Sergey Ponomarev’s ‘A Lens on Syria’

Sergey Ponomarev’s A Lens on Syria at The Imperial War Museum

On a brief trip to London, I went to the Imperial War Museum to see the exhibitions on Syria.  One was Syria: Story of a Conflict, a collection of objects, personal stories and a video installation that gives an idea of how the country became ruined by the conflict going on between Government forces and the retaliation of rebels.  The other was A Lens on Syria by Russian photographer Sergey Ponomarev, again in two parts with a series of images, Assad’s Syria, and a slide show film The Exodus that illustrates the lengths that people went to to escape the regime and try to get a better life for their families in Europe.

The Syrian conflict began in 2011 and although we are aware through news reports that many thousands have fled to other parts of Europe, many have stayed behind in Syria whether in the cities or in camps outside the cities.  The devastation of buildings is immense and some of them were thousands of years old, part of all of our heritage and irreplaceable.  I had not realized how many people have died over there – nearly half a million – or how many have been displaced – millions rather than thousands.

Syria: Story of a Conflict was a film installation that had clips of news footage that tried to tell both sides of the story as well as the history.  Around the walls were photographs of Syrian people and their stories.

A Lens on Syria was a more direct approach to the issue with large vividly coloured images of the devastating effect that the conflict has had on the cities in Syria, particularly Homs.  I admit that I have a tentative personal connection here in that my uncle is Syrian and is from Homs.  His family were flour millers and owned a mill that provided income and a living for them.  He left the family business to live in Beirut in Lebanon with my aunt, but had to leave there in the 1970s through conflict, ending up in Canada where they still live.  I was interested to see if seeing photographs of the aftereffects of the conflict would open my eye, understand better or simply be an exercise in looking at clear photographs.

I have seen other photographs of some of the destruction (see 3) but this was also concerned with the effect on the people and how they still go about their lives amid rubble and fires.  The size of the images is big enough to grab the attention but not to overwhelm it.  They are vivid in colour which is to be expected given that they are about war and destruction, but also because the skies he shoots under are sunset, twilight or sunrise so adds a softer quality to them.  There is a pathos but also a dignity of the people.  There is little of the sky and at times they can feel a little claustrophobic as they are in cramped areas where there is rubble, or in a prison or street, or at night.

Sergey Ponomarev

The photographs tell a story of carrying on in spite of the damage and the bombings.  My uncle’s family moved a few miles out of Homs, there is no running water and sporadic electricity but they stay because it is their home and they would prefer to stay there rather than leave altogether.  I reacted to them through the slight knowledge that I have but also because they present an alternative view of what is going on rather than the one we are always resented with through the media. In addition, they are very clear and the viewer can spend time searching the whole frame for other things and look to the horizon.

Sergey Ponomarev

The one that particularly caught my eye is of a burnt out, partially destroyed building that still  has a poster of President Assad attached to it.  The pale orange sky of sunrise emphasises the pale concrete of the building and on closer inspection, it is a myriad of bits of metal with the sattelite dish to the top left hand corner standing out.  There is a symmetry with two halves of the building but then one collapses downwards and draws the eye away from it.  The poster is in stark contrast to the building as though it is stamp claiming it for the President.  Maybe it is.

Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014, from the series ‘Assad’s Syria’ © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times


In contrast Exodus, the video is quite an emotional watch.  It has no soundtrack, just a looping slideshow of photographs taken of refugees as they travel on their way to what they believe will be a better, safer life.  There are heart wrenching images of desperate people in their thousands, walking in long columns (reminiscent of scenes of WWII when people had to leave their homes or of prisoners or, worse, of the Jews being led to their deaths), in boats, standing crying on the shore when they reach safety after trips in overloaded boats and clashes with security at borders.  The viewer is drawn in to the unfolding story while looking on from the safety of the room.

Having been to all these places, does Ponomarev think photography can change the world? “No,” he says. “We are now so overwhelmed with visual information, it’s always around us.” However, he does think his pictures might “disturb people from living in their normal, cosy lives and probably encourage them to take action”. This could be making a donation or volunteering.’ The Guardian.

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There is a sense that this is an impossible task to resolve while being amazed at the resilience of the human spirit, but wondering how long it can keep going. I also felt a bit hopeless, that there is nothing that I can do to change any of it, help these people.  But maybe that is what he is aiming at in that by seeing that these are people, men woman and children who see Europe as being the place that they will be safe, that we will be spurred on to doing something even if it is only buying a blanket to keep them warm in the winter.

It was a sobering exhibition while also being one that captured my imagination and interest.







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