Through the eyes of its photographers

This unique collective photo essay produced by UNOCHA draws on the archives of 16 Syrian photographers. Their personally selected photographs and hand-written captions are a window into Syrian lives over the past 10 years of conflict. The collection highlights the cost of the crisis while shining a light on the strength of Syria's people and their hopes for a future without conflict.

Ghaith Alsayed

Idlib, 2020. Two brothers hug each other and mourn after the death of their mother and older brother after an air raid hit their home. [Ghaith Alsayed]

Before the war began, I was a middle-school student, pursuing my dream of becoming an international football player. Photography was a hobby for me; my friends used to call me "our friend the photographer".

Demonstrations began to spread throughout Syria in 2011 when I turned 17. With the sequence of events in my country, my passion increased in documenting what is happening. I started photojournalism in 2015, working with local and international agencies.

Every time I had to cover an air raid; it took me back to the day when my brother Amer was killed by the missiles that bombed our city. When I went to cover the aerial bombardment that occurred in the town of Sarmin, I went to the bombing site to see a scene that is repeated daily. Buildings turned to rubble, people crying out of the horror of what happened. The same feeling I experienced when Amer was killed.

We are always afraid as photographers of the reactions of some families who live through such a disaster. But when I took this photo, my colleagues and I were surprised by the family's reaction. They had great faith in destiny and fate. They came closer to us and to our cameras to describe what happened, while they were crying for the loss of their family members.

At the same moment, my brain began to display the horror of that scene when my brother was killed, and I could not hold back my tears that I always try to hide. I was in pain at that time for those who lost children and women, but the faith of the survivors made me hold on to my strength. The same scene keeps repeating itself, and we do not know when it will end.

- Ghaith Alsayed

Omar Sanadiki

March 2018, Beit Sawa, Eastern Ghouta. A man carrying a child in a suitcase walks towards Hamourieh where an evacuation exit from Eastern Ghouta has been opened. [Omar Sanadiki]

Al-Yarmouk camp, Damascus, December 2020. Dogs passing through the streets and destroyed buildings. [Omar Sanadiki]

Aleppo, December 2016. A mortar shell on the ground and Arabic graffiti on the wall that reads: "I love you." [Omar Sanadiki]

The war has not only changed Syria, but it has also changed our way of seeing and the way we photograph in order to share humanitarian messages with the world.

My dream is that one day, even after 50 years, my daughters Asli and Zoya will show my pictures to the world and to the next Syrian generations, so they will learn what the war has done to our country and warn them not to repeat history.

- Omar Sanadiki

Mohammed Badra

March 2018, Douma. Children injured in shelling are treated in an underground hospital. [Mohammed Badra/ EPA]

Douma, November 2016. A civil defense volunteer walks in a damaged street after an airstrike. [Mohammed Badra/ EPA]

We left and did not arrive yet; we have no destination.

The exile has nothing but a compass that always points behind him and a map that only shows where he was forced to leave.

Looking through the window, I turned my face to the sky, looking for a destination that would accept me without a passport, identity, family, homeland and loved ones.

How vast is the universe. Looking closely, I was contemplating its vastness while I was surrounded by a space no bigger than the distance between the first and the last bus of the forced-displacement convoy. How big the universe really is, and how small it is for us.

I did not possess anything anymore other than this seat with its loose screws that I was sitting on. It was shaking along the road and addressing me with a sharp squeak, then calming down, then shivering, then calming down, then screaming and then calming down.

That was the musical recital of forced displacement.

Then the chair hugged me as my nose sank between its cracks, lined in frayed sponge! How it looked like me! As if that chair was the only homeland that contained me.

- Mohammed Badra

Muzaffar Salman

Aleppo, June 2013. A boy drinks water directly from a shell hole in the ground, after an artillery shell exploded the main drinking water pipe connecting to the Karm al-Jabal neighbourhood. [Muzaffar Salman]

When I published this photo through Reuters news agency in 2013, during my coverage of the reality of life in Aleppo during the war, some people said the photo was not credible, others said the photographer should have provided clean water to the child instead of exploiting his image.

At the time, I thought this denial of reality must have various reasons, which may be ideological and maybe because of a deep feeling of powerlessness. But how can we solve problems if we do not recognize their existence in the first place?

I believe that any change of reality begins with seeing it as it is and not as we would like it to be. This possibility is provided by ethical documentary photography, practised by professionals. We have to decide if we want to change reality or if we only want to change the image.

- Muzaffar Salman

Anas Alkharboutli

September 2020, Kafr Nouran, near Aleppo. Syrian athletes perform parkour stunts amongst the rubble of destroyed buildings. [Anas Alkharboutli/ DPA]

March 2019, Saraqib. Puppeteer Walid Rashed performs a puppet act for Syrian children, in the midst of the rubble of damaged buildings. [Anas Alkharboutli/ DPA]

Eastern Ghouta, 2018. Mothers cook for her children in an underground shelter. [Anas Alkharboutli]

I took this photo after one of the women asked me to show her situation in the shelter. This image represents the condition of all the exhausted people in eastern Ghouta during the siege and the air raids.

These women were cooking some weeds to silence the pain of hunger in their frightened children's stomachs in a shelter not fit for human occupation at a time when the most basic of human rights was completely absent because of the siege on civilians.

Fear was the master of the situation. You had no way of knowing when a building would collapse on you, or when you would end up on the list of the dead.

When I was photographing these families, a relief volunteer came to distribute a cup of barley flour to each person, which could not feed a small child.

I watched the children's facial expressions and their parents; they thought that my camera could change their condition or be their lifeblood if I published their picture.

But they do not know that they live in an age where the world only sings about the slogans of human rights.

I do not know what happened to these families. Are they still alive, or were they forcibly displaced from their town?

But the one thing I'm sure of is that the photo is the only witness that documented their tragedy.

- Anas Alkharboutli

Bassam Khabieh

Douma, 2014. Mohammad, 8 years old, looks at his father's prosthesis as he tries on an artificial arm. [Bassam Khabieh]

Douma, January 2014. A baby found alive in the rubble after an airstrike is lifted in the air. [Bassam Khabieh]

Barzah, Damascus, 12, May 2012. Mourners gather in a cemetery to pray for people killed in protests. [Bassam Khabieh]

Douma, 20 June 2017. Girls break their fast amid damaged buildings during a Ramadan iftar organized by an NGO. [Bassam Khabieh]

Douma, September 2017. Students leave a bombed-out classroom on their first day of school. [Bassam Khabieh]

I took this picture in Douma on the first day of the school year. I had been waiting for this day, so I woke up early to cover a story about education. I wanted the world to know that education is still important here, although the situation was not ideal for studying due to the continuous bombing and the suffocating siege on the region.

I took pictures in the street, in the schoolyard and in the classrooms, then found students in a damaged classroom. They were so disappointed because they were not able to start their studies. That day, the feeling of sadness in that destroyed classroom prevailed over all other feelings. Going to school is such an important period in one's life, it cannot be valued and it won't be repeated; nothing can compensate them for what they lost.

- Bassam Khabieh

Carole Alfarah

Homs, 2014. A damaged photograph of a couple in their wedding hangs on their apartment's charred wall, after it was burned and damaged following heavy clashes. [Carole Alfarah]

Damascus, December 2013. Five-year-old Aya (right, in a wheelchair) was hit by a mortar while she was heading home from school. She said: "I was wearing my brown shoes. The shoe just flew and my leg flew with it. My leg has gone." [Carole Alfarah]

Damascus, December 2012. Sulaf Shahen, a 16-year-old student, stands on her balcony. Sulaf survived a car explosion next to her house, which left several people dead and wounded. [Carole Alfarah]

What happened?

My memory is blurry...

I feel like I have lost every beautiful moment I have ever lived in my homeland.

The smell of death is everywhere.

When I close my eyes... I see people's faces full of fatigue, oppression and pride.

We have lost everything…

We turned into numbers... Of dead, wounded, widows, orphans, displaced, forcibly displaced, missing... Unidentified.

We have lost everything...

The places are no longer our places; the faces are no longer our faces.

Even our belongings and our memories are distorted.

We have become strangers in our land and strangers everywhere.

We have lost everything...

The only thing left for us is

Our naked souls

Our open graves

Our dry tears

Our ruined cities

Our hearts thirsty for peace

And some of the memory in pictures that will remain engraved in the memory of history as evidence of the shame of humanity in our beloved, devastated homeland.

- Carole Alfarah

Omar Haj Kadour

Maaret Misrin, Idlib province, July 2020. This long-exposure picture shows a man sleeping in the open under the stars at the Ahl al-Tah camp for displaced persons. [Omar Haj Kadour/ AFP]

I hadn't looked at the sky in the darkness of the night for a whole decade. One night last summer, I was stunned by the sight of the stars over the destruction and the camps.

The scene divided the world in half in front of my eyes: One half made by the hand of God and the other half what was made by the hand of man. That moment reminded me of when being a child, and sleeping under the sky on the roof of our home's roof.

In the photo, this man sleeps in the safety of the stars, God's creation, to escape the heat and suffering of the tents that men made.

- Omar Haj Kadour

Mohannad Zayat

Binish, April 2020. A mother and her child walk back to the shelter they have found in a damaged school. They could not obtain a tent in the nearby IDP camp. [Mohannad Zayat]

Khair Al-Sham camp, Idlib Governorate, March 2020. Women prepare food above the sprawling IDP camp. [Mohannad Zayat]

When the war in Syria began, I was a high school student, and I never expected myself to be a journalist and photographer.

In 2011, I decided to pick up a camera to record the suffering of people in my city, Aleppo. I wanted to be their voice to the world.

Over the past years, I have been able to transmit many human stories worldwide, which gives me the motivation and strength to continue my work. Media and journalism are never less important than other fields like health and relief work. I believe that an image is capable of ending wars, which is what happened in the Vietnam War.

I want our pictures to travel around the world to talk about our stories that may inspire millions. Perhaps our stories and pictures someday will contribute to stopping the war in Syria.

- Mohannad Zayat

Delil Souleiman

Baghoz, eastern Deir-ez-Zor, January 2019. Children and families huddle together after being forced to flee their homes in nearby towns and villages, before they embark on a long and ardous journey to safety at Al-Hol camp, almost 300km to the north. [Delil Souleiman]

Sometimes I see myself at the bottom of a dark ocean looking for light in a silent void around me. This war gave this silence the red colour that distorted everything in my memory.

The pieces of light left in my eyes soaked with the screams of hungry children and the weeping women and homeless people.

It is hard for that memory to retain all these wrenching details. To be a part of it all. And to look at your children's eyes to see thousands of eyes lacking sparkle.

You remain confused whether to walk towards the light or stop and turn off all lights around you.

The search for light remains the full truth of all the meanings that envelop the details of life.

- Delil Souleiman

Mohamad Abazeed

Deraa, 2017. On the first day of Eid al-Fitr, a Syrian woman cries at the grave of her son who was killed during the war. [Mohamad Abazeed]

Busra al-Sham, Deraa, 2018. The ancient Roman amphitheatre flooded by the heavy rain that fell days before. [Mohamad Abazeed]

In 2011, I was working as a primary schoolteacher. I bought a small camera because I used to love photography. I saw that it was my duty to photograph what I witnessed in my city, Deraa, and convey it to the world. I started photographing the peaceful demonstrations, then the bombardment and battles.

Of course, it is sad and depressing to represent your city and your country in a state of destruction, bombardment and pain, but the most difficult thing is to photograph death, especially when the dead person was my father. On many occasions, I couldn't photograph what I saw because of the volume of pain and oppression in front of me.

When I photographed this woman, who was visiting the grave of her son on the first day of Eid al-Fitr in 2017, she was crying and kissing the grave. And I was crying with her and wiping my tears to be able to hold myself together and take the photo. Until today I remember how her husband was supporting her, saying: "God bless his soul and have mercy upon him."

- Mohamad Abazeed

Abood Hamam

Raqqa, 2019. A woman in Raqqa wearing a colourful hijab walks her stroller. [Abood Hamam]

The images that I photographed will remain a document of history. The camera was my way of breathing despite the danger the camera caused.

But whenever I accomplished something, I felt relief for doing it. That's the reason why I chose to stay in Raqqa, my city, because from my experience I knew that in wartime it is better to stay in a place where you know its people, and they know you.

The fear haunted me all the time and there were so many radical changes in the city, especially in who controlled it. It forced me to shift my psychology constantly and program my behaviors according to each situation for my personal security, and to avoid having to leave the city.

I was most affected when I started photographing and documenting the destruction of my city at the end of 2017; I was shocked by what happened to my city, in which I have memories in every street. They destroyed everything connected to our past and memory with our life in the city; every detail that used to connect me to it. It was so painful. Every picture that shows destruction killed me, and every picture told a story. Despite the trauma, I tried to document the destruction by collecting the contradictions of life, and by documenting the destruction with beautiful pictures that contain our pain.

- Abood Hamam

Adeeb Alsayed

Old Aleppo, 2019. Three men pose for a portrait next to their shops in Souk Al-Mahmas. [Adeeb Alsayed]

Despite all the ongoing destruction, the stress and the lack of livelihoods caused by the war, Aleppo residents always showed deep love to their city.

Even in the darkest moments, they were able to share and create solutions to survive. To see the smiles of these shopkeepers and the antique market stones makes you feel with certainty that nothing is capable of standing in front of the wheel of life that rises from the glory of the city's Citadel and its steadfastness throughout the ages.

- Adeeb Alsayed

Ashraf Zeinah

Latakia, December 2016. An engaged couple. [Ashraf Zeinah]

Latakia, November 2012. A cotton candy seller during his daily tour in one of Latakia's neighbourhoods turns his head upwards to respond to a child who asks him to wait for him to come down and buy cotton candy. [Ashraf Zeinah]

During more than 10 years of my work in the field of photography, most of which coincided with the Syrian crisis, I have always tried to document moments that inspire hope and optimism and not the opposite.

I love photographing people, their faces and eyes, the details of their daily lives, and telling their stories through my pictures. I always look for the positive image in someone's story because I believe that hope is always present.

- Ashraf Zeinah

Ali Haj Suleiman

Idlib, 2020. After the ceasefire agreement, a displaced family returns to its village in the town of Balyun. [Ali Haj Suleiman]

In 2011, I was 12 years old. I lived in Damascus and I dreamed of being a doctor to help people. In 2013, my father was arrested. I went back with my family to Idlib, my father's original home. I stopped my studies and started working to help my family.

A year later, in 2014, I started my activity archiving photographic content within an organisation. I decided in 2017 to take my camera and join the ranks of the media who document the suffering of Syrians and the humanitarian violations against civilians.

I took this photo in 2020 in the town of Balyun, south of Idlib, of a family returning home after the ceasefire agreement. I had mixed feelings of sadness and joy at the same time. Joy, because I saw people returning to their homes and they were happy, but at the same time I felt sadness because, myself, I could not go back to my village and home.

- Ali Haj Suleiman

Sameer Al Doumy

Umm Mohammed, and her husband drink coffee at their destroyed home in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the outskirts of the capital Damascus, on March 23, 2017. [Sameer Al-Doumy/ AFP]

During the war, photography was my "psychologist". I put all my feelings into those pictures to express my anger and sadness. I had no other way to release all these feelings. Like everyone, I felt fear. I tried to keep my eyes inside the viewfinder of my camera, hoping that this would relieve me from the shock of those scenes, but in vain.

Syria is not just "black or white" to me. There are civilians caught in the middle, silently suffering from the effects of this horrific war, but nonetheless doing their best to resist its bitterness.

With my photos, I tried to focus on the other side of the war. On the details of the daily life of civilians who live under the shadow of war and its impact on them. Showing how they cope with its psychological and physical effects and how they try to withstand, resist and survive despite it all.

Umm Muhammad was one of the most special people I met. She was badly injured and just as she was recovering, her husband was hit by an air raid and lost his ability to walk. The siege prevented her from seeing her children who live outside the Eastern Ghouta area. She had to take care of her injured husband, her home, and she did not give up. Her love for her husband was evident and greater than anything.

In my opinion, Umm Muhammad's resistance - her sincerity, determination and desire to live despite the difficult and harsh conditions - represents the true face of Syrians. It embodies their love for life and their solid will to overcome difficulties despite all the death and destruction that surrounds them.

- Sameer Al Doumy

UNOCHA cannot vouch for the accuracy of information from third parties. The collaboration with third parties does not imply endorsement by the UN.