“This series is neither about the explosions, nor the conflicts, nor the dead, but the effects of war. It shows the relationship of the remaining people with the remaining places and their environments.”
These lines are part of the short introductory text accompanying the Polaroid photos shot in Syria by Cihad Caner, a Turkish photographer who deliberately decided to break the rules of conflict photography. “War photographers show stuff directly. Dead people, explosions. I am not comfortable with that, because people are getting used to seeing these images and they don’t feel anything anymore. I am not a war photographer. I wanted to go there to bear witness.”
Indeed, no Turkish magazine or newspaper was willing to publish his unconventional pictures. There were no dead bodies, it was “too artistic”. Caner was more successful abroad and his Remaining series won 1st prize at the Photographic Museum of Humanity’s photo contest.
Caner started photography at the young age of 15: “I went to Pakistan in 2005. I shot everything I saw with a small camera.” One photojournalist noticed his pictures and told him that he had talent. At the time, Caner wanted to be an architect, but found himself getting more and more into photography. While studying at university and doing freelance work for NGOs and agencies, he felt that traditional photojournalism was not the best fit for him. “It’s too fast. You shoot everyday. After one month, you become a machine,” he says. Instead, he tries in his work to combine photojournalism with art photography, thereby reflecting reality through an approach that is at the same time aesthetically ambitious and engaging
Caner first achieved notoriety with his work on the earthquake that shook the region of Van in Eastern Turkey in 2011. He filmed survivors amid the ruins of their former houses and then shared their stories. Caner agrees that his recent photos from Syria and that previous series are connected: “I combine two things, people and their environment. Our environment shapes us and vice versa.” His upcoming project, entitled Root, was shot in Malatya province and is more personal yet still pursues that same quest. “It’s about my homeland, even though I was born and raised in Istanbul,” he says. “I’m trying to explore my environment. Once I know who I am, I can say something better about the relationship between people and their environment”. Caner mentioned American photographer Alec Soth as a source of inspiration.
For his Remaining series, he added one more ingredient to the mix: interaction. “I first took the photo and then gave it to the people in the pictures. I used a Polaroid camera, and asked people to write or draw something on the photograph. Then I asked them some questions, like ‘How do you feel?’ ‘What do you expect from this revolution?’ and, ‘What do you think about your future?’”. Caner took the pictures in Aleppo and Azaz, in December 2012 under dire conditions: “In Aleppo I couldn’t sleep because of the bombings,” he says. “You felt that if you fall asleep, you’ll die. And it was hard to take photos in the streets, because it was too dangerous. The first thing we had to do was to find a safe place. When I asked people, some of them did not want to be photographed. They said: ‘You can sell it to foreign newspapers and they can say that we are terrorists.’ One woman scratched her face in the picture because she did not want to be recognised.”
Caner hasn’t heard anything from the people in the pictures since he went there in 2012. Some might be in Turkey now, as refugees. According to UNHCR, there are currently more than 2 million Syrians in exile, of which 25 percent are in Turkey.
Ibrahim Omar: I am 24 years old and even though I’m far away from Bashar al Assad’s oppression, I’m still afraid of death.
I want a bright future for my children.
Muaz: This is my district. Aisa: We will be born again from these bullet holes.
Anwar: I am married. My wife is pregnant and I hope that she will give birth just as the sun of hope and liberty rises over my country.
Faisal: I have lost everything I own and we have nothing left. I don’t know what to do. I beg you to help us.
Bassam: Last week, I have lost four members of my family in an airstrike.
Abdullah: My life’s only wish is to walk freely in the streets of Damascus.
Mustafa: I left my family in Turkey. I am here fighting for the sake of freedom for my country and people.