Author: Saeed Al Batal
I still remember—way back in the mists of the distant past—that warm feeling when I first picked up a camera. As though I was experiencing a prophecy that one day I would use this instrument until I wore it away to nothing. Back then I carried it like a sceptre; today I bear the camera like a shield. Today, I remember the first time I literally did this—bore it like a shield. I’ve forgotten many dates and events, but that day—June 26, 2012—stays engraved in my memory. At the end of a long and tiring day my feet led me, against my will almost, to the square: the square that the corpses of the massacre’s victims had found before me. There were no field hospitals, nor electricity… the corpses carpeted a pavement that led past what had once been a wedding hall. The assault on Douma was still raging and only the camera was in my hands. For the first few seconds I was stunned, unable to fix my eye on the scene: scattered gobbets of flesh and an acrid odour that left me dizzy. I dipped my gaze towards the camera’s screen. That day, for the first time, I hid behind the camera; I started engaging with reality through the screen, as though watching a movie from my plush armchair in my safe little hilltop hideaway. A horror film, about a monster or a natural disaster that had left dozens of victims of all types and ages in its wake."
"The photograph is the last line of defence against time and my defence against reality: my means of preserving my equilibrium, of sidestepping the question: What is it that you do? My lens is the shield that protects me, not from the dangers of detonations, shrapnel and bullets, but from the risk that I might start to think, to despair, to give in."
When I see a shattered building I convince myself that if I take a good enough picture of it, then maybe its collapse will be lent some existential meaning. Frequently I see myself as the lens that I carry. I am the martyr, shrouded on shoulders. I am the tree burning in the depths of winter. I am the child, ever laughing despite all the tragedy that dogs my heels. And now it’s a compulsion. If I feel some genuine urge to laugh it’s accompanied by sense that I must take a picture. Grieving at some bit of news, I grab my lens. I say goodbye to someone: I take his picture. I greet someone: I take his picture. When the roar of shelling grows louder, when the bullets fly thicker I take up my camera and run towards the massacre.I’ve started to see everything framed. I find it hard to grasp reality unless I put it in a frame. Maybe this will call for treatment later on. Is it a kind of madness? I can’t tell. But right now it’s the only thing that is shielding me from madness. Just as it was a massacre that started this habit, it was another massacre that fixed it in me for good.
The days went quickly by. I saw a lot and forgot a lot, until the experience that made everything that had gone before seem like a game. It was just before Eid Al Fitr that I learned what chemical weapons are. The experience was too extreme for me to say, “I memorized it” or tell you that it, “stuck in my mind”. For the first few moments I was completely paralyzed...then there was a half-remembered journey from Joubar to Douma, that took us through the city of Zamalka at three in the morning, with Zamalka like a city of ghosts. There was us stopping outside the building from which the scream had come. The pitch darkness that covered everything and made photography impossible. The quickening steps of my friend and I as we climbed the stairs. Knocking on a first floor door. No answer! Trying a second time, a third. The shoes outside the door, evidence that a family was in. A single kick not enough, nor two. The third breaking it down.
The glow of battery-powered lamps. At the end of the passage there was a foot stretched out. A woman’s foot, it looked like. A peaceful scene. A woman in her twenties sleeping peacefully on the bathroom floor and a man of roughly the same age sleeping by the bathtub, while a child of two or three bobbed in the bathwater. All efforts to wake them failed. With difficulty, I realised that they would never wake again.My friend’s voice saying I should get out quick. He’d started to think that the poison in the air might lay us two down asleep as well. The signs of dizziness plain to see on his face when I found him by the door. He was carrying a sleeping girl, who was, he said, still breathing.
Fragmented images that to this day I’m not brave enough to look at or to seriously consider summoning up. I’ll leave it to my old age, I tell myself, should I live so long. But what I remember well is discovering the extent of the catastrophe once we were back in Douma. Hundreds of people lay on the road outside a medical station while a pair of ambulances hosed them all down with water. We took the little girl inside. “She’s still breathing,” I told the doctor and was overcome by a sudden dizzy spell that almost toppled me over. A medic told me I mustn’t sleep, that if I slept, I wouldn’t wake up, and followed these words with a jab from a needle, then another, and another.
“You must wash thoroughly, burn your clothes and try not to sleep today,” he said, as if there were nothing simpler. It was then that I envied the dead. How at peace that happy sleeper seemed! Without thinking, I envied him—how relaxed he looked, how free of cares—and I knew for certain that no one escapes the massacre save the dead.
To keep ourselves awake we spent the time giving first aid. During those fraught hours I photographed nothing. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’d already seen cameras flocking round the tragedy. Maybe because I felt that to do so would be failing to face up to reality. This time, I told myself, I’ll face it naked and I won’t take a single picture. Until the rocket found us. Those were the first pictures taken in East Ghouta of the rocket with its cargo of disaster. The fundamental idea that I explored was that I had so few feelings: expertly protecting myself behind the shield; fending off emotion with the lens. There’s no room here to luxuriate in feelings, lest they sweep you away, to madness, maybe; most likely, to surrender.
Even so, that experience demonstrated to me that I was calmer and more balanced with the lens in my hand. My voice became firmer, my tone commanding: I even walked more decisively. I am the eye of the man who wants to understand what has happened and what is happening, which is why you will see me standing silently and moving calmly. I’ve got good at it, so much so that I almost fade to nothing when I hold my camera. There is so much to think about, so much to debate, and despair usually comes from too much thinking: thinking of those who have passed away and those who are on the same path; thinking of those who despaired and surrendered; thinking of a tomorrow shrouded in fog.
I wipe all the above from my mind and replace it with a simple response: When tomorrow comes I shall be here, my lens and I, waiting for it. Maybe my lens will capture it and I will be unable to bear it. I am careful to keep the camera’s memory card empty and its battery full. I sleep next to it. I am prepared for anything, and everything.
Saeed Al Batal is an activist and photographer from East Ghouta. This piece was written for Bidayyat as part of a series of articles on the Syrian revolution and its relationship with the image.