- Posted By: Bryan Chan
- Posted On: 7:13 p.m. | April 12, 2013
Nish L. Nalbandian is a freelance photographer based in Denver. He has traveled and photographed extensively around the world, mostly via motorcycle, over the last several years. In 2009, he rode a motorcycle from San Diego to Cairo (via cargo ship and Europe) with his brother, passing through Syria, among other places. During their time in Syria, they visited and met people in Dara, where the ongoing revolution started. Those people were on his mind when the uprising began. Nalbandian recently returned to Syria to photograph those in the midst of the fighting. See more of his work and that of his friends on FotoProspekt. He wrote this for Framework:
As I watched the revolution, then civil war, spread I began to see a lot of images coming out of Syria and I began to imagine what life would be like for the people where the fighting was happening. I became more and more curious about how people live when a war is going on around them. As an American, war seems like something that happens far away in fields and jungles and deserts, at least in my imagination. I’d heard about living through the Lebanese civil war from people I’d met in Beirut in 2009. But as I looked more at both mainstream coverage and citizen journalism coming out of Syria, it became increasingly clear that for the people who live in the region, war is something that happens around them as they live their lives. They often cannot leave.
As for why I chose to make images of this style, I was curious about how people live through and deal with conflict, what its effects are, and I was drawn to the idea of making images that showed the feelings these people might have. I have this old photograph of my grandfather from around 1915 when he fled the Armenian genocide. He’s posing in a traditional portrait style. The photograph happens to come from when he was in Syria on his way out of the region. I had that image in my head, but with a more modern style when I began conceptualizing my shots.
Of course, photographing in a conflict zone is very dangerous. This was my first time doing it, and I did a lot of research and evaluated the situation and the risks as best I could. I talked to people who had been there and began to make a plan for how and where to go. I chose a route that many other photographers and journalists have taken, entering from Turkey. I spent time in the Free Syrian Army-held northern areas around Azaz and Al Bab, and also a few days in Aleppo. Despite the relative calm in areas that are not on the front line, it’s a very dangerous place. As everyone knows, a lot of journalists have been killed, injured and kidnapped there. Even in rebel-held areas far from Aleppo, government air and artillery strikes are a common occurrence. And within Aleppo they are a constant threat. Being shot or shelled was not my primary concern. The biggest fear I had was kidnapping. I listened to some advice from a good fixer who told me: “Don’t get greedy. Get in, get the shots you want, and get out.” So I made a shot list, and when I got it all, I was done.
Because of the risks involved I did my homework. I wore body armor, bought good insurance and paid for a good fixer/translator and an armed driver. I had a contingency plan in place. It was expensive to do this on my own, but with risks like this you have to do the best you can to stay safe. Ideally, I’d suggest doing what I didn’t do, and get an assignment. I had experience and contacts in the region. I had military training from my time in the Marine Corps. And with my experience photographing light and fast on a motorcycle and practicing making the right image and moving on quickly, I felt as safe as I could.
You have to trust that your fixer is watching your back while translating for you. My fixer also had to pull photographer’s assistant duty. I carried a lightweight light kit with strobes, pocket wizards and a stand, and shot through an umbrella. I also carried a medium-weight tripod. I had backup everything, including two bodies and standard L lenses.
I also packed a good first aid kit. I always carry a clean suture and syringe kit, and I added a quick clot bandage set just to be safe. I brought a helmet, but didn’t wear it — it makes you look like a government soldier. My body armor was concealed so I didn’t stand out too much. Hiring a car and driver was expensive, but I felt that the ease and anonymity of having the car made it easier to get to different areas, and to get in and out.
I was worried going in. But once I hit the ground all my previous practice kicked in and it went smoothly. I’d tell the driver to stop somewhere. We’d get out, talk to people, ask permission to photograph them, and if they said yes he’d get the lights up in about 30 seconds, I’d make the shot in another minute or so, and then we’d pack back up and be ready to move. Sometimes I’d move on quickly, other times it was worth it to stay and talk, and we often had coffee or tea with people. It’s a very hospitable place. I feel like going light and fast was a real asset in this situation. My driver provided security, and having a guy with an AK-47 watching your back is a good feeling.
The contacts that my driver and fixer had helped make the portraits doable. The driver was an FSA member and he knew many of the katiba guys and was able to get me access to people quickly. In most areas, people are very happy to talk to you. The most common response I got was, “Thank you for coming here. Tell the truth about what is happening.” People wanted the world to know what was going on, it’s a great environment for making portraits. The people who decline often will allow themselves to be photographed with a scarf covering their face. They are worried about the government seeing who they are because often they still have to live or work in government-controlled areas.
I met all kinds of people, all living with this war around them. I spent time at a hospital that seemed to constantly have casualties from artillery fire coming in. I saw a lot of wounded people. And at one point they called me in to show me the morgue. There were five children piled in there, torn apart from artillery fire. It was the most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. But I made the photo. I couldn’t look at the image for a few days.
I went to places where artillery shells had landed, and saw the destruction. I saw people who had lost their families, their homes. I met a child with jaundice from hepatitis who could not get medicine. I met a diabetic man who lost his foot because he could not get insulin. I met regular guys who became fighters because of what happened, and I met hard-core men who scared the crap out of me. I met families who had nothing and depended on local relief groups for food, fuel and shelter. I did not see much foreign aid.
If it was safer, I would want to stay and make a lot more photographs. But I guess the reason you go is because it’s not safe. That’s the thing this body of work really shows: Living with danger is stressful, no matter how resilient you are. You can see it in the eyes of everyone I photographed. There’s fear, and loss, and anger. Some of them have this almost dead expression. They live with this war around them. It is underfoot, it is in the air, and it’s in the eyes of everyone there. I also felt that amid the fear there was a resolute will to win that showed up in the constant “V” for victory hand signals. But there’s a hint of anxiety even in the people who smiled for the camera.
In the end, the body of work is about the eyes of the people on the other side of the lens. From the poor family to the dead little girl to the fierce eyes of some of the fighters, there’s something in their gazes that moved me, and which I think makes this body of work unique. These are portraits, and each of these people is telling a story with their eyes.
One of the most interesting things was how normal life felt in some areas. Sitting down for lunch at a cafe while jets fly overhead doesn’t sound so fun, but that lunch was really good, and the company was good. I hope that Syria can end this conflict quickly, but with the mess of factional dynamics I’m not sure this is possible. I hope that I captured some of the humanity, depth of feeling and goodness in the eyes of some of the people, alongside the sorrow, fear, anger and death. If they can clean this mess up, I want to go back for lunch with some of the people I met.
See more of Nalbandian’s work “The eyes of Aleppo” on his site www.nishnalbandian.com
Photo: Nalbandian photographs fighters in the Old City district of Aleppo, Syria. His fixer/translator assists with holding a strobe on an umbrella diffuser. This photograph was taken approximately 300 meters behind the front lines with some rebel fighters. Credit: Richard Charles Harvey