How a Syrian photographer and a rapper are documenting a Syria under siege

Tim Alsiofi tells us how his photography in new book ‘Yours Truly, From Idlib’ documents day-to-day life in Syria

A young boy selling gasoline in Douma. Courtesy of Tim Alsiofi.
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Last summer, Tim ­Alsiofi saw a lake for the first time in almost 10 years. It was Eid Al Fitr, and Alsiofi and some friends travelled from Idlib into the Aleppan countryside, where they spent the day swimming, playing in the lake and learning to fish. After seven years of war, much of it spent trapped in besieged Ghouta, some of the children had never before seen a lake.

Alsiofi's photographs of his friends and their children frolicking in the water open Yours Truly, From Idlib, a photography book capturing the joys and sorrows of daily life in a war zone. In a publication produced in English, Arabic and German by the Heinrich Boll Foundation in Beirut, Alsiofi shares stories from his years living in besieged Ghouta and from Idlib, where he was forcibly displaced last spring.

'These are the pictures and this is the history you made'

Alsiofi was 18 when the ­Syrian uprising began in 2011. He was studying sound engineering and music at an institute near his home in Ghouta, but as protests turned violent and the conflict began to worsen, he was forced to abandon his studies. Two years later, he found a new direction.

"In 2013, Ghouta was impossible to reach. All the entrance points were closed off and it was impossible even for a loaf of bread to enter Ghouta. The people were like skeletons moving in the streets because of starvation," he recalls on the phone from his home in Idlib. "That's when I decided to... turn my attention to photography. I used to take pictures before the war started, but I didn't specialise in it until 2013."

Tim Alsiofi. Courtesy Tim Alsiofi.
Tim Alsiofi wanted to focus on life not war and death. Courtesy Tim Alsiofi

Alsiofi bought a professional camera, taught himself to use it and took to the streets, seeking out scenes of day-to-day life in a besieged city. His photographs were intended to create a counterpoint to the propaganda being produced by the Syrian government and by the rebel factions occupying Ghouta, who were imposing their own rules on civilians and conscripting young men to fight.

“I documented all of it, so if one day they tried to say that they treated people well, we will tell them: ‘These are the pictures and this is the history you made’,” he says.

Unlike the journalists present in Ghouta, who focused on capturing images of violence and death, Alsiofi wanted to focus on life.

“The main reason for my work was the civilian, and only the civilian,” he explains. “I held the camera for the civilian – that oppressed human who is getting shot with bullets. All these weapons didn’t solve the problem, they just destroyed the country, and we’ve ended up with martyrs and civilian victims. I have nothing to do with these stories. I concentrated on the humanitarian subject, on people’s daily lives. It’s not an event or a drama, it’s just life in between the lines, which the channels don’t broadcast.”

Finding ways to carry on despite tragedy

For Yours Truly, From Idlib, Alsiofi and the Heinrich Boll Foundation's team selected more than 150 photographs taken in Ghouta and Idlib. Alsiofi sent voice notes describing the situations in which the photographs were taken, which were turned into captions by Syrian rapper and writer Hani Al Sawah, who is based in Beirut.

The opening images, taken at the lake, provide a moving and uplifting introduction to Alsiofi's work. In one, ­Shaker, 12, grins at the camera, one eye closed against the sunlight, his hair and skin glistening with water from a whole day spent in the lake, trying to catch fish. Another shows Asala, 8, the daughter of a local fisherman, who taught Alsiofi and his friends how to use a fishing rod.

Asala, 8, daughter of a local fisherman, teaches children from besiegedGhouta to fish – many of them had never even seen a lake. Courtesy Tim Alsiofi
Asala, 8, daughter of a local fisherman, teaches children from besiegedGhouta to fish – many of them had never even seen a lake. Courtesy Tim Alsiofi

From here, the book delves back into the past, featuring friends and neighbours who lost their lives in Ghouta and whose absence overshadows even the happy moments in Idlib, as well as stories of survival and unexpected moments of joy amid the conflict.

At an exhibition celebrating the launch of the book, Bente Scheller, director of the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s Beirut offices, emphasised that the photographs aim to show the realities of life during wartime, and should not be misrepresented as part of a narrative suggesting that life in Syria has returned to normal or that refugees should return home, as many in Lebanon are under pressure to do.

“We live in great fear that Idlib will face the same fate as Ghouta,” says Alsiofi, who is one of an estimated three million civilians trapped in Idlib, one of the last areas of Syria still under rebel control. “It is crucial therefore to show that there are civilians living here, millions of them, who have experienced so much tragedy and yet they still carry on with their lives. It is vital for them to get support and not be labelled as terrorists and extremists merely for having opposed [Syrian President] Bashar Al Assad and his rule.”

Documenting strength 

His images from Ghouta help to highlight the terrible cost of war. One captures a little boy smiling as he holds fresh bread made from wheat, after weeks of subsisting on bread made from cattle feed. In another powerful image, Alsiofi captures another boy with his back to the camera, surveying a table that has half-collapsed, spilling bread on to wet, muddy ground. Alsiofi describes watching the starving child's dilemma as he tried to decide whether to scavenge bread splattered with the seller's blood, ultimately walking away empty-handed.

“The photos I captured looked nice aesthetically, but their backstories were sad, and so I found excruciating tension between what I saw at first glance and what I learnt when understanding the stories,” Alsiofi writes in the preface to the book.

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Alsiofi documented the journey of about 1,500 civilians from Ghouta to Idlib in spring last year, on buses provided by rebel group Jaish Al-Islam and then the Syrian regime. His photos in Idlib dwell exclusively on civilian life, but the shadow of war is never far away. One captures people dancing at a wedding in Idlib, celebrating love in the absence of those left behind in Ghouta, while another shows a woman picking olives on the first visit to her fields after a regime attack forced her to flee her village.

“We lived in the most dangerous area in the world, which means we are the strongest people in the world. This was the side that I tried to show, always,” he says.

From the weeping father of two brothers who died fighting against one another in rival rebel factions, to images of children playing on a makeshift swing they have made from an unexploded bomb, Alsiofi’s photographs capture the horror of war and the resilience of the human spirit.

“I am not… looking for sympathy for all the suffering we have gone through and continue to do so, but, on the contrary, I want to show how strong my people are,” he writes. “All we need is some stability, freedom and the needed resources, and we will choose life over and over again.”