BEIRUT: Grainy images shudder and jolt awkwardly across the screen as crackling voices chant in jubilant protest or scream at the extraordinary horror of an airstrike.
This is how Syria’s civil war has been disseminated for the most part – gigabytes of unregulated and unverifiable YouTube footage devoured by an insatiable global audience.
Amid this deluge of images, a small community in Homs decided to show how war has pummeled their city, using a slightly different medium, with a different focus.
Driven not by the need to provide up-to-the-minute coverage of the gory details of war, the team instead focused on survival amid daily violence. Rather than using mobile phone videos, they squinted through digital camera lenses.
The simple but powerful photography project initiated by this group – later tagged “Lens Young Homsi” – has spawned hundreds of copycat groups across Syria.
“We Syrians have become obsessed with news,” Salma, a group co-founder, told The Daily Star. “There are thousands of Facebook pages covering the war, but looking only at the news, and that news is rarely good.”
Since they started this project in in June 2012, many of Salma and her colleagues’ photos are marked only by their normality. While the awesome destructive power of shelling is impossible to ignore, many of the Facebook group’s images apparently show nothing in particular. Children play football in a narrow lane. Flowers bloom in front of a battered Old City mosque. Men sit listlessly outside a shuttered shop front.
“Life goes on,” says Salma, “even under the siege, even amid so much violence. As photographers, we want to show you this life.”
Photography, she points out, is not only a medium for art. It also performs a vital archiving role for the group.
“ YouTube videos are very low resolution,” Salma explains. “They cannot document what is happening properly. Photos can reach international media, like newspapers.”
Indeed, since they began their work, the group has had its images published by the likes of the AlJazeera and CNN.
“We were 50 percent artistic and 50 [percent] documentation,” she says, “a balance between the artistic and the necessary sides.”
As the Lens Young Homsi’s popularity began to swell so did their responsibilities. As the weeks passed, new messages dropped into their Facebook inbox from former residents of Homs, desperate to learn whether their houses were still standing or their bakery still running.
“By the summer [of 2012] hundreds of messages were arriving each day. People gave us this new job and we were the only ones who had the answers. So we had a responsibility to change our work to reflect people’s needs,” says Salma. “Photographs, in that way, bridge the relationship between people and place.”
Intimate neighborhoods of Homs have been tracked down, snapped, uploaded and viewed by 90,000 Facebook followers.
In a conflict where violence is routinely mediated through images, and where being technologically savvy can help cement the validity of a narrative, images can be dangerous weapons.
When fledgling anti-government protests began in the heart of Damascus’ Old City in March 2011, cameras recorded the cries of “Down with Bashar [Assad]” that echoed through Souk al-Hamidiyya. Associated Press reported that security forces later beat up those filming.
A bloody precedent had been set.
Over two years later, Lens Young cameramen in the capital have paid a heavy price to document the city’s destruction. Mohammad, the group’s Damascus director, told The Daily Star many of his photographers had been killed by sniper fire while working.
Moving in neighborhoods like rebel-held Douma, the situation remains fraught with danger and photographers are often targeted.
One Lens Young photographer in the area snapped the moment just before he was killed, Mohammad says.
“Moving inside Damascus is very difficult because of the security forces,” he adds. “We use small cameras, which we have to hide all the time. Sometimes I feel like I’m carrying a weapon.”
Despite such risks, Lens Young photographers remain steadfast. “I quit my studies for this work,” Mohammad says. “It is a big part of who I am.”
Analysts regularly frame Syria’s civil war within wider contexts: fears of regional conflagration and chemical weapons attacks, the ethics of intervention. Such prisms obscure the lived violence Syrians undergo on a daily basis.
Saturated with reports of various strategic battles, audiences grow numb to the monotony of daily death tolls. The human cost of war is easy to overlook. Lens Young wants to keep the story of this bloodshed on a human level in order to comprehend it.
“We want to engage people,” says Salma. “It is easier to understand something when you tell a story.”
Ahmad, of Lens Young Homsi, told the story of Firas, a 4-year-old boy living in a rebel-held area of the city.
“One member took a photo of Firas. He was not doing much, but he has a very cute smile. Then, when we put the photo online, people started asking about him. ‘How is Firas today? What did he eat for breakfast?’ He became a Facebook superstar, much more popular than photos of destroyed buildings.”
“He became a way for people to see the real Homs.”