Gazes from Syria

Now in its sixth year, the devastating, deadlocked civil war in Syria is still raging on. The country is in ruins: hundreds of thousands have been killed, millions displaced, cities reduced to rubble. At times international newspapers report atrocities on almost a daily basis, while at other times, coverage becomes quite sparse. Reporting on Syria seems to wax and wane, therefore not reflecting solely the intensity of the fighting, but also the world’s interest and exhaustion in following a conflict so agonizingly complex that it seems impossible to resolve.
       In my morning paper over these past six years, many photographs accompanied the hundreds of articles I have read, yet only a very few of them show a Syrian person’s eyes looking at the camera. I could conclude that the actors involved—the photographers, the photographed and the picture editors—prefer to avoid the direct gaze at the camera, one which render the act of photographing as visible. This chronic omission seems to perpetuate the myth that the camera is not an active participant in the scene and that a photograph is but an objective registration of any event.
       Meeting these gazes from Syria, I experience surprising moments of recognition. These photographs seem to offer a sudden insight into an other’s emotions and expectations. I see youthful demonstrators on the street who exuded hope and defiance, exhilaration and pride. I see protesters turned into rebel fighters, eyes both guarded and probing. I see government soldiers sceptical and determined. I see faces of victims and perpetrators, both addressing the camera as a witness of the deeds that are about to happen. Most of all, I see refugees of all ages, displaced from their homes, exhausted and resigned, on their way to an uncertain future.
       I perceive their gazes as acknowledgements of the presence of the camera, of the process of mediation, and of the process of becoming a picture—a process that creates a presence but at the same time sets that presence at a distance in time and space. Nevertheless, the Syrians who look back at and through the camera repossess their image and escape the passivity of that moment of being photographed. They engage in a speech act and address us, the audience of the news media. I see the act of looking at the camera as one which binds first the photographer and then us, the viewer into a bond of reciprocity. Through their gaze, we come to share the space of the media, which by the act of looking at each other is turned into a space of the political, even though it is lacking the full capacity of Hannah Arendt’s physical space of appearance.
       Some of the people in these photographs might not be alive any more, but we might encounter them as one of the refugees on the streets of our cities where they ask by their presence—as political subjects in an unmediated space of appearance—for an adequate response to the civil war in Syria.
March 2017
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