By TONY SEED*
A remarkable photo exhibition titled “My Homeland” by photographer Hagop Vanesian opened recently at the United Nations headquarters in New York, showcasing the crimes committed by terrorists in Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and one of the oldest, continuously-inhabited cities in the world.
Among those attending the opening ceremony were Syria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Dr. Bashar al-Ja’afari, many ambassadors and heads of accredited diplomatic representations, scholars, professors, as well as artists, cultural personalities and members of the Syrian community in the United States. The photography showcased at the exhibition stirred a great emotion amongst viewers, as evidenced in this short video, “Aleppo Under Siege” of the opening ceremony.
The exhibition features just 25 haunting photographs. They show the mindless destruction caused by terrorism in Aleppo city, the unimaginable suffering of the citizens at the hands of terrorists, and the struggle for life. Hagop Vanesian, born in Aleppo in 1970 of Armenian ancestry, has been a courageous eyewitness of its destruction since 2011. Many of his photographs were taken during sreet-to-street firefights.
Each photo shows the nightmare in Syria, the scope of destruction, the impact on the day-to-day life of the people, and the pain of the photographer. Each photo serves as evidence of the unbelievable devastation of such an ancient and lively city and the sorrow and suffering of its inhabitants. Gardens have been turned into graveyards. Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to rubble, homes which were full of life, each with its own story, to raw shells, stripped of their balconies and walls.
Hagop Vanesian’s photography is graphic but the pathos of his work is neither nihilistic nor fatalist. This writer hears a subliminal, confident and patriotic voice dedicated to his humanitarian mission. The portrayal of the innocent children of Aleppo – their wounds, resiliency and solidarity – is poignant. The children become a special focus for his lens.Terrorists are unselective about their victims. Too many have been maimed for life. The harrowing reality imposed on them and their families by the barbaric force of the bachanallia of the terrorist, whereby they play with shells or bullet casings, is a horrifying crime against humanity. The bombing also threatens women who have just given birth, as well as their newborn babies, some of whom were born during mortar attacks.
Hagop Vanesian says: “Aleppo city, Syria is my homeland, capital of cultures, cradle of civilizations; barbarians and radical groups are destroying this beautiful city in the name of fake democracy.”
In one remarkable vignette, Hagop Vanesian photographs a soldier of the Syrian Arab Army leading two young children, brother and sister, hand in hand, through a narrow stone lane in Old Aleppo. Where are they going? One sees in the resiliency of these very young people the glimmer of that incandescent future of the Syrian nation. Can the spirit and dignity of humanity be crushed? Syrians have grit. The title of the exhibition speaks for itself: My Homeland.
The Old City of Aleppo under siege
Aleppo, an ancient and renowned city with a rich cultural and religious heritage and a population of over five million, is one of the cities of Syria that has been the most devastated by the foreign terrorist intervention and the centre of an unabated battle between the Syrian Aran Army and the Islamic State, al-Nusra and other terrorist gangs – be “radical” or “moderate” – that continues to date.
“Aleppo city, a cradle of civilizations, is 12,200 years old,” Hagop Vanesian points out.
“Aleppo is one of the oldest, continuously-inhabited cities in the world, embodied in the old city of Aleppo, its medieval architecture and traditional heritage.
“Until recently, Aleppo had been experiencing a noticeable revival and was slowly returning to the spotlight. It recently won the title of the ‘Islamic Capital of Culture 2006’, and has also witnessed a wave of successful restorations of its historic landmarks.”
The logo of the award is emblazoned on many windows of the shops of the Old City and throughout its souk, which has been completely destroyed.
The skill and craftsmanship of its artisans, such as the women weavers of silk, is renowned. Its sweets are famous.
Aleppo was also the industrial heartland of a sovereign and self-reliant country. From it, the terrorists stripped an estimated 10,000 factories – ranging from small machine shops to large-scale enterprises – and sent the means of production to capitalists in Turkey. Behind this looting was a well-crafted imperialist strategy to ravage and destroy the Syrian economy, culture, society and nation under the pretext of “regime change.”
The same U.S. media that has been hysterically trumping “freedom of expression” and “free speech” virulently attacked the exhibition at the United Nations and negatively portrayed the photographer as “a propagandist.”
The fact is that Hagop Vanesian volunteered as a photographer with SARC (Syrian Arab Red Crescent) – many of his photographs highlight courageous first responders –, is independent and not affiliated with any groups or factions. “I’m not a politician and don’t like politics,” he affirmed in an e-mail.
“The war in Syria changed my life but not my principles,” he says. “I sent e-mails to many important western media to tell them my stories and to show them my photographs but none of them responded to my mails. We know there is nothing fair in this world but the truth is truth.”
“I am a documentary photographer and an artist. My mission, I mean my exhibition, was a humanitarian message but unfortunately everybody is trying to change my message or use it for political ends. None of the reporters who talked to me were interested about the suffering of people that I photographed. They were just looking for anything, any word, to make a politics. It is shame.”
An exhibit showing just 25 photographs and “captions that mention defending against ‘terror groups’”gave rise to a slew of syndicated articles presenting the outrageous demand of the U.S.-financed “Syrian National Coalition” that “the United Nations take down” the photo exhibit and “correct this grave mistake.” None of the media publishing these negative articles sent reviewers to the exhibit.
From the New York Times to Fox News, the media of the reactionary ruling circles spoke as one: expression, art and speech that favours those deemed hostile to the interests of Washington and its allied countries will be marginalized or criminalized, while expression, art and speech that degrades the image and credibility of U.S.-favoured groups including terrorists will be rendered as off-limits, all deceitfully masquerading as lofty principles of liberty.
In my view, the obvious aim is to conceal the reality and consequences of war and aggression from the public and to demonize the steadfast resistance of the Arabic and Persian peoples in the interests of U.S. and European imperialism. An important aspect of this offensive is to marginalize the independent work of truth tellers through such buzz words as “propagandist” and even assassination, as with the 16 journalists murdered in Palestine in 2014 and those slain from Syria, Lebanon, Iran and other lands.
Knowing that this is the case, this exhibition at the United Nations takes on even greater meaning. It gives expression to the brilliant work of not only Mr Vanesian but other unsung photographers of West Asia, who have emerged over the past several decades to dispel the media disinformation on the life, work and struggle of all peoples of the Middle East, and who are second to none in their art, their social content, aesthetics, technique and professionalism. It gives expression to their work to document an unseen reality, the humanity and dignity of courageous and proud people as human beings, in the true sense that the peoples of Aleppo, Syria and West Asia have rights to peace and sovereignty by dint of their being human.
Photos Copyright © 2015 Hagop Vanesian. All rights reserved.
*With files from news agencies. Not all photographs reproduced in this article are necessarily drawn from the exhibit. The writer visited Syria as an independent observer of the presidential elections on June 3, 2014.
Video: Aleppo, where parks are cemeteries
Syria: Aleppo, where parks are cemeteries: Syrian photographer Hagop Vanessian talks about a series of photos he shot in the Syrian city of Aleppo, showing how people are coping with the effects of fighting and destruction. Sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Hagop Vanesian on Flickr
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