Using Instagram to filter out images of conflict in Syria

Syrian artist Adnan Samman is using social media to remind the world of the overlooked beauty of his homeland

A 2007 picture of the Happy Land amusement park in Damascus. Courtesy of Adnan Samman
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If you search for images of Idlib or Aleppo on Google, you will get depictions of violence and destruction. For the past eight years, news of the conflict in Syria has become routine, obliterating the hidden beauty of an entire nation and the complex diversity of its people.

This dichotomy is at the root of the Syria Before 2011 project, an Instagram account launched by Adnan Samman, 26, a Syrian artist and architecture student. The account, which has more than 5,500 followers, was created last year and is dedicated to showing images of life in pre-war Syria. The majority of the pictures posted were taken by tourists and travellers looking for beauty in a foreign land. Samman has been collecting these images since 2015, when he stumbled upon an online black-and-white photo album made by a foreign traveller only months before the conflict began in 2011.

"When I saw the pictures they stirred up something in me," Samman tells The National. "They created a space to which I could go back and remember Syria in a good light."

As he collected images, Samman says he felt the urge to share them with the world and that was how Syria Before 2011 was born. Samman is an architecture graduate student in the Research Centre at the Central European University in Budapest. His work focuses on Syria's future and rebuilding the nation. Conversely, his visual artwork, which comprises colourful Pop Art-inspired collages, often using Arabic calligraphy and imagery, is geared towards Syria's past and is shrouded in bittersweet nostalgia. 

Samman's Instagram project is no exception. It is a window into Syria's past that has allowed many people to reconnect with their country and sometimes even spot familiar faces. On several occasions people have recognised friends, family or acquaintances from the pictures Samman has shared. "I once received a message from someone who had seen a photo of a fatayer seller on the streets of Damascus," he says. "They told me the man was alive and well. He is still selling pastries in the capital today."

But for Samman, the account is also a deeply personal project. He lived in Syria for the first 10 years of his life before moving to Saudi Arabia with his parents. "I would only go back during the summer," he says, recalling his teenage days. "I feel like my view of Syria is similar to that of the tourists whose pictures I share because I only went back home on holiday and now, I mostly feel like an outsider in my own country."

Samman last visited his home town of Hama nine years ago. The western city was at the heart of the 2011 uprisings that shook the country. Today, it has fallen back into the hands of the regime. "I remember one of my last nights in Syria," he says in a caption to an image he posted of Hama's striped arcades. "My father and I were walking there and I was very fascinated; I stopped and kissed a random wall. My father smiled and I felt very stupid, but I couldn't hold [back] my love that night. Neither of us knew that was the last time we'd see Hama."

The pictures shared on Syria Before 2011 are chiefly prosaic. They are random snippets of people's everyday lives, such as a man fishing on the shores of Latakia, or a boy selling bread in Deir Ezzor. For Samman, the images he posts represent a safe space in times of strife.

For example one particular post features a picture of two young men in 2009. One of the men is seen showing off a tattoo on his chest while the other stands behind him, a slight smile on his face, against the backdrop of Idlib's lush, verdant countryside. Since April this year, the north-western province has been at the mercy of regime and Russian shelling.

"I often catch myself looking at these pictures and wondering if those who have been photographed are still alive, still in Syria," Samman says. "I wonder what they have become."

By sharing those pictures, Samman wishes to put a human face to the crisis in his homeland. Syrians, he says, come from a wonderful country that they did not wish to leave. Because of the conflict, about 25 per cent of Syrians – more than 5.5 million people – have been forced to seek refuge abroad and more than six million Syrians are internally displaced. Samman says he has experienced the hardships of exile first-hand. 

While the artist lives in Budapest, he spent six years in Amman where his family are. His experience in Jordan was positive overall, although authorities have imposed some restrictions on Syrian nationals. "I was offered a very good job in Amman before moving to Europe, and I wanted to stay," he says. But he says that when he applied for a work permit in the kingdom, he was told by authorities that he, as a Syrian, could only receive a permit to work as a rubbish collector.

Foreigners are allowed to work in limited fields in Jordan, provided they have the proper documents, but only 45 per cent of Syrian men of working age and four per cent of Syrian women have managed to secure permits, the UN refugee agency says.

Obtaining travel documents is also difficult for Syrians and citizens can only obtain a visa on arrival in a handful of countries. Samman has participated in exhibitions from London to Dubai, Cairo to Antwerp and Santa Fe, but he was never able to attend personally, except for a show in Amman. 

When he left for Europe, the artist says he faced another set of challenges. "Many Europeans believe Syrians are violent people, that war is in our blood. This is how I was made to feel," he says.

"I would like to reverse this by creating a counter trend to show people that my country is not a land of barbarians. We are not violent, our people are not terrorists or backwards. There is beauty in Syria."

Every picture posted on Syria Before 2011 tells a story but some are more contentious than others. By documenting Syrian life before the war, Samman has shared images that feature portraits of President Bashar Al Assad, whose face was plastered all over the country. This has sparked debate among Instagram users between those who support Assad and those who view him as a brutal dictator.

The images hark back to a time of stability and order for those who feel nostalgic for the old days of the regime in Syria, but for others they are an ominous warning of what may come after the conflict is over, especially as the regime is regaining most of the territory it lost.
However, the artist says he doesn't want his online audience longing for a glorified past. "This is one of the things I wish to convey in my project, a romanticised, overly emotional image of Syria," he says. "I do not wish for people to long for the days when the regime was unchallenged."

The artist is currently working on illustrations for a book that will be published by the Arab World Institute in Paris. In the meantime, he says he has not stopped sharing images of his country with fellow Instagram users. He says his dream is to transform the content on Syria Before 2011 into a book.

Despite dedicating his work as an artist and architecture student to Syria, Samman says he cannot go back home. "I would love to visit Syria once this is all over, but for now, it is impossible," he says.

The conflict has prevented most Syrians who have fled, from visiting even the relatively stable areas held by the regime. Syrian men over the age of 18 are forced to join the regime forces and are sent to the front lines to fight. Human rights organisations have also found that many of those who go back are jailed, go missing or are even killed.

But Samman says he still has faith. "I hope Syria will one day become a country I can go back to."