A Lens on Syria: Russian photojournalist gets solo show in London

Photographer Sergey Ponomarev honed his skills working for the Associated Press before setting out on his own. He has since won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize as part of a team assigned by the New York Times to cover the war in Syria.

Photo by: Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times
Photo by: Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

Ponomarev took this shot in the Khalidiya district of Homs, Syria, in the summer of 2014, where an election campaign poster for Bashar al Assad hangs from a ruined shopping mall which never opened.

Melis Alemdar Melis Alemdar is a staff writer for TRT World. @preciseabandon

An election campaign poster for Bashar al Assad hangs from a ruined shopping mall, the only splash of colour on an otherwise grey building. It was the summer of 2014, and the Syrian regime leader’s campaign for “re-election” was underway despite the bitter conflict. Sergey Ponomarev’s lens captures the irony of that campaign in a stark, powerful shot. 

That's just one of the photos featured in a exhibition by Pulitzer Prize-winner photojournalist Ponomarev from two bodies of work: Assad’s Syria and The Exodus. Brought together as A Lens on Syria, the exhibition can be viewed free of charge at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in London until September 3. Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria is part of a larger-scale series of exhibitions at the IWM London called Syria: A Conflict Explored.

Ponomarev was allowed to shoot in government-controlled areas in Syria usually off-limits to foreign press in 2013 and 2014. Following his time in Syria, he spent 2015 and 2016 covering migrants seeking asylum in Europe.

The 36-year old spoke with TRT World about how he was allowed to document life in Syria’s government-controlled areas, the plight of refugees in Europe and what the future may hold for Syria and its citizens.

Your show at the IWM London is titled “A Lens on Syria”. How would you describe the vision of Assad’s Syria as seen through your lens?

SERGEY PONOMAREV: I was given a very unique but short opportunity by the government to go into government-controlled zones and document lives inside. It was like a visit to the shrinking bubble of governmental control. I made four trips in 2013 and 2014; each of them was only one week long.

Abu Hisham Abdel Karim and his family in the Khalidiya district of Homs, Syria, are one of many families displaced because of the war. (Sergey Ponomarev/ New York Times)

You worked as an Associated Press (AP) photographer before becoming a freelancer in 2012. What led you to decide to go freelance? Isn’t it more dangerous, not to mention more expensive?

SP: There were several reasons for that decision. Basically, I just wanted to pursue my career more as a photojournalist and storyteller, rather than being an agency staff photographer. And I saw that I had some possibilities to become a freelancer, besides [the fact that it’s] more risky. And I just did that.

How did the experience of working as a staff photographer prepare you for setting out on your own?

SP: AP taught me a lot. The workflow that AP used for captioning, editing images, and preparing and organising trips was very important to know, and helped me to become a successful freelancer. [In Russia, except for Western news agencies,] there’s nowhere else you could be taught those basics of photojournalism, ethics and digital workflow routine. So those eight years were very important for me.

Your first trip to Syria was in 2009 as a tourist. What was it like during that period? What caught your attention the most on your subsequent trips as a photojournalist?

SP: Well I just like the climate and heritage of that country. I had a lot of friends who were travelling to Syria just for weekends and some fashion photographers who were going there [to shoot fashion] with models, with a lot of equipment to shoot in the desert and it was safe and easy for them, you know.

And right now, it’s a no-go country, it’s very dangerous. Wars and politics destroyed a lot of very good relations between many countries ... It’s not safe to go there anymore. We lost a lot of heritage objects there as well. It’s so sad to see what’s happening there; you know it became a battleground for greater powers in the world.

Homeless children play on the streets in Homs, Syria in the summer of 2014. (Sergey Ponomarev/New York Times)

You were able to visit areas controlled by government forces that are usually not accessible to many from outside Syria. What can you tell us about this experience?

SP: Well this is why my story is unique: that I got this access and it was very good and I went along and met a lot of good people there. And they helped me and they trusted me and I tried to tell exactly what I saw, exactly what my eyes saw. I never visited rebel areas or those areas that were not controlled by the government. That was one of the key rules why I was allowed into government-[controlled zones] this year.

And so my general idea was that I can bring these images to the world and people can compare what’s happening inside the government [controlled zone] and outside the government-controlled zone. And by comparing they will have more understanding, rather than seeing news reports from just one side of the conflict. Generally saying I just wanted to show the other side so the reports from that war would be balanced.

You documented the destruction in Syria and how difficult life can be for residents. You also photographed people leaving Syria in search of safety and security. How do you view Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis?

SP: I think that the Netherlands is handling them and accommodating them much better than Germany is, for example. I’ve never been to Sweden but I heard that they’re doing well.

But you know, it’s a big shock for a government to cope and manage this crisis when you’ve got one million migrants knocking on your door. Some small Balkan countries didn’t manage to do anything for the refugees – they just moved them along their land, [on] to the next border.

And then, you know, it depends on people. Some people really need to understand that it’s not a summer camp and it’s not a hotel. That to live [in Europe] in a different environment, [which is] not [like the Middle East], they have to study and they have to learn a lot and struggle a lot. And those who are ready for that, those who understand that, they will be fine.

Refugees and migrants risk their lives to travel to Europe, whether on foot or by sea. Ponomarev shot this photo in the summer of 2015 in Lesbos, Greece as an inflatable dinghy arrived from Turkey. (Sergey Ponomarev/New York Times)

You were a member of the New York Times team that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography in 2016. Of the photos documenting the plight of refugees, you have said “the travel part is just the beginning,” and that you “want to follow this to the end. I want to cover what comes next, the political and social changes that this exodus will cause.” What do you think will come next?

SP: Yes, I’m doing that, I’m following the developments of this crisis in Europe, and I follow some families.

I believe that [some of the people] will decide to come back. Europe is providing travel for families [if they want to go] back to their countries, if they’re willing to do that. Some day [Syria], will be safe [enough to return to] but nobody knows when.

I follow several Syrian refugees and they all are willing to go back. They feel that they are having problems, they are having trouble connecting and having trouble living in Europe. It’s not easy for them there. They’re not used to the language, they’re not used to the rules, laws and they’re willing to go back. But they understand they cannot because of the war in their country.

Sergey Ponomarev’s solo exhibition A Lens on Syria is currently on display at the Imperial War Museum, London. (Courtesy of IWM)

In your Twitter description you call yourself “wanderlust king.” How do you choose where to go? How have your travels shaped you?

SP: Well I feel like I never had a home. I mean I have a home but I don’t have a home, at some point, because I’m spending most of the time travelling all around the world and many months there and many months here. So I’m not settled. I have my cameras and my suitcase and that’s all I travel with. And among my friends and colleagues, well we say “See you somewhere;” nobody knows where, when we say goodbye, we say “See you somewhere.”