The Lancet – The Syrian conflict, which marked its seventh anniversary on March 15, is one of the most live-imaged wars in modern times. Syrian citizen-activists and others have transmitted images extensively to tell the story of the conflict with the hope that this may draw support and change their plight. International media also draw heavily on images—themes of violence, suffering, destruction, and displacement dominate.
That the world does not act, despite the many gruesome images of the conflict, became evident after the release of more than 50 000 so-called Caesar Photographs that included images of 6786 detainees with identification numbers who are understood to have died in Government of Syria custody between 2011 and August, 2013. Images of violations and suffering, even when presented as evidence, are no guarantee for global action on violence and injustice.
Photographs from Syria raise three important and interrelated issues. The first concerns the treatment of images of violence. Pictures of nameless mutilated bodies and broken spirits, torture, and killing are on constant display, both on international media networks and social media. Syrian writers have debated this subject. On the one hand, these images, typically displayed without the consent of an identifiable person or their family, depersonalise and undermine the dignity of the people photographed and their families. On the other hand, some have argued that since the images exist we must make sense of them through directly “gazing into the atrocious”. Such gazing is necessary to comprehend the Syrian tragedy and its meanings. It allows us to start questioning ourselves and our histories, societies, and cultures—locally and globally—about our collective responsibility for the atrocities, and to develop new critical writings and ethics that absorb and represent the gruesome violence. As these images capture the radical moment of both Syria’s collapse and a world in crisis, they need to be archived, studied, and used in transitional justice to contribute to creating a memory of this terrible time so Syrians and others can work together in the quest for a more just world.
The second issue is the global use of the images. All too often, the world stares at Syria but sees mainly numbers—killed, drowned, besieged, evacuated—or reacts only momentarily to occasional iconic images, such as that of a drowned child, until they fade and are replaced by newer pictures. Violent images from Syria have entered a global economy in which images are consumed as part of a “spectacle” of violence and indignity—their proliferation an obstacle to visibility. Even when such images are used for advocacy, or for humanitarian mobilisation for support and funding, the plethora of images risks normalising Syrian deaths and blurs issues of justice and responsibility. Some have advocated, based on the Syrian case, for a universal “right to the image” to protect people and families in war.
A third issue is the differing representations of victims of violence, war, or terrorism in global media. Such media do not typically feature violent images of western victims of conflict but readily show Syrian and other victims. The former have names, faces from earlier, happier times, and life stories, whereas the latter usually don’t even when their images are used to advocate for justice. This observation raises questions about the differential value of life and its representation, the sanctity of the body, and the right to privacy and dignity. Can an image revalorise such a life?
We believe it can. Our purpose in the photographs featured here is to document the impacts of the conflict in Syria and rehumanise the conflict through focusing on affected people and communities. We also hope to engage readers in critical discussion about images of violence and the representation of individuals affected by war. For this collection of images, Syrian photographers travelled in their communities and took pictures of people and places across Syria—in government-controlled and non-government-controlled areas—where people live, work, resist, seek help, or die.
These photographs draw on the experiences of the Humans of Syria (HOS) Network. Launched in 2015, HOS is an independent initiative with more than 70 volunteers of professional photographers, translators, editors, designers, and a coordinator. It aims to document stories from beyond the battle lines, highlighting the details that make us human, capturing stories of daily life, survival, hardship, and hope. Avoiding shocking images, the photos shown here depict people in context—with names (indicated when permitted), histories, and places—not as mere victims. The photos, presenting both health themes and images of daily life during conflict, were taken by photographers whose work involves risk. They do so to tell a story, attempting to rehumanise the Syrian conflict. We hope these images and the issues raised will engage readers and provoke critical discussion and inquiry about the role of war photography in health scholarship and research.
*Samer Jabbour, †Marvin Gate, Ammar Sabouni, †Saeed al-Batal, and Humans of Syria Network
Faculty of Health Sciences, American University of Beirut, Beirut 1107 2020, Lebanon (SJ, AS); Lancet–American University of Beirut Commission on Syria, Beirut, Lebanon (SJ, AS); and Humans of Syria Network, Syria (MG, Sa-B)
†Names changed to protect anonymity.