This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – a review of Kevin Bubriski‘s new book Legacy in Stone: Syria Before War. Plus don’t forget the Contemporary Centre for Photography‘s inaugural Photo Fair is on this weekend in Melbourne.
Also, visual journalist Katie Orlinsky has been documenting the thawing permafrost in the Arctic. In the September issue of National Geographic magazine is the story “Arctic permafrost is thawing fast. That affects us all. As the frozen ground warms much faster than expected, it’s reshaping the landscape and releasing carbon gases that fuel global warming.” Orlinsky has worked on this story over the past few years with writer Craig Welch. You can read it online. Right now I’m writing my PhD thesis chapter on the failings of mainstream media to convey the climate issue as a crisis. The National Geographic story is important. Climate change has no sovereign boundaries. We wreck the planet and we are all screwed.
Kevin Bubriski – Legacy in Stone: Syria Before War
“Raqqa was very quiet. In the evening, families from rural villages stopped in the brightly lit sweet shops for treats. Middle-aged and older men gathered in the simple rustic hotel under dim light to watch the Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera coverage of the grinding war in neighbouring Iraq.” Kevin Bubriski, Syria, 2003
There is something mournful about the masterful black and white photographs that fill the pages of Bubriski’s latest book. This sense of loss comes not just through cognition of the words “Syria Before War” but through compassion for the lives of those who once associated these alleyways and stone monuments with home. How quickly life can change.
As outsiders we look to photographs to tell us something we don’t know, to show us something new, and we marvel at the beauty, or the devastation, the drama, perhaps forgetting that the pictures we are looking at are not just remnants of history, but are complex pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of life; someone else’s everyday.
As I write this review from my studio in Melbourne, a bright, shiny, new city in comparison to the ancient haunts of Syria, I think about the centuries of history captured in these pictures, and the fact that much of it has been destroyed. Blown to pieces, smashed into rubble and dust. And with the ruination of these ancient structures has come the devastation of millions of lives, the displacement of families, the death of loved ones, the loss of a nation.
Often we look at photographs through the prism of nostalgia, or through fascination in the other, sometimes forgetting that what we are seeing are backdrops to real lives. In Bubriski’s pictures we see the fabric that made a society before it was wrested asunder by greed and power, desires as ancient as the monuments in these pages.
Bubriski allows us to look back. To see Syria as it was before the madness took over, before reason was lost, and one of the world’s oldest civilisations destroyed. The Suq (souk) in Aleppo had been the “longest continuously inhabited place of commerce in the world, existing for well over two millennia,” before war broke out in 2010. Two years later fire raged through the Suq for days as it became a battleground. The Suq wasn’t a Wall Street world of commerce removed from the lives of most citizens, it was the heart of the city, where traders sold everything from spices to the famous Aleppo soap and where citizens congregated to socialise as well as conduct business.
We should be thankful for these pictures, and to Bubriski’s natural curiosity, his desire to capture the world through his Hasselblad and to thoughtfully document the places he’s visited, not just their structures, but their heart. These images contribute to a rich visual history and show us why photography continues to be so important, not only as an archival document, but as a voice that reminds us that what can stand for centuries can be so easily lost.
Legacy in Stone: Syria Before War features pictures taken in 2003. Bubriski travelled to Aleppo, the Dead Cities, St. Simeon, Apamea, Resafe, Qasr Al-Hayr Al-Sharqi and Palmyra each of which are a chapter in the book. There are maps and essays throughout and Bubriski’s own writings are evocative and lyrical.
As philosopher Sadik Al-Azm wrote in a letter to Bubriski, these photographs are “a most precious gift.”
Kevin Bubriski, Legacy in Stone: Syria Before War, PowerHouse Books
Hardcover, 10-7/8 x 12 inches, 164 pages