The toughest issues that a war correspondent grapples with are should you risk your life for a photo and should you take pictures of death. TASS photographer Valery Sharifulin tells us his story.
The first time I ended up in Syria was in October 2015, right after the Russian military campaign began there. There were three trips overall - about a month in October, a week in February 2016 at the Russian air base Hmeymim, and then, about a month and a half in March-April 2016.
During the first visit, I was astonished to find that Damascus looked like an average peaceful city, aside from certain parts of it, where battles were raging on. However, other areas of the city were practically left untouched by the war, except for the checkpoints and soldiers in the street, but there weren’t that many of them. It was a regular town with regular people who had regular lives. People rushing to get to work, to the store, or who were stuck traffic jam in the streets. I spent a lot of time in Damascus, it was my home base and that’s where I would go from on assignment.
Children are a completely separate topic.
I’ve always been struck by the contrast of children’s joy and war. It is as though children can handle war far better than adults – they’ll forget about it and switch to playing games. Adults, on the other hand, take everything that happens very hard, the loss of a home and the constant danger. Meanwhile, kids play among the rubble and ruin, as if there is no war. Maybe, I got lucky with them in Syria, when I was taking photographs of children in a bomb shelter in Donbass, everything was different. Those kids had been living in the bomb shelter for months and it was clear that they knew fear and depression.
I’ve been to Aleppo twice. It is true that the city looks like Stalingrad, only certain parts of it, though. There is a clearly visible border between the areas where the fighting has been raging and the areas where it wasn’t. In contrast to Damascus, sounds of shooting and explosions could often be heard there. However, when it was calm and you were in an area where there was no fighting, it seemed as if there was no war at all.
The trip to the Hmeymim air base in Latakia was sponsored by the Ministry of Defense, during the rest of the trips I was on my own. During any trip, and especially to a “war zone,” organization is very important. When you go through the Ministry of Defense, all photo sessions are planned by its press service. You have to show up at the designated location. It is in no way a staged photoshoot. For example, today we are snapping photos of how an aircraft takes off and lands and tomorrow, we’ll see the delivery of humanitarian aid. It’s just that everything is arranged for you.
During that week, I was able to live on the airbase itself for two days. I found the photoshoot at Hmeymim most interesting, especially taking pictures of the everyday life that soldiers lead away from home.
What struck me the most were the relationships between the people, very warm, full of comradery. It was obvious that people were bound together by what they did. Everyone understood why they were there and believed that their cause was just.
I was also amazed by the level of organization. Everything was clear cut and professional. I didn’t see any bedlam there...And honestly, I felt a real sense of pride for our military.
At the base, and even in other places, you can’t always take pictures of faces, because of safety issues. Its war and that makes sense. Many Syrian military officers often asked not to show their faces, because they have relatives living in areas controlled by the terrorists. They could be recognized and killed. The face is important, but if you can’t show it, that doesn’t mean that you can’t show the story. There are different angles, and even by taking a photograph from the back, you can still tell a story.
During my independent trips around the country, I had an assistant. When you enter Syria, the Information Ministry offers a correspondent various choices of who to work with. You pick who suits you. For me, it's important that the person is with it, understands what's needed and knows how to get clearance for a photo shoot. My assistant Bassem studied in Russia, his Russian is great, and he has a college degree. And even though, he didn't have previous experience in the field, he turned out to be a ‘go-to guy’, he really helped me. In the war zone, usually one of the officers is asked to keep an eye on the journalist. You arrive at a designated location, and there he tells you what the situation is and what you can and cannot do. Sometimes, the Information Ministry offers locations for a photo-shoot, sometimes you find them through your own contacts. But either way, you have to get clearance.
That's how through my own contacts we ended up in Syrian Kurdistan. We struck a deal with other journalists, we had a contact on the Kurdish side, we got there, we were met at the checkpoint and after that, we were taken to Afrin with a military and security convoy. There, we lived at a hospital, there were no other places for the press to stay. We were with a group of journalists, since the contact wasn't mine. In some ways, it was convenient because you are able to make new connections and the trip ends up being cheaper, but at the same time, you are tied to your colleagues and can't choose what to shoot. That is why I prefer to work alone.
Everyone tries to take journalists to areas where there is no real danger, when there is a ceasefire. In order for you to get to the frontline, you have to work really hard to get permission or you have to get lucky. “No, no one is trying to hide anything. It's just that no one wants to be responsible for you. For them, for the administration, it is better if you didn’t go anywhere and didn't get killed, than if you went, and after that they'd have to be responsible for everything that might happen to you.
I got lucky in Palmyra. I was at the frontline during battles. One of the toughest battles for the Fakhr-al-Din palace, which is up on the hill over the ancient city.
The fighters were just forced out of the palace, it was empty, the bridge into it was blown up, but the pathways to it were shot up by snipers. It was the highest point in the city and it had to be controlled. A group of Syrian officers decided to go into the palace and hoist a flag there. I went with them. The first two attempts were fruitless, but the third time, the soldiers found a path out of the snipers’ view and we made it into the palace and hoisted the flag. So, I was the first journalist at the palace after it was freed.
And if someone asked me which photos cost me the most, I would say that it is the photographs from Palmyra. It was really dangerous there.
I was taking pictures of a Syrian fighter looking through his binoculars at Palmyra, when an antitank guided missile flew between us. It hit the wall shielding some soldiers, killing two Syrian generals. The missile flew past the spot where a minute ago my assistant was standing. I sent him to the car to get my laptop, and he passed one of the generals a few seconds before the explosion. Our driver, Shadi, was wounded in the back by a shard, but got behind the wheel and took other wounded people down the hill. And then, I drove and took Shadi from Palmyra to the hospital in Homs.
What else do I remember about Palmyra? It’s a desolate town. There were no civilians there. When the terrorists took over the city, anyone who hadn’t fled, or who didn’t fall in line with the IS mindset were slaughtered. Only die-hard ISIS supporters had remained there, but before the Syrian army regained the city, they had escaped far into the territories controlled by the terrorists. So, when the fighters were taken out, Palmyra turned into a ghost town.
People that I can’t forget? That was also in Palmyra. It so happened that I didn’t have time to take pictures of the museum on the first day the city was freed. I spent a lot of time on the frontlines, photographing what was left of the historical part that is regarded as a World Heritage site. There was no time left for the museum, so we came back there several days later. My wife, at that time, my fiancée, Yulia Semenova, a TASS correspondent, was also there with me.
When we came to the museum and it was closed. We were told that they keys were taken to Damascus, so we lost all hope of getting in. And then, we got the idea to walk around the museum and there was a huge hole in the wall from where a shell hit it. So that’s how we got inside.
It hadn’t been de-mined yet and none of the Syrian soldiers who were with us wanted to go in. Only one soldier did. He looked like an old man, when in fact he was about 40. His entire family was killed by the terrorists, his wife and children, all died. You could tell by looking at his face what he has been through.
He walked through the halls with us and he was very careful with the exhibits, he would pick up a book from the floor, dust it off and gently put it back on the shelf. He would pick up a crock and put it back on the shelf. It was clear that it was all very dear to him, like he came back home. It was very touching.
He was also touched by how we went through the museum, trying not to knock anything over, not to damage anything, how respectful we were towards the exhibits. At the end of the photo session, he took off his ring and asked my permission to give it to my fiancée and presented it to her.
In general, there are a lot of people in Syria who are nice to you and try to help you when you don’t really need it, or where there is potential risk to their lives. Lots of people.
Syria is my fourth hot spot. Before that, I had worked in South Ossetia in 2008, in Donbass and during the unrest in Kyrgyzstan in 2010.
What’s it like to work during war? I didn’t have any special training and I still don’t. It all comes with experience. What do you need? First of all, you need to have a good head on your shoulders.
You must know what is currently in demand on the news market and that you have to provide coverage, and you have to be a go-getter, to be where it’s necessary to be.
A war correspondent cannot avoid showing his feelings towards what is happening. It affects your work. But I see it as a part of a mechanism that allows people to see what is really happening. I see my mission in that - you work, you capture what is going on. And then, it’s up to the editorial board to decide to what to publish. You are the one who captures the moment. But there are moments when you have to make a decision about how to photograph. I try not to show raw realism, it’s pointless. Death shouldn’t provoke disgust. The fact of it is enough. But there can’t be a general answer on how to photograph war.
It’s been said that working in hot spots is like an addictive drug. Yes, there is a feeling that during wartime you are doing something far more important than a photoshoot in Moscow, for example. It is hard to go back, but I haven’t noticed that I crave it like an adrenaline fix.
I am responsible for my family. I recently got married, and when my wife will be pregnant, I will try to act cautiously and try not to worry her, if only during that time. However, I try not to take unnecessary risks. I don’t go to places where the chances of getting out alive are slim, with picture worth that isn’t great.