Humans of Syria exposes life beyond the headlines and battle lines

Inspired by photo project Humans of New York, photographers in Syria remind us humanity still exists in war

Haneen, 5, eastern Ghouta, February 2015. Asked if she had her picture taken before, she replied, “Never. This is my first time.”
Courtesy Humans of Syria

Amid the grinding brutality of Syria’s civil war is an anonymous collective of photographers documenting stories of “survival, hardship and hope” to remind the world of the humanity that still exists in their beloved country.

The members of Humans of Syria, as they’re called, say that while the media focuses on the number of people killed, injured and displaced, they want to draw attention to how the war has affected individuals on the ground.

“The media always talks about Syrians as statistics,” Marvin, the collective’s coordinator, told Al Jazeera. “But we’re more than just numbers.”

Marvin, who uses a pseudonym for fear of reprisal, acknowledged that it’s important to keep a record of the growing devastation. Now in its fifth year, the war has killed an estimated 200,000 people, injured 1 million others and spurred the world’s largest refugee crisis, according to the United Nations.

However, she believes it’s important to present those figures in a context that keeps the true cost of the war from being lost on the public. “There are painters, photographers, writers, teachers, doctors,” she said. “There are a lot of people, civilians, doing good work, helping others.”

“We want to tell their stories,” she added. “Their daily lives, their accomplishments, their dreams. Everything.”

To that end, Marvin and a group of photographer friends launched Humans of Syria on March 14 of this year.

This is “a project to document and publish stories from beyond the battle lines, down to the details that make us human. Stories of daily life and survival, hardship and hope,” reads the group’s mission statement.

Akram Abo al-Foz, 36, Douma, December 2014. “In 2014, I got a hold of the first shell for my house. I was planning on choosing a corner to display some bullet casings and fragments of the shell — a witness to the era of the revolutions for the next generation to see,” he said.
Courtesy Humans of Syria

The collective started small and has grown to more than 30 professional photographers across Syria — in Damascus, Allepo, Idlib and Daraa and in the surrounding countryside. They work in government strongholds and in areas controlled by notorious armed groups, including the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Given how dangerous Syria has become for journalists, group members take extra precautions to report from the shadows and are constantly on the move.

But they never take photos on the run.

As with Humans of New York, the popular photo project on which the collective is modeled, the Syrian photographers take time to ask the people they photograph a few personal questions and publish their answers alongside the portraits.

Sometimes the stories people tell are simple and heartwarming, like that of 5-year-old Haneen, who took pride in the fact that everyone calls her “blue eyes.” Or 50-year-old Abu Hasan, who said he decided to wear a flower behind his ear to celebrate the arrival of spring. But more often than not, the stories are tragic. Moaz, 9, found that he can’t stop writing down the names of his imprisoned father and dead brother — both victims of the conflict.

Abu al-Ezz, 23, Daraya, April 2015. He said, “This library contains 11,000 books. Each book contains the owner’s name so it can be restored when he returns to the city.”
Courtesy Humans of Syria

Humans of Syria also documents longer, more in-depth and often inspirational stories. One photographer published a photo essay about a group of young men in Daraya, a besieged suburb of Damascus, who have collected thousands of books from destroyed homes to create a free public library. Each book is catalogued with the name of its owner. When families return to rebuild, they can reclaim their books.

Another essay documents the story of artist Akram Abu al-Foz, a 36-year-old Douma resident who paints traditional Middle Eastern patterns on bombshells and bullet casings in an attempt to “erase traces of sorrow” and transform symbols of violence into “a source of hope.”

Humans of Syria publishes its work on Facebook in English, Arabic and French. The group also collaborates with the Turkey-based magazine Souriatna, the website Syria Untold and independent radio station Radio Souriali.

Reaction to the project has so far been promising, Marvin said. When possible, she shares kind comments left on the photos with those pictured, who “get excited to see the real human connection.”

The photographers accept no payment for their efforts. The group is entirely self-funded and offers its portraits to the public and media for free.

“We aren’t looking to get paid for this,” Marvin said. “We do it to spread stories.”

“We want people around the world to think of us as people, as humans. To care about us as they do their brothers, sisters and mothers,” she said. “Maybe then they will help and things will begin to change.”

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