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Sergey Ponomarev

‘A Lens on Syria’ at the Imperial War Museum

4 June 2017 Laura Garmeson

Syria is a country riven by one of the harshest conflicts in recent memory. After six years of civil war the fighting continues to dominate broadsheets and news cycles, while Europe grapples with the consequences of large-scale migration. But amid the constant atrocities, daily life under the infamous regime of Bashar al-Assad goes on – even if it often remains opaque to the outside world. In a new display of photographs at the Imperial War Museum, award-winning Russian photojournalist Sergey Ponomarev opens a small, yet significant, window onto life inside Assad’s Syria.

In mid-2013 Sergey Ponomarev was granted access to one of the most secretive regimes on earth. Within the government-controlled regions of Syria, reporting is severely restricted and propaganda increasingly holds sway; used to obfuscate truth and promote the interests of those in power. Ponomarev, as a Russian, was one of a small number of photographers allowed to enter these areas in 2013 and 2014, and the government-controlled sectors of Homs and Damascus became the subject of his series of photographs: Assad’s Syria. As a coda to this work, Ponomarev went on to document the flight of migrants in 2015 and 2016 as Europe saw an unprecedented influx of refugees, giving rise to his follow-up series The Exodus.


Image Credit: Sergey Ponomarev
 
These bodies of work – shining a light on the domestic and international consequences of war – are the two halves of A Lens on Syria, an exhibition of over sixty photographs at the Imperial War Museum. Shot with minimal equipment, they nevertheless paint a detailed picture of life under siege. On entering the first room, we find ourselves looking down a derelict Homs street, as a portrait of Assad glowers at the camera from an old armchair dumped on the pavement. The photograph was taken in the government sector of Homs, forty metres from the sniper-controlled frontline that divided the city. The scene is both menacing and kitsch; the tawdry artist’s reproduction of Assad depicts the strong leader he wants people to see, while the dilapidated buildings show the reality of his country crumbling around him. As Ponomarev says, he and the press found themselves ‘caught between what we see and what the government wants us to show.’ In this case, the glorious dictator is reduced to a dodgy simulacrum propped up on an old chair.


Image Credit: Sergey Ponomarev
 
Walking through the four rooms of this exhibition, the images of shelled and brutalized cities take on an unearthly feel; the grey dust and cratered buildings recall a moonscape. Snatches of normality are imbued with extra importance when contrasted against this alien environment. A baker throws dough in the air for onlookers in Tadmor, near Palmyra; a place once notorious for the brutality of its government-run prison, but now largely destroyed in the fighting with IS. Local shoppers in the suburbs of Damascus talk and laugh on their phones, seemingly oblivious to the shellfire from a Syrian Army artillery unit nearby. A child wears a pink, tinsel-crowned party hat as he gets into a taxi after salvaging possessions from his family’s ruined apartment in Homs. The message is that even in the darkest hell on earth, some semblance of daily life goes on.


Image Credit: Sergey Ponomarev

But it still provokes a strange friction when the edges of everyday life rub up against the crude brutality of war. One of the most striking photographs in the display is a landscape shot of a ruined shopping mall in the Khalidiya district of Homs, with a composition that screams thwarted consumerism. The building is grey-white and skeletal, with floors crumpled against one another like flattened origami and thick concrete walls reduced to rubble. The only sweeps of colour in the image are the steady orange of the dusk sky, and a large campaign poster of Assad waving jovially, hung up against the hollowed out edifice. The image is uncanny; the building looks to have been ‘unhomed’ without its crowds of shoppers, leaving a dead husk. But the mall had been constructed just before the war began and bombed before it could even open for business. It had always been an empty shell.


Image Credit: Sergey Ponomarev
 
We live in a world of images. Photography is an inescapable part of modernity: our lives are wallpapered with the stuff. In such a world, you’d think the role of the photojournalist would be more urgent than ever. But the sheer ubiquity of photographs can also mean that the image starts to lose its power. Nowadays, it is hard to imagine a case like the publication of Nick Ut’s iconic photo of the ‘Napalm Girl’ Kim Phuc, which came to both define and change the course of the Vietnam war. It may be harder to shock, but photography can still shed light on the darkness of conflict zones, and it still has the power to move us. Sergey Ponomarev’s beautiful and unflinching images of the aftermath of war are a testament to this.
 
Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria is on display at the Imperial War Museum until 3 September, as part of IWM’s wider season Syria: A Conflict Explored.

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