Humans are complex creatures. They love to live in the nostalgia of the past whilst worrying themselves about the uncertainties their lives hold; both individually and collectively. The same humans feel a plethora of emotions throughout their lives, with some remaining unlabeled till their graves and some so profound that they cause wars. Figuratively and literally. Through this complex cycle of life, death, existence and destruction our species try its best to preserve the good. Even if they have to bear the hypocritical burden of being evil when they are to be blamed for what goes wrong in this world. In these moments of preserving the good, we find photographs.
Every moment wherein we crave a sense of redemption is highlighted by the flash of a camera or polaroids being waxed on the floor. Weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, festivals, graduations, impromptu celebrations, toasts with people at their best in their brightest smiles is what photographs highlight. When we have so much guilt to make up for, these photographs elude what it is and what it could be. That is exactly what the world of photojournalism undertakes. It is the art of collecting, editing and presenting material through pictures that are structured in such a way that it tells a story. Photojournalism has many paradigms; from documentary photojournalism to broadcast, portrait and illustrative photojournalism. Amongst its facets, the most relevant kind which relates to human guilt is photojournalism in conflict areas, reflecting the fact we have a lot to answer for.
There are ethics to this art and its practice, which protects the interests of both the photographer and their subject. It takes extensive courage to look your subject in the eye, understand their loss and convey their vulnerability within a 10’ x 12’ print. Maintaining the dignity of the subject such that you never cross the line between expression and exploitation is what photojournalism in conflict regions is about.
In the demolished city of Saraqib, Syria, puppeteer Walid Rashed is followed by some children. In the middle of a near apocalypse, he makes a makeshift theatre out of thrown away cardboard and holds it up with two elongated remains of a supposed bombing. Children are children. What do you answer when they ask you if it's safe to play outside? Do you lie and say that it will get better? Or assert that the adults who are fighting this war are aware of its consequences and know best? There is also a hidden option. Create a diversion with a lion and a mouse, and let children be children. This option is often overlooked by the ones who caused that rubble in the first place.
Long ago, Afghanistan was the land wherein children used their Eidi to buy kites and later chase them. Women huddled in the souk near the communal tandoor, waiting for the next batch of naan. Today, celebrations amid ruins and celebrating the ruin sometimes end up overlapping. Especially for the young ones who have seen ruination as the only way of life. In the Afghan city of Jalalabad, children play with toy guns without knowing the weight those arms carry, even if it is under the pretext of harmless games. Such was the consequence that within these harmless games the innocent got hurt like always, and Afghanistan banned the sale of toy guns in 2015. Does banning toy guns help in reducing the fire that the real ones ignite?
At the age of nineteen, you try to gain that freedom you have always wanted and may even rebel. At nineteen, one sneaks out of their house in the middle of the night with their friends in a rusty-old car only to drive to the lakeside and inhale all the nicotine they can in one night. To feel infinite is being nineteen. Photojournalist Anush Babajanyan documented the civilian loss of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. In an interview with The Calvert Magazine, she remembers visiting families who lost their loved ones to the war. The photograph of David Uzunyan in his army gear sits proudly over an old Sony Digital Audio Video Center. At nineteen he breathed his last and now has a vase of flowers next to him in mourning.
Standard characteristics of a person’s midlife include paying the bills on time, dealing with noisy neighbours, disciplining your kids (if you choose to have them), waking up early in the morning, cleaning your house every day and not getting meals delivered every day of the week. Pulitzer Prize recipient photojournalist Danish Siddiqui covered the victims of conflict in depth. Across the Bay of Bengal, in Shah Porir Dwip, a number of Rohingya refugees arrive in a boat of hope. Their soul has seen better days. As evident, under an imagined order people are not born and considered equal, which results in them being known as stateless in the same land that they were born into. The trauma of conflict will always be the most horrific for the vulnerable communities as opposed to the people in power who one day wake up to declare that a community is now stateless. Instead of wondering about the monotony of midlife, Rohingya refugees cross borders to escape the cruelty of their homes which were meant to keep them safe. It is ironic that touching the shore of a land unknown and erasing where you came from feels relieving.
Humans are complex creatures. They hold onto abstracts of hope which are strongly supported by their faith in humans. Tranquillity is the term one may use to describe the aura of Armenia. Summer mornings would consist of soaking the sun and sipping on a blend of wild thyme and mint. For Yury Melkonyan, this was the routine until the military conflict in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh resulted in the destruction of his home. When you are old and waiting for the final signs to let go, you still have faith in this world. You appreciate the muse that emotions around and within you are trying to convey. So when the home which you built up during your life becomes a place where dreams are buried, you realise that your faith is misplaced. But faith usually is.
Things, people, forces intersect, change shapes and move on. What remains is their representation of vulnerability through photographs. In reality, photographs are the only thing that conveys all the truth in this world. Whether it may be a happy occasion or the horrors of a conflict region - photographs have never lied. They continue to preserve all the good that remains in people, which often gets lost as they move through life. Reflecting; the only way to return a lost childhood, midlife and a peaceful retirement is for the institutions in power to do better. War has and never will benefit anyone. When the complexity of our species realises this, we will find a way to be good again.
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