Pulitzer and The Syrian Conflict

A Syrian man cries while holding the body of his son near Dar El Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 3, 2012. The boy was killed by the Syrian army. (Manu Brabo, Associated Press - October 3, 2012)
A Syrian man cries while holding the body of his son near Dar El Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 3, 2012. The boy was killed by the Syrian army. (Manu Brabo, Associated Press – October 3, 2012)

A photo of a father holding his dead bloody son squatting down and crying is displayed alongside 19 other photos featuring Arabic men and women with blood on their bodies and weapons in their hands. On April 15th, 2013 the Associated Press was awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize in the “Breaking News” category for those photographs of the Syrian conflict taken by five of their photographers (Ap.org, 2013). For the “Featured Photography” category Javier Monzano was awarded the Pulitzer for his incredible photo, also taken during the Syrian conflict, of “two Syrian rebel soldiers tensely guarding their position as beams of light stream through bullet holes in a nearby metal wall” (Pulitzer.org, 2013). These incredible yet tragic photographs of war torn Syria received such high recognition, not only because of their technical perfection, but also because they showed the harsh realities of the Syrian conflict. Such graphic images can incite a wide range of emotion inside the viewers that enables them to experience the photo in a real way.

The purpose of awarding photographers the Pulitzer is to recognize photographers who have excelled in professional photojournalism in the previous year. Interestingly, the winners for the only two photography categories were photos from the Syrian war. Another interesting thing about the award is that for “Breaking News” five photographers won, all from the Associated Press, instead of the typical one (Knight, 2013). By awarding those photographers the Pulitzer, it greatly helped bring those photos more into the public spotlight and allow more people see their message. The message, or story, being depicted in each photo can have profound impact on the way the viewer perceives the conflict as a whole.

It can be very easy for a viewer of the photos to simply admire the content of the image and the amazing moment that was captured without giving thought to why those photos are there before them. These photos have been published in newspapers all around the world along side articles about the Syrian conflict. When seen within that context it gives the photo great meaning. The news article also reinforces what the photo is depicting, which also has a great influence on how the photo is perceived. With the Columbia University awarding these photos the Pulitzer, it brings them into a whole different context. They are telling the world these are incredible photos that deserve to be viewed, studied and recognized. This recognition not only brings attention to the photographers’ skills, but also the content of the images, the violent and tragic situation in Syria. When seeing these photos within the context of award winning instead of a news story, it completely changes their meaning, the focus shifts from the suffering seen in them to the photographers ability to capture that suffering.

Though each photo was taken in Syria during an uprising against the government, each one shows a very different perspective of that same conflict. The 21 photos depict people with blood on their clothes crying, kids holding guns, snipers aiming their guns through holes in walls, and people who have been killed or on the verge of death. The ugly and horrific conflict that was captured in these photos is very controversial which would therefore make the photos controversial as well. Also, the country of Syria, did not want reporters there taking photographs of the conflict, they routinely picked up media people and made them leave the country. To capture these images repeated trips had to be made into the war zone, without permission or protection from the government, with the dangers of shelling, bombs and flying bullets (Ap.org, 2013). Both sides of the conflict were also guilty of threatening, kidnapping, and even killing journalists (Wood, 2013). The risk involved in being able to capture such photos was very high and undoubtedly that was taken into consideration when deciding who should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

The message that all the photos appear to be clearly stating is that war is ugly. It causes so much suffering and pain, emotional and physical. The photo of an adolescent boy named Ahmed crying at his father’s funeral by Rodrigo Abd show so well how the death toll from the war is devastating families. When viewed closely tears can be seen streaming down his cheek as an older man lays his hand on his head. This photo along with all others brings a lot of attention to the tragedy of the Syrian conflict.

The war in Syria initially started as protests in March of 2011, against the President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime. The internal Red Cross declared what was happening a civil war. As hundreds of thousands or people were fleeing the country and the death toll climbing higher than 100,000 people, the international community grew alarmed at the situation (Cbc.ca, 2013). The war in many ways can be seen as a normal consequence of a group of people deciding to rise up against their government to pursue their own interests. When considering the Conflict Theory, it states that the pursuit of interests creates a variety of types of conflicts which are normal aspects of social life and not abnormal or dysfunctional (Gordon, 1998). New agencies wanted to report on the civil war, so photographers began risking their lives by going to a country that is very hostile towards media personal to document the violence happening there. Because of the fact that the United States is not in any war on its homeland, the images coming from Syria were shocking and tragic. People began to immediately choose sides and the photos had a huge impact on that reaction.

Upon close inspection each photo reveals intimate and intriguing details not only about the conflict in Syria, but about human conflict in general. People all over the world experience extreme tragedy and suffering in their lives, to capture such moments vividly in a photograph is an incredible feat. Perhaps that was the aim of the Pulitzer Prize this year, to bring attention to human suffering that is happening in other parts of the world that are far from the United States.

An analysis of five of the 20 photos by the five Associated Press photographers awarded in the “Breaking News” category and the one photo awarded in the “Featured Photography” category will reveal a lot about the message of images. Each of the awarded photographs were very carefully composed by the photographer to further enhance the story of the photo. When considering the photographer’s composition, exposure, angle and technique the message of the photo, the message will be less about what subject is and more about what the photographer is trying to say. The photographer’s perspective of the civil war could have a huge impact on how the viewers of the images will also view the war. Also, because photos in journalism are metonyms, which mean they are small representations of the whole, they never truly give the whole picture (Perlmutter, 2003).

The one photo awarded in the “Featured Photography” category is described as “two Syrian rebel soldiers tensely guarding their position as beams of light stream through bullet holes in a nearby metal wall” on Pulitzer.org. Mexican free-lance photographer Javier Manzano took this photo in Karmel Jabl (Pulitzer.org, 2013). The photo shows two Syrian Free Army snipers inside of a dark room with beems of light shinning through holes made from bullets and shrapnel. One is holding his rifle aiming through a medium sized hole in the wall while another sits behind him.

Two rebel soldiers stand guard in the Karmel Jabl neighborhood of Aleppo as over a dozen holes made by bullets and shrapnel peppered the tin wall behind them - Javier Manzano (2013)
Two rebel soldiers stand guard in the Karmel Jabl neighborhood of Aleppo as over a dozen holes made by bullets and shrapnel peppered the tin wall behind them – Javier Manzano (2013)

The intenseness of the war can be clearly seen in this photo. The bullet holes in the wall are evidence of the fighting and warring that is happening outside of this building. Small amounts of light illuminate their eyeballs as they gaze through the hole watching for the enemy. Syria’s civil war is characterized by a lot of sniper type attacks. This photo shows very well how the war looked like from the perspective the Free Syria Army, who are the ones rebelling against the government there. The angle the photographer used was eye level with the snipers. By bring the camera eye level with snipers the view can get down with them, almost like they are sitting next to them in scene. It creates a very personable and close experience for viewer (Kodak.com, 2013). With the photo taken at eye level and very close to the faces it is easy to sympathize with the snipers since viewer is on the ground with them. This sympathy can be used by the media to gain support for the Free Syria Army if it so chose to do so.

On Pulitzer.org from “Breaking News”, one of Manu Barbo’s photographs, the one featured at the beginning of this article, is described as “A Syrian man cries while holding the body of his son near Dar El Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 3, 2012. The boy was killed by the Syrian army.”

This photo was also taken at eye level and close to the ground, very close to the father. At Thenational.ae when Manu Barbo was asked about the way he gets close to his subjects, he replied “I’m close because I try to coexist as much as possible with the people I photograph – to be inside the story, to live it, enjoy it or suffer it.” With this angle it is easy to see the boys bloodied body and the face of the grieving father. His loss becomes shared with the viewer, even if on a superficial level. The conflict quickly appears closer to home because how it invokes the pain associated with losing a child. This type of imagery is very convincing of how evil the other side is.

Another photo from the “Breaking News” category on Pulitzer.org captured by AP photographer Rodrigo Abd is described as “A man teaches Bilal, 11, how to use a toy rocket propelled grenade in Idlib, northern Syria, March 4, 2012.”

A man teaches Bilal, 11, how to use a toy rocket propelled grenade in Idlib, northern Syria, March 4, 2012. (Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press - March 4, 2012)
A man teaches Bilal, 11, how to use a toy rocket propelled grenade in Idlib, northern Syria, March 4, 2012. (Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press – March 4, 2012)

This photo gives a very different perspective of the war compared to other photos that were awarded the Pulitzer. Instead of showing violence it shows a father with is son, teaching him violence. It is disturbing seeing a boy play with a toy gun that is actually commonly used to kill people around him. The smile on father’s face makes it look as if she is proud of his son. The stance of the boy makes him appear proud and strong, ready fight and kill. This behind the scenes image allows the viewer to see how people are responding to the war when not in combat. The kind tragedy seen in this photo is different from the others, the boy doesn’t seem to be playing with a toy as much as he appears to be getting prepared to fight.

A third photo from the Breaking News” category which is described as “Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, June 12, 2012.” was taken by Khalil Hamra.

Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, June 12, 2012. (Khalil Hamra, Associated Press - June 12, 2012)
Free Syrian Army fighters sit in a house on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, June 12, 2012. (Khalil Hamra, Associated Press – June 12, 2012)

The focus of this perfectly composed photo is to show the Free Syria Army soldiers in their down time. Again, this photo is down at eye level to reinforce that personal level. Also the way the soldiers are lounging around, looking a computer, smoking a cigaret and the tv being on with a an empty Pepsi bottle makes it almost feel like home. The guns on the wall and the military uniforms immedately remove that familiarity. Within this photo major conflicts are happening between familiarity and foreign, safety and at war, resting and fighting. Those conflict happening within the photo help the viewer identify with conflict that is happening within lives of those men.

Narciso Contreras’ photo “A wounded Syrian civilian lies in the street with a shot to his stomach as he tries to escape the line of fire after he was targeted by a Syrian army sniper while walking near the frontline in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 20, 2012.” was also in the group of winners.

A wounded Syrian civilian lies in the street with a shot to his stomach as he tries to escape the line of fire after he was targeted by a Syrian army sniper while walking near the frontline in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 20, 2012. (Narciso Contreras, Associated Press - October 20, 2012)
A wounded Syrian civilian lies in the street with a shot to his stomach as he tries to escape the line of fire after he was targeted by a Syrian army sniper while walking near the frontline in the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, Oct. 20, 2012. (Narciso Contreras, Associated Press – October 20, 2012)

In an intreview Narciso Contreras said, “my time is spent photographing the situation faced by civilians in Aleppo, how they cope with hardly anything and how they deal with their tragedy” (Powell, 2012). He chose to focus his photography on the plight of the civilians.

Many of his photos focus on how the conflict impacts those not directly involved. His photo shows a wounded man laying a street full of debris. The emptiness of the streets adds an errie feel to the photo. It shows the fear people are living in. No one wants to step into the street like that man and did and get shot. The emptiness captured in the background of the wounded man represent the fear the civilians are living in Syria. By using such empty space, the photographer helped people feel the fear that not just what man must be feeling, but what everyone there is feeling.

Lastly, is the only photo in “Breaking News” category by Muhammed Muheisen it is described as “Abdullah Ahmed, 10, who suffered burns in a Syrian government airstrike and fled his home with his family, stands outside their tent at a camp for displaced Syrians in the village of Atmeh, Syria, Dec. 11.” This photo of a young boy wrapped in bandages all over his body in a refugee camp show the plight of those fleeing Syria to avoid the war. The photography very effectively used the background to frame the boy that literally told his story. The tents set up on undeveloped land with families walking around tell the viewer where he is and that his story is part of a larger one. Also, the angle from where the photo is taken reinforces his situation. Since the angle is not at eye level but instead at the level that an adult would be looking at him reminds the viewer of his place. That he is a child, a helpless child that has suffered greatly from the devastation of war.

Abdullah Ahmed, 10, who suffered burns in a Syrian government airstrike and fled his home with his family, stands outside their tent at a camp for displaced Syrians in the village of Atmeh, Syria, Dec. 11, 2012. (Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press - December 11, 2012)
Abdullah Ahmed, 10, who suffered burns in a Syrian government airstrike and fled his home with his family, stands outside their tent at a camp for displaced Syrians in the village of Atmeh, Syria, Dec. 11, 2012. (Muhammed Muheisen, Associated Press – December 11, 2012)

These interesting and tragic photos of the Syrian conflict along with 15 more photos depict the war in such away as to influence the viewer to feel and see what the photographer saw. All the photos appear to be biased against the war, which would appear to be a natural bias, mainly because of all the suffering that results from it. The Free Syria Army are the ones who started the war by rising up against the government of Syria. Assad’s regime responded with great force. That conflict is what is causing so much pain to the people who are near it.

By the photographers risking their lives and taking those photos the war become more real than a newspaper headline. When Columbia University awarded them the Pulitzer Prize, that recognition told the public that those photos deserve attention, which in turn brought more attention to the civil war. It would appear that the Pulitzer selection board preferred photos that depicted conflict within a conflict. This recognition acknowledges the suffering that people are experiencing in Syria.

Citations

Ap.org (2013). AP wins Pulitzer for Syria photos; is finalist for Syria reporting. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.ap.org/content/press-release/2013/ap-wins-pulitzer-for-syria-photos-is-finalist-for-syria-reporting [Accessed: 10 Dec 2013].

Cbc.ca (2013). Syria’s civil war: key facts, important players – CBCNews.ca. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/syria-dashboard/ [Accessed: 10 Dec 2013].

Gordon Marshall. “conflict theory.” A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Retrieved December 14, 2013 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O88-conflicttheory.html

Knight, C. (2013). And the 2013 Pulitzer Prize Winners for Photography Are…(NSFW) | Fstoppers. [online] Retrieved from: http://fstoppers.com/and-the-2013-pulitzer-prize-winners-for-photography-are-nsfw [Accessed: 16 Dec 2013].

Kodak.com (2013). Top 10 Tips for Great Pictures. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.kodak.com/eknec/PageQuerier.jhtml?pq-path=10032&pq-locale=en_US&_requestid=6569 [Accessed: 12 Dec 2013].

Perlmutter, D. (2003). Wisdom We Can Teach from Images of War. Education Digest, 69 (2), p20-24. doi:11143489.

The National (2012). AP photographer Manu Brabo talks about his time in Syria and covering conflicts -. [online] Retrieved from: http://blogs.thenational.ae/photography/national-view/interview-manu-brabo-photographer-aleppo-syria#1 [Accessed: 09 Dec 2013].

Powell, J. (2012). The Syrian conflict: a war photographer’s story. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/photography-blog/2012/dec/14/syrian-conflict-war-photographer-narciso-contreras [Accessed: 11 Dec 2013].

Wood, P. (2013). Attacks on the Press: On Syria’s Front Lines, Dangers from All Sides – Committee to Protect Journalists. [online] Retrieved from: http://cpj.org/2013/02/attacks-on-the-press-on-syrias-front-lines.php [Accessed: 10 Dec 2013].

Pulitzer.org (2013). The Pulitzer Prizes | Awards. [online] Retrieved from: http://www.pulitzer.org/awards/2013 [Accessed: 10 Dec 2013].

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