Snow laced the edges of the buildings. The gutters and the ledges where the brickwork was jutting, sloping at angles into the deserted street. It was nighttime, Thursday. Tonight there was no gunfire. This meant that the wind and the clattering of a window frame were the only things to make a sound. Outside satellite dishes cluttered the rooftops, slanting upwards to the clamouring dark clouds. Inside a hotel room in the south of the city David Slater was going through the photographs on his digital camera. Images of the moon from a trip out of Homs where the landscape was barren and flat, hundred of miles to the north of the city, nearer Aleppo, where he absorbed a more peaceful and spacious Syria. The moon, larger than a plate, high above mountain ranges. These were photographs that he would have sold to travel magazines were it not for the political quagmire that the country was in. Image after image of dry rubble countryside, far removed from the urban detritus that he was here to actually photograph.
As a photojournalist Slater had travelled much of the world. Central Africa, South America, The Middle East. He had a portfolio of images collated from around the globe that his mind had blurred into cinematic sequences. The Venezuelan protests, armed conflict in The Democratic Republic of Congo, floods in Pakistan. His past was a global montage, fused and radiating energy, propelling him forwards into the here and now, into the icy cold atmosphere that hung around the city.
Homs was dangerous. Largely regime occupied. You had to run from one place to another to avoid sniper bullets, duck behind tyres stacked in the road. In many places buildings were connected through holes in their walls to avoid the need to go outside. Whole rows of abandoned homes connected in long strips where armed men both patrolled and wandered. Geneva was distant and soundless. It was the rebels, the army and the clashes between them that made the noise here. David was here to capture images and not sound. Not the engulfing volumous gunfire and shouting. He was here for photographs. He saw women with children in their arms, hurrying near their homes. He saw Arabic symbols spraypainted on walls. He saw dust climbing into the sky in the distance, grey and towering. He listened intently to the clicking of the shutter, a staccato punctuation amidst a deep symphony of gunfire. It was a risk to get cameras past army check points. Getting equipment out was risky. David might have been there for work but journalists were no safer than civilians. Death was as normal as life here. The streets a childs playground made out of rubble and hunks of brick.
In the wreckage of the street, walls were strewn with bulletholes and David’s shutter clicked repeatedly. He directed it towards five people in a group, walking. It was obvious that they were leaving their home, all together, all burdened. The chemistry of the moment somewhere off shot had propelled them to move. To pack their belongings and start their journey. A family, deeply attuned to one anothers needs. David watched them. They all bore their load as they stepped steadily up the street. He had seen countless images of families in need, of the origins of asylum, diaspora and movement. After a minute they stopped by a truck and the father lifted, first the bags and then the children into the back. He climbed up also, after his wife. They all sat and looked at one another, wordless.
Later that night he looked at the photograph of the Syrian family. He picked up on details that he had not seen at the time. A red flower on the girls dress, the sons carefully combed hair. The light from the screen of his camera shone in the dark of the evening. Outside, guns and the occasional explosion still sounded and flashes of light blinked into the dark sky. He thought of home. He thought of the unknowing opulence of London, hopeless and ignorant of the worlds state. London was a city that would never lose its people. The emptiness was the tragedy here. Streets that had loosened their grips on communities and families. Not for lack of caring but torn, wrestled from calm by the violence of terrorism and state corruption.
Slater knew the histories that coalesced beneath the surface of every contemporary war. Beirut, Iraq, Chechnya. None of it mattered here. The people didn’t need another history lesson, they needed food and space, they needed peace. They needed cars to stop being set alight and burning terrifyingly through the night. Neighbourhoods could no longer be called so in the Al-Shammas province, in the Al-Walid suburb. Districts were shadows of their former selves, history indeed.
The following morning another reporter was in the hotel bar. A mixture of western reporters and local businessmen milled around the foyer. David talked to the man who had introduced himself as Stewart Dresler.
‘Dialogue is happening,’ said Dresler.
‘Never’, he said. ‘Never enough. Look around, there is no sign of change. I have been here four times now. Things only deteriorate.’
‘You think things can change?’
‘That is the question. It may take years.’
‘There are people at every level working on it, here on the ground, at the United Nations Headquarters, nothing seems to take hold.’
‘It needs to happen here. The transformation,’ said David.
They both sipped on their coffees.
‘If I could get the word ceasefire to go viral here, I would.’ Dresler stood up and nodded at David before walking away towards the lift.
He called his wife, Selina. They talked about the children, about the house, about his forthcoming holiday before drifting into romantic talk. The way distance could be transcended by pushing a few numbers. He shut his eyes. They talked about their first meeting.
‘I like to think about what you thought at the time. I don’t want that to change. Don’t fill in the gaps, please.’
‘I’m not sure if I could. Not accurately’, she said.
He smiled at this.
‘It was instinct, she said.
‘There was a pause as the telephone beeped.
‘Remind me,’ he said.
‘I love you’.
The coins ran out on the payphone and a dial tone hummed in David’s ear.
David spoke to some people, Syrians. Every story here was a heroic one. The faces of the people he photographed bore narratives that he could only play a small part in. Grand and serious, candid and true. They had the austere and irremovable imprint of dictatorship shadowing every glance they could make. The people moved about the place with a proficiency, determined that the city was still theirs to use, theirs to function within. They ate frugally. Lemon and vine leaves and olives, all rationed. The regime had long installed road blocks and dug trenches, quelling the memory of uprising in Syria.
Many people were not siding with anybody any more, such was the disillusion. It was frequently a case of convincing whoever asked to keep yourself alive or to make sure your children weren’t kidnapped.
‘We want the place to be ours again,’ said a woman with a baby in her arms.
A child described how he had seen one of his friends die in a car blast. He said he was a martyr and was now in heaven. His face was impassive and emotionless as he described what he had seen. Normality might never exist again. He understood though, that the horrors of war only exist at a distance. In context people rationalise and adapt, become a part of the scene. When there is no way of resisting, you change. He observed the embattled people, citizens of mother earth, hardened and resilient to anything that could be thrown at them.
David walked on, towards a marketplace where fruit and vegetables were stacked in less abundance then they must have several years earlier. Sellers called out to him as he moved past. His camera hung aslant around his neck. For a short while he managed to block out the distant gunshots and believe he was in a city.
Homs was a place that the lens could not capture. It could not be contained. Possibly one of the most covered places on the face of the planet and still he felt it was misrepresented. Neither photography nor footage could translate the experience of being there. This was his job and it was futile. The chaos of factional confrontations, the raw energy spilling everywhere. The shouting and the smell. There was a confidence in the equipment that he used that should not exist here. A consolidation of things, people, movements into an image, disseminating a meaning to the world. He interrogated the role of the photographer. It was not so much a moral confrontation as a psychological conundrum. How could he make it work? The gutted shops, the bullet ridden buildings, the Mosque turned into a hospital. Every aspect seemed a mere component of a sprawling debris of significance.
Everything required attention.
David looked at his camera. A digital SLR that had been a trusty companion on his travels. There were scratches on its body and he had lost the lens cap. He looked and imagined the world being sucked into the camera through its glass.
He clicked the button on his camera and a final distillation of light was compacted into a photograph.
Brian Hartland sat back and removed his glasses after looking at the images, emailed to him in the middle of the night. There were enough to use for the lead article. He rang through to Leanne, asked her to come through to his office. She sat opposite him and he turned his screen so that they could both observe the photographs.
‘Strong,’ she said.
‘Some great images here.’
They looked at a Syrian child in the street, sun transparently glinting off the screen.
‘I hope he is safe.’
‘It looks tough.’
Brian sipped on his coffee.
‘There are some difficult ones. Bloodshed,’ he said.
‘In or out?’
‘Maybe one or two.’
The air conditioning whirred and the two of them looked at one another.
‘I’ll work on them.’
‘Remember we control the message. Nothing too overbearing.’
‘Clean,’ she said.
‘Change. Diplomacy. Possibility.’
‘All in our hands,’ he said.
‘A message to the nation,’ she said and stood up to leave.
Brian turned his computer screen back around and leaned back in his chair, his hand resting on his chin.
Homs, the title in large black capital letters. An eight page photo essay with nearly forty images from the city.
How did it read? Amidst the celebrity chatter and the television listings? Did it devolve into filler? Was it lacking punch? Questions that Richard Thacker asked himself as he leafed through the magazine on the Saturday afternoon of its release. He had known David for many years. Worked close by. It was his opinion that would be sought by Slater upon his return. He looked at the pages, slipstreamed into editorial layout. He always felt that glossy pages betrayed the agony of this kind of photography. He would prefer cardboard, or plastic bags. A cheapness that the people in the images would know. He flicked through the other pages. The horoscopes, the sport, before returning to the photography. They were enough to act as an intervention into his Saturday afternoon. An abrupt insertion of real life into his weekend. Richard missed David. He wanted to be there with him in the middle of the wild energies that he had previously known. He wanted to speak to him about the world, about photography, about truth.
David had travelled 160 kilometers to Damascus where he was due to fly from. The airport was cool. Large glass windows looked out over a runway. His camera was safely packed into his backpack. He walked, glanced at The New York Times that lay on a newsstand. It was the first Western news he had seen in weeks. Recovering economies and financial prospects between the US and China took the headlines. He went to a coffee bar where he stood and waited for his flight, drank a black coffee and stared out at the desparate cold that vibrated the image of the concrete outside. Syria already a mirage. Once on the plane Homs would begin to diminish in his mind. The details would shrink, the experience mute itself. He was still expecting gunshots to penetrate his sleep, explosions to rupture the flow of his thinking.
The airport buzzed and speakers echoed. As he moved towards the departures board David said goodbye to everything but the memory, everything but the photographs he had taken of the city of Homs.