Ten years ago, Syria was teetering on the brink of momentous change. The domino effect that was toppling dictators in the region seemed unstoppable, yet Syria descended into chaos and became the place where the Arab Spring came to die. What followed became the beginning of the century’s defining conflict, one that saw half of the country’s population forced to flee their homes — the largest war-induced displacement since World War II.
The levels of violence that left nearly half a million people dead over that decade shocked the world. Pro-government forces and jihadists shared a deadly hostility to independent reporting throughout the conflict, making it an incredibly difficult war to cover.
From the early struggle of the rebellion against Bashar al-Assad’s regime to the rise of jihadist groups such as the Islamic State, and throughout the internationalisation of the conflict and Assad’s brutal reconquest, AFP remained committed to covering the Syrian conflict like no other media outlet. The battle of Kobane, the siege of Aleppo, the fall of the “caliphate” – these events have become major markers in the Syrian war. And AFP photographers chronicled each one from start to finish.
Among the photographers whose work is on display in this exhibition are some of the agency’s most seasoned war reporters as well as top-flight freelancers from several countries.
Some of the most striking images in this collection of award-winning photography were shot by Syrians, most of whom had never worked as journalists before the war and only picked up a camera as a means of calling for help.
In many of the pictures exhibited here, you can see the shock in the eye that was behind the viewfinder. Wounded children are looking straight at the camera because the photographer is known to them — a neighbour, perhaps even a relative. The piles of mangled concrete in the pictures aren’t just the ruins of an anonymous home but often of a building that housed the photographer’s friends and family.
The different nature of these pictures isn’t just the result of a “local solution” to a problem of frontline access. These images are the work of a generation of young Syrians who became dedicated photojournalists, inspired many others in the region and made an impact telling the story of a conflict the warring parties didn’t want us to see.
Several of the young Syrian photographers whose work is exhibited here are still contributing to AFP from France, where they are now, among other things, documenting another facet of this war: the loss, the trauma, the exile and in some cases the recovery and hope that came after one of the bloodiest conflict of all times. captured in the pictures you are about to see.