How We See Syria

7 minute read

Syria is home to the world’s most dangerous jobs. Among them are the first-responders who reach apocalyptic scenes after airstrikes and barrel bombs, pulling out shocked and maimed survivors coated with dust and blood. They are the heroes. There are also the doctors and nurses in underground hospitals who perform incredible feats of humanity on the tiniest of victims, treating their wounds or caring for them until death arrives. They are the saviors. And there are the photographers who are right behind the heroes, right next to the saviors, bearing witness to atrocities. They are the eyes.

How we see Syria has changed substantially over the past five years. The mainstreaming of targeted abductions, ransoms and killings of journalists forced many news organizations to significantly scale back their ground operations and rethink how they could cover the story. “The role of news organizations to some degree has shifted from being the exclusive storyteller to becoming aggregators of conflict, filters of content, because we have to pay attention to all this information coming out,” says Santiago Lyon, the Associated Press’ director of photography. “We have to verify it, debunk it.”

There are the handouts from governments and their loyalists, opposition groups and media centers and humanitarian organizations. There are the choreographed execution videos. There are the videotaped rescues that are published on YouTube. There are the doctors and nurses who send smartphone images of the injured and dead to reporters via WhatsApp, in wrenching attempts to tug at the public’s heartstrings. “We’re sort of patching together a view of what’s going on there,” Lyon adds.

Read more: War Through Syrian Eyes

Three years ago, AP’s ground coverage of Syria was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news photography. Today, the organization does not use stringers there. “When we contract with a stringer we take on responsibility for that person’s safety and wellbeing,” Lyon tells TIME. “That’s a bond that we have with them, and we want to be sure we’re in a position to live up to our side of the bargain.” Its photographers have made carefully planned trips to government-held areas and Russian military bases, but without consistent eyes on the ground AP relies on a slew of competing sources to try to create an accurate picture of what’s unfolding.

“We have Arabic speakers in the region who can watch videos, listen to the audio, ascertain if the dialects or local accents seem correct for where the video is purported to be from, looking at street signs, looking at weather, looking at comparing and contrasting multiple sources of imagery and information, and trying to piece together a narrative,” he continues. “The trick there is to balance what’s newsworthy with the dangers of becoming a propaganda amplifier of those groups.”

A number of wire photo agencies continue to use staffers or stringers in areas controlled by either government or opposition forces, presenting a number of challenges that range from how to provide safety training and mentorship from afar to the processes by which photographers are vetted for any biases. Just because a photographer lives and works in a regime-controlled or rebel-held area doesn’t mean they blindly favor who’s in charge, but it can create an uncomfortable gray area. (In 2014, the New York Times published an article detailing that a stringer for Reuters worked as a spokesman for an opposition group. The organization continues to publish that photographer’s images.)

Reuters declined to comment for this article.

It took Oliver Weiken months to find and vet a photographer in an opposition-held area. When he became the European Pressphoto Agency’s chief photographer for the Middle East and North Africa last year, he was tasked with coordinating the organization’s ground coverage in Syria. “You want to find somebody who’s as objective as possible,” he says. Referencing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that he has extensively covered, he adds, “you will never find an Israeli or Palestinian photographer who is completely unbiased—there is always a certain level involved.”

EPA employs a staff photographer in Damascus and another in Douma, an opposition-controlled eastern suburb that is enclosed by government forces. Weiken also works with three to four stringers in rebel-held areas from Aleppo to Daraa, but their pickup depends on the day’s news.

The photographer in Douma is Mohammed Badra. Weiken helped bring Badra, a volunteer with the Syrian Red Crescent and who previously shot for Reuters, aboard last September. They speak many times on a daily basis, mostly via an encrypted messenger service, and not always about work. Throughout the past year he has worked with Badra to turn his lens from the more typical scenes in a war zone to daily life under siege, with a strong focus on children. Usually a photographer will send selects to the desk, but Weiken personally edits Badra.

Weiken says Badra, as a staffer, has high-risk insurance provided by the company but cannot be given the type of safety training that other staffers in hostile environments would complete due to his precarious location. They both recognize there’s nowhere in that area where Badra can be truly safe. “He’s not somebody who’s reckless, not at all. But it is the judgment of the person on the ground, ultimately, what is feasible and what is not feasible,” he says. “When you have a photographer in a place where you can’t really go yourself, trust is extremely important.”

Agence France-Presse has a significant stringer presence in Syria, in both government- and opposition-controlled areas. Hasan Mroue, AFP’s photo coordinator for the region, says there are a number of benefits to using local photographers. “They know their towns and cities. They have access more than outsiders as local people trust them and they speak the language and don’t inspire suspicion both among the locals and the rebel fighters,” he wrote in an email.

The French organization maintains a bureau in Damascus manned by Syrians but stopped sending foreigners to rebel-held areas in August 2013 due to security reasons, he says. Instead, the agency sends photographers from Beirut to regime-controlled areas and uses local stringers in areas including Aleppo, Idlib, Hasakeh in the Kurdish-controlled northern territory and the rebel-held outskirts of the capital. The agency only works with Syrian photographers who were either picked in a workshop organized in Turkey in 2013 or recommended through other photographers they trust and have dealt with before, he says.

Those stringers are not assigned, but instead can file to editors who will determine whether the image meets the editorial needs and standards for publication by AFP, which like the Turkish-run Anadolu Agency is syndicated by Getty Images. “As soon as we receive the photos, a team of six editors based in Nicosia inspect the pictures’ metadata and make sure they haven’t been altered or manipulated in any way,” Mroue says, while also matching confirmed reports. “We never use photos which do not have clear and accurate metadata. We also know the equipment which our photographers use so that has to match before considering using a photo.”

With the deluge of images emerging today and the immediacy of their dissemination online, that level of transparency is crucial. “If you’re trying to be objective, having that transparency helps you do so. One leads the other,” says Jason Stern, a senior researcher associate for the Middle East and North Africa at the Committee to Protect Journalists. So does skepticism. “We’ve seen the unimaginable happen and therefore everything we hear now is imaginable,” he says. “A good journalist always has a healthy skepticism to what he or she hears. In Syria, so much of what we would be skeptical of has already happened.”

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