Manu Brabo, Associated Press photographer, talks about his time in Syria

Manu Brabo is a photographer who recently returned from Aleppo where he was covering the civil war for the Associated Press. We emailed him six questions about his experiences on the front line.

Walking past bodies in front of Dar Al Shifa hospital is such a common occurrence that nobody, including this Syrian woman, takes notice anymore.

In recent images from Aleppo, you get very up close and personal with your subjects. Did you encounter any difficulties being an outsider covering these events?

I’m close because I try to coexist as much as possible with the people I photograph – to be inside the story, to live it, enjoy it or suffer it. It’s just as important as knowing how to measure light or to frame a picture, if not more. It links you sentimentally with the people you photograph, and they are connected to you in a way. This facilitates the work, the closeness and it saves you from having problems when photographing. This does not mean there haven’t been any problems, but they have been few and far between. And I also don’t blame anyone for not wanting to be photographed. Everyone has their reasons.

Is there such as thing as an average day in Syria?

I can only tell you how my day-to-day has been, which consists, more or less, of waking up early. At the time, the Al Assad artillery begins the bombing and the combat begins. From that moment it is all about work, sometimes following already planned stories, other times improvising according to the events of the day. We drive ourselves crazy trying to find a point from which we can send the images. In general, it becomes a type of routine: we go shopping, we cook, we take care of housework. It is no different than living in any other part of the world, and sometimes you even forget about the war.

Can you describe the emotions you feel when photographing people involved in such violent conflict?

Many times we hide behind the camera in order to not feel anything. We think ‘this works, this doesn’t’, ‘this is moving, this isn’t’, ‘this will draw their attention’. We remain like a rock. Then, when you arrive home or get to a hotel and edit the work, you begin to assimilate everything that has happened during the day. It is then, when reality sets in and you begin to feel – sometimes sadness, sometimes hate, sometimes happiness, depending on the frame and the day.

Other times, like on October 4, 2012, you have before your eyes such murder, such horror: children ripped to shreds, mothers, the elderly…trucks with dying bodies arriving to the hospital. People whose only crime was to have found refuge in a school, and on that day you can barely work. There is nowhere to hide or assimilate it, and at the end you end up with cameras hanging from your neck, while hugging a stranger and wishing you could heal their pain as well as your own.

Of everything you have witnessed in Syria, what image sticks with you the most, and why?

I’m left with a scene, and not just an image. Many people know the image: a father holding the lifeless body of his son in front of the hospital. But only those present know the scene. Beyond the photo, the father sits in chair at a checkpoint near the hospital, and he waits 20 minutes in that chair for a taxi to arrive. People watch him, but he is in his own world. There aren’t enough ambulances and the nearby bombings mean there aren’t many taxis on the street. After 20 minutes he decides to change spots, since a colleague [of mine] spends the whole time pointing a camera at him, stealing from him the little intimacy he has on the street in order to mourn his son. The man stoically waits at the new spot. The the colleague has decided to follow him in order to continue to photograph him. Finally, the young boy’s uncles appear in a car and they all go home, except for the man with the camera. The pain, the impotence, and even still, the strength and pride of that father are a good example of humanity for me, as well as the bad example of a colleague who violated his intimacy for 40 minutes.

How will your experience in Syria inform your future work?

Every time I work, there are new things to learn but, maybe, the most important thing is how a photographer can get confused, thinking war images are only about the “bang bang”. How, in this particular case [Syria], sending only “bang bang” photos can confuse the reader. This can bring with it the wrong idea this war is between two opposing armies, when it is really an army against a great majority of the population. It is an asymmetrical war in which one of the sides – led by Bashar Al Assad – is massacring and punishing thousands, millions of civilians whose only crime is to demand dignity.

What do you think will be the lasting effects of your time in Syria, and where do you hope to go next?

The effects of my stay in Syria…? It is an experience that has changed me forever as both a professional and as a human being. It is not easy to assimilate the worst aspects of humanity, so much hate, so much blood, so much death… The question I will constantly ask myself until the day I die is ‘how can a leader come to hate so many of his own people?’. How can he want to kill innocent children, women and men? What goes on in the mind of someone like Bashar Al Assad? Are they like that by nature or are they truly sick in the head? I think I’ll never be able to answer those questions.

My next destination will be my family’s house in Spain and then I’d like to continue working in Syria. I guess I feel committed to telling what is going on there, but we’ll just have to see where destiny takes me. Right now I can only think about enjoying time with my family and friends.

Source: The National

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