairy Shahinian told Syria Today.
Indeed, photos in these pages depict nearly all neighbourhoods in Homs and are published, along with a caption identifying their location, immediately after being taken. Contrary to what their names suggest, most pages do not showcase the work of a single photographer but rather represent the combined efforts of a team of young photographers still residing in their embattled cities. All members of the Homsi team, for example, are between 19 and 24.
“We aim to document the violence in Homs, and…to show residents of Homs who were displaced because of shelling and the siege, photos of their houses or neighbourhoods.” Homsi expats, he continued, can also have the chance to see their houses—“if they still exist”.
“This is not Beirut 1979, this is Homs 2012. This is my neighbourhood,” one young man from Al-Hamidyyeh district in Homs who currently resides in Bahrain commented on one such photo displaying heaps of rubble and ruins, collapsed buildings, and fallen roofs. “This is where our shattered dreams wander,” he added.
Another photo shows a pair of Homsi children playing football in an entirely demolished street alongside remnants of a mortar shell.
Sharing the same archival objectives, the Young Damascene’s Lens page displays photos from restive areas of the capital, sometimes during moments of live shelling, including Midan, Kafer Souseh, and suburbs such as Barzeh and Jobar.
Deir Ez-Zor’s page, however, announces a different objective. “Because of the generally poor media coverage of our disaster city…if no one wants to come and report on what is happening, we can do this by ourselves,” says the page administrator who also requested anonymity.
Photojournalist Hassan Arfeh says that the trend is important “in terms of recording an image-based history,” and that although some shots are poor in terms of quality, angle, and focus, they convey a news story, “and this is what matters here.”
Arfeh argues that these amateur photographers have stolen the lights from professional photojournalists at least temporarily, “because they are located in the heart of the events to which professionals cannot easily access.”
However, Syrian citizen journalism has drawn criticism because all material provided by activists cannot be independently verified and because citizen journalists are personally involved in the incidents which they report.
Many activists working as citizen journalists were accused of “embellishing the truth”, such as Dani Abdul Dayem who caused controversy earlier this year when a leaked video claimed to show that his reporting from Homs to CNN was staged.
Driven by their belief in the central role of images in the uprising, these young men, and occasionally women, say they risk their lives every day to capture moments of their bitter reality.
Walking around with a camera in hand was almost impossible to do with impunity even before protests swept the country. This probably explains why “anyone with a camera in hand becomes easy prey for snipers hiding on building rooftops in restive areas,” says the anonymous young photographer from Homs. Therefore, he says, “we do our best to hide the cameras,” and to employ small or even cell phone cameras. “If we are not seriously careful, we might get a summary execution at once,” the young photographer who also administrates the page says.
Indeed, Syria was classified in June this year by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists as “the most dangerous place for journalists in the world”. International media freedoms watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says that 10 professional journalists, along with 26 citizen journalist and netizens (Internet citizen journalists), were killed in Syria as of September 1, while more than 30 media workers are currently being held in Syrian prisons.
However, this does not stop these amateur photographers from taking the risk. In fact, on August 12, a 21 year-old photographer from the Lens of a Young Deiri (person from Deir Ez-Zor) team died on duty “from the bullet of a sniper” the page announced. Earlier in July, another photographer was killed while taking live photos of the shelling of Azaz, Aleppo, when a shell landed near the 24-year-old, killing him instantly, according to the opposition network Local Coordination Committees.
And though the capital is less demolished than other urban centres, the risks entailed by depicting dissent there remains the same.
“Each area [in Damascus] has its own set of rules and risks. In some places we can barely take a photo with a mobile camera, while in others we can go as far as using a professional one,” Young Damascene’s Lens administrator told Syria Today. “But you can’t expect any of us to stand bluntly and take a photo in front of a security branch for example!” he exclaims cheerfully.
Despite, or perhaps because of, present constraints, Arfeh hopes that one day this new journalistic genre will develop and become “more organised and systemised…[and] be promoted, without being censored by the authorities..”
What matters the most, he says, is that in the future, “because ordinary people working as citizen journalists and photojournalists have experienced freedom of expression, they will be more efficiently engaged in monitoring the state’s performance.”