Manu Brabo, Associated Press photographer, talks about his time in Syria

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Manu Brabo is a photographer who recently returned from Aleppo where he was covering the war for the Associated Press. We emailed him six questions about his experiences on the front line (the original Spanish is on the right).

In recent images from Aleppo, you get very up close and personal with your subjects. Did you encounter any difficulties being an outsider covering these events?
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. It’s just as important as knowing how to measure light or to frame a picture, if not more. It links you sentimentally with the people you photograph, and they are connected to you in a way. This facilitates the work, the closeness and it saves you from having problems when photographing. This does not mean there haven’t been any problems, but they have been few and far between. And I also don’t blame anyone for not wanting to be photographed. Everyone has their reasons.
En tus imagenes de Aleppo estas en una forma personal y de cerca con tus personajes en las imagenes. Encontraste algun problema siendo un foraneo cubriendo estos eventos?
Estoy cerca porque intento convivir, en la medida de los posible, con la gente que fotografío. Estar dentro de la historia, vivirla, disfrutarla o padecerla... es tan importante o mas que saber medir la luz o encuadrar. Te une sentimentalmente a las personas que fotografías y ellas también se unen a ti de alguna manera. Esto facilita sobre manera el trabajo, el acercamiento y te ahorra el tener problemas a la hora de fotografiar. Esto no quiere decir que no haya habido problemas, pero han sido mínimos, esporádicos y muy puntuales. Y tampoco puedo culpar a nadie por no querer dejarse fotografiar. cada uno tiene sus motivos y son, siempre, respetables.
Is there such as thing as an average day in Syria?
I can only tell you how my day-to-day has been, which consists, more or less, of waking up early. At the time, the Al Assad artillery begins the bombing and the combat begins. From that moment it is all about work, sometimes following already planned stories, other times improvising according to the events of the day. We drive ourselves crazy trying to find a point from which we can send the images. In general, it becomes a type of routine: we go shopping, we cook, we take care of housework. It is no different than living in any other part of the world, and sometimes you even forget about the war.
En un dia comun en Syria, si es que lo hay. Como seria el dia a dia?
Solo puedo contarte como ha sido mi día a día que consiste, mas o menos, en despertarte temprano. A la hora en que la artillería de Al Assad empiece a bombardear o empiecen los combates. A partir de ahí se trata de trabajar, a veces siguiendo historias ya planeadas, otras improvisando según los acontecimientos del día. Nos volvemos medio lokos intentado encontrar un punto desde el que enviar las imagenes... Por lo general se establece como una especie de rutina: Hacemos la compra, cocinamos, nos encargamos también de llas tareas del hogar. No es tan diferente a vivir en cualquier otra parte del mundo, a ratos hasta olvidas la guerra.
Can you describe the emotions you feel when photographing people involved in such violent conflict?
Many times we hide behind the camera in order to not feel anything. We think ‘this works, this doesn’t’, ‘this is moving, this isn’t’, ‘this will draw their attention’. We remain like a rock. Then, when you arrive home or get to a hotel and edit the work, you begin to assimilate everything that has happened during the day. It is then, when reality sets in and you begin to feel – sometimes sadness, sometimes hate, sometimes happiness, depending on the frame and the day.
Other times, like on October 4, 2012, you have before your eyes such murder, such horror: children ripped to shreds, mothers, the elderly…trucks with dying bodies arriving to the hospital. People whose only crime was to have found refuge in a school, and on that day you can barely work. There is nowhere to hide or assimilate it, and at the end you end up with cameras hanging from your neck, while hugging a stranger and wishing you could heal their pain as well as your own.
Nos puedes describir tus emocionas al conocer y fotografiar a gente que estaba en el conflicto?
Muchas veces, uno se esconde detrás de la cámara para no sentir. Uno piensa "esto funciona, esto no" "Esto conmueve, esto no" "Esto llamará la atención de alguien", etc... Pero uno permanece como de piedra. Luego, cuando un llega a casa o al hotel y edita el trabajo es cuando empieza a asimilar todo lo que le ha pasado por delante durante el día. Entonces es cuando la realidad cobra toda su magnitud y unos empieza a sentir, a ratos tristeza, a ratos odio, a ratos alegría, depende del frame y del día.
Otras veces, como el día 4 de Octubre de 2012, uno tienen ante sus ojos tal matanza, tal horror: Niños hechos a pedazos, madres, ancianos...camiones con cuerpos moribundos llegando al hospital. Gente cuyo único delito era haberse refugiado en un colegio... y ese día a penas puedes trabajar. No hay donde esconderse ni como asimilarlo y al final terminas con las cámaras colgando abrazado a un desconocido queriendo mitigar su dolor y también el tuyo.
Of everything you have witnessed in Syria, what image sticks with you the most, and why?
I’m left with a scene, and not just an image. Many people know the image: a father holding the lifeless body of his son in front of the hospital. But only those present know the scene. Beyond the photo, the father sits in chair at a checkpoint near the hospital, and he waits 20 minutes in that chair for a taxi to arrive. People watch him, but he is in his own world. There aren’t enough ambulances and the nearby bombings mean there aren’t many taxis on the street. After 20 minutes he decides to change spots, since a colleague [of mine] spends the whole time pointing a camera at him, stealing from him the little intimacy he has on the street in order to mourn his son. The man stoically waits at the new spot. The the colleague has decided to follow him in order to continue to photograph him. Finally, the young boy’s uncles appear in a car and they all go home, except for the man with the camera. The pain, the impotence, and even still, the strength and pride of that father are a good example of humanity for me, as well as the bad example of a colleague who violated his intimacy for 40 minutes.
De toda tu experiencia en Syria que imagen es la que se quedo grabada contigo y porque?
De mi experiencia en Syria me quedo con una escena, no con una imagen. La imagen la conoce mucha gente, un padre sujeta el cuerpo sin vida de su hijo frente al hospital. Pero la escena no la conoce nadie salvo los allí presentes. Tras la foto el padre se sienta en una silla de un Check Point proximo al hospital, espera 20 minutos en esa silla mientras llega un taxi. La gente le mira y el permanece ajeno a todo. No hay ambulancias suficientes y los bombardeos cercanos hacen que no haya muchos taxis en la calle a esa hora. A los 20 minutos decide cambiar de sito, pues un compañero lleva todo el tiempo apuntándole con su cámara, robándole la poca intimidad que hay en la calle para llorar a su hijo. El hombre espera y aguanta estoicamente en ese otro lugar donde el compañero ha decidido seguirle para seguir apuntando con su cámara. Al final, los tíos del pequeño aparecen con un coche y todos se van a su casa, salvo el tipo de la cámara. El dolor, la impotencia y, aún así, la fuerza y el orgullo de ese padre, son para mi tan buen ejemplo de humanidad, como mal ejemplo es el del compañero que violó su intimidad durante 40 minutos.
How will your experience in Syria inform your future work?
Every time I work, there are new things to learn but, maybe, the most important thing is how a photographer can get confused, thinking war images are only about the bang bang. How, in this particular case [Syria], sending only bang bang photos can confuse the reader. This can bring with it the wrong idea this war is between two opposing armies, when it is really an army against a great majority of the population. It is an asymmetrical war in which one of the sides – led by Bashar Al Assad – is massacring and punishing thousands, millions of civilians whose only crime is to demand dignity.
Que experiencias te llevas de este proyecto que te ayudaran en el futuro?
Pues como cada vez que trabajo siempre hay cosas nuevas que uno aprende... pero quizás, la más importante es que como fotografo uno puede llegar a confundirse pensando que las imagenes de guerra son solo el Bang bang". Que quizás, e este caso paricular, el enviar solo fotos de "bang bang" puede llegar a confundir al lector. Este puede llegar a tener la idea equivocada de que es una guerra entre dos ejercitos, cuando en realidad es un ejercito contra la gran mayoría de la población. Es una guerra asimetrica en la que uno de los lados (el de Basar Al Asad) está masacrando y castigando a miles, millones de civiles cuyo unico delito es exigir dignidad.
What do you think will be the lasting effects of your time in Syria, and where do you hope to go next?
The effects of my stay in Syria...? It is an experience that has changed me forever as both a professional and as a human being. It is not easy to assimilate the worst aspects of humanity, so much hate, so much blood, so much death… The question I will constantly ask myself until the day I die is ‘how can a leader come to hate so many of his own people?’. How can he want to kill innocent children, women and men? What goes on in the mind of someone like Bashar Al Assad? Are they like that by nature or are they truly sick in the head? I think I’ll never be able to answer those questions.
My next destination will be my family’s house in Spain and then I’d like to continue working in Syria. I guess I feel committed to telling what is going on there, but we’ll just have to see where destiny takes me. Right now I can only think about enjoying time with my family and friends.
Cuales crees que sean los effectos en tu persona de tu estancia en syria y a donde crees ir a continuacion o cual sera tu nuevo destino?
Los efectos de mi estancia en Syria... ceo que es una experiencia que como profesional y como ser humano me van a cambiar para siempre. No es fácil asimilar lo peor del ser humano, tanto odio, tanta sangre, tanta muerte... La pregunta que me haré constantemente y hasta el fin de mis días es ¿Como un governante puede llegar a odiar tanto a su propio pueblo? ¿Como se puede querer matar a niños, a mujeres, a hombres inocentes? ¿Qué pasa por la cabeza de alguien como Basar Al Asad? ¿Son así por naturaleza o están realmente enfermos? Creo que nunca hallaré la respuesta a esas preguntas...
Mi siguiente destino?? La casa de mi familia en España y después... me gustaría seguir trabajando en Siria (supongo que ya estoy comprometido con contar lo que allí pasa) pero ya veremos que trae el destino. De momento solopuedo pensar en disfrutar de mi familia y mis amigos.

For more see: Associated Press photographer documents the conflict in Aleppo, Syria

Manu Brabo was born in Spain. After studying Photography in The School of Arts and Crafts in Oviedo, he moved to Madrid where he started Journalism in Carlos III University while he was working as a photographer for several humble newspapers and agencies. After three years studying in the university he decided to leave the journalism degree and stay focused on photojournalism.

Using his vacation times to work about human interest stories, he had offered his time and efforts to take images around many social conflict areas like Kosovo, Bolivia, Argentina, Haiti, Honduras, Palestine, Tunis, Libya…

During the last year he has been working in conflict areas as a freelance for NGO’s, agencies like AP, EPA or EFE, and his work has been published in many newspapers all around the world.

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