An interview with photographer John Wreford about his life in Syria, what brought him there and where he finds himself now.
MK: What first brought you to Syria?
JW: For some time I had developed an interest in the Middle East. My first trip outside of Europe was to Egypt just as the first Gulf War was getting started and I soon realized how little I understood of the political situation that was unfolding. I was backpacking and enjoying my photography just for fun but the conversations with other travelers and with locals were inspiring and just whetted my appetite for more. Back in the UK I read and studied as much about the Middle East as I could. Fascinated, I soon headed back. I didn’t have this common desire to just travel the world ticking off countries. I wanted to really learn and understand more about the few that I was interested in. I would often return to places I had previously been to. First Egypt but then Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, and then Syria. All this time I had been working full-time as a darkroom technician and my trips were often short as part of my holiday allocation which I sometimes was able to extend unpaid. By 2003 I had decided it was time for a big change.
MK: What kind of change?
JW: My photography was becoming more important to me. Opportunities were happening and I wasn’t in a position to take advantage of them. The digital revolution had started so my work needed to evolve in some way. I made the decision to go freelance and base myself in the Middle East; taking advantage of digital technology to be able to live and work away. The plan – a not very well thought out one – was to travel for a while then settle somewhere sensible like Beirut or Cairo perhaps. I chose Syria simply as a starting point.
MK: Why Syria?
My recent visits there had been the most pleasant; the people I had met there the most genuine. It seemed the obvious choice as a starting point although I thought long term it would not be a sensible place, mainly in regard to making a living. That was the spring of 2003 and the beginning of another Gulf War – this time the horrible and needless invasion of Iraq. Being in Syria at that time was a clever move. Most journalists interested in the region were heading to Iraq but I was able to cover the resulting influx of refugees into Syria. Very quickly I found rewarding work and as the political situation unfolded in the region and in Syria, I found myself in the right place at the right time. I felt when I was planning to leave the UK, that it was an important time in the history of the Middle East and the time I subsequently spent in Syria proved to be no less important.
MK: Syria has always been a country that I wanted to visit. Now I am not sure if I will ever have a chance to visit. How has living in Syria changed your life?
JW: I think for everyone who spends a significant period of time travelling or living in a different environment to what is familiar to them must change in some way and surely that’s part of the reason we travel. As a traveller, I think I became more self-aware, gained more knowledge and self-confidence after living for a while outside of my country. I think I was able to see my culture and country with a fresh perspective. My original motivation was to learn about the word I lived in and I feel to some extent I have. I like to think I have adopted more sociable habits and become more hospitable. Something that was more complicated at home. In the UK I had already been trying to come to terms with materialism and wanted to live a simpler life. I was able to do that. I think these things are usual for travellers or ex-pats that decide to live away from home, at least in certain places.
MK: What are you thoughts on the war?
JW: The war had a big impact and this is something I am still very much coming to terms with. I made a conscious decision to live where I did and stay even when it was advisable to leave. The consequences of my actions are entirely my doing so its important that I point out that for all Syrians, they had little choice in what happened whereas I had all the advantage of my nationality. For this reason, I try not to talk about how the war affected me or try to draw too much attention to my personal situation rather than those who have suffered immeasurably. But I do feel there has been some positive effect on me personally – the simple fact of finding out what is important in life and a simpler way to live it.
MK: You said in one of your interviews that ‘Syria was not a love affair but a fascination.’ I am curious about this fascination. Could you please explain what you meant by this?
JW: Many people say since I had lived in Syria for so long that I must have been in love with it but I felt it only fair to explain that because of my work and my interest in the Middle East my life there was often quite extraordinary. As a photographer, I was at times permitted access to places and people otherwise off-limits. I was able to see a side of Syria often unseen. So, despite the issues of living in a country with lots of problems for me it was fascinating. Needless to say, I do have a huge affection for the country and its now long-suffering people.
MK: Could you share with me the details of a moment in your life in Syria that you thought was extraordinary?
JW: Being privileged to live in Syria for so long was extraordinary enough. My work gave me access to people, places, and situations that others rarely have the chance to experience. When I look back there are so many moments that at the time seemed normal but now seem incredible like simple conversations with people who had remarkable stories. One dramatic moment that always comes to mind was sitting down with a member of the undercover security services to discuss being smuggled out of the country. This was pretty extraordinary.
MK: Has the focus of your photography changed in any way now that you have made a new temporary home in Sofia?
JW: Over the last couple of years, I have started to give more attention to more visually appealing subjects that are less political and more cultural. I am also working on writing more and find some satisfaction in completing projects that involve images and text and not just my images to fit somebody else’s narrative. I am trying to spend more time shooting images for myself rather than potential publishers.
MK: Do you plan to return to Syria?
JW: At the moment I have no real intention to return but my house does mean I still have a foot in the country. I do want to return out of curiosity but have no desire to live there at this time. I have friends still there and currently friends visiting and updating me on the situation. Damascus is reasonably safe now compared to the recent past and life is beginning to return to some normality but the political situation is far from simple; something just now I am happy not to be a part of. I have distanced myself in some ways from the situation but do still follow events. While there is normality there is little happiness in a broken country.
MK: Do you think that there is a difference between East and West when it comes to the relationship people have with photography? How did the people you encounter react to being photographed?
JW: There is a perception that people in the Middle East are difficult to photograph. This is a generalization. The circumstances are important to consider, I think anyone going about his daily routine has a tendency to react negatively when a camera is rudely pointed at them. Anyone is much more cooperative when the situation is dealt with positively and politely. In this regard everywhere is the same. The perception also is that the Middle East is religious, conservative, and Muslim which it’s not – that is only one aspect of it. Syria, for example, is made up of around 15 or more different religions and ethnic identities. Those classified in the media and by academics as Muslims are not considering those that are secular. The conservative and often older conservative can be reluctant to be photographed for whatever reason but that can be the same for Christians and Jews as much as Muslims. Then again even the conservative will agree to be photographed if the reason is in their favor so it depends on the situation and circumstances. Conservative Muslims in Syria are a small minority. Many Muslim women, for example, do not cover their hair or face and dress as any woman in Europe does. A young Syrian uncovered woman dressed in jeans and a t-shirt is just as likely to refuse to have her picture taken out of shyness and insecurity as a poor conservative Muslim refugee is to accept having her picture taken simply to show others of her situation. It’s a complex situation but in the end, it’s not really any different than anywhere else and depends how as a photographer you approach the situation.
MK: Are their certain photographic stories you are drawn to telling more than others? And what in your opinion makes a satisfying photo essay?
JW: I think its simply the human condition, to tell those stories that are compelling and are led by interesting characters. Not so much the dramatic but the ordinary and yet somehow extraordinary. Compelling images telling a compelling story. The images have to draw the viewer in to learn the story.
MK: You have dealt with a lot of unknowns. How do you find a sense of normal when facing the unknown?
JW: I have no idea now what is normal. We all face the future and for all of us, it is unknown. We learn to deal with whatever life throws at us step by step dramatic or not. The war began slowly and step by step I learned how to cope and deal with life as it unfolded. Once in the situation, you have little option but to deal with it. My work gives me satisfaction. I like to share the stories I find and this brings me peace. Dealing with the turmoil of life and the daily chaos of existence brings emotional challenges for everyone and we all find different ways to deal with it. Nature recently has offered me some sense of normal.
MK: Do you have a favourite author or book that inspires you?
JW: Inspiration for me really does come from many places, the urge to travel partly came from reading Graham Greene and Wilfred Thesiger. I love George Orwell too. Photographers such as Henri Cartier Bresson and Will Ronis inspired me when I was young. The movies of Abbas Kiarostami and Nuri Bilge Ceylan have also always been an inspiration but I don’t think one specific book or author.
John Wreford is a freelance editorial photographer currently based in Bulgaria. Mostly focusing his lens on the Middle East, Turkey and North Africa, his client have included Geo Magazine, The New York Times, The FT, UN and the European Investment Bank.
MK: I love the movies of Nuri Bilge Ceylan as well!
* Image featured above is called Abu Diab from a project about the pigeon keepers of Syria. Photograph by John Wreford