ARTICLE

Jérôme Sessini photographs Syria's shattered streetscapes

Amid the rubble of a war-torn street in southern Aleppo, sheets are strung between buildings.
This image from Jérôme Sessini's series The Streets of Aleppo captures the realities of daily life in Syria, as sheets in this war-ravaged street are not simply hanging up to dry. "Always showing wounded fighters wasn't keeping the audience's attention any more, so I decided to change my approach," says Jérôme. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 35mm, 1/15 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos

Slung between bombed-out buildings in a street in Aleppo, Syria, are what look like washing lines. The sheets hanging from them seem incongruous amid the rubble but serve a crucial function. "They allow people to cross the streets without being seen by the snipers," explains conflict photographer and Canon Ambassador Jérôme Sessini. "Some of the materials are bedsheets, some are curtains, some are plastic covers – anything that can be used to hide behind." They have a strange echo of the domestic that feels at odds in a war zone, reminding us of life before the Syrian conflict began.

The image, like so many from Jérôme's series The Streets of Aleppo, tells an incredible story about the Syrian civil war, without bringing any people into the frame. Shot in February 2013 and exhibited at Visa pour l'Image photojournalism festival later that same year, the series is quite unlike most coverage of the conflict seen in the mainstream media. Instead of focusing on the fighters, it focuses on the city streets.

Jérôme is no stranger to telling stories from streets. From documenting drug-related violence in Mexico through to the Euromaidan civil unrest in central Kiev, Ukraine, the Magnum photographer shines a light on conflicts across the world. Here he shares how he took a different approach when photographing the streets of Aleppo.

Debris and dirty sheets line a devastated street on the Salah al-Din frontline.
Jérôme had to avoid streets where fighting was actually taking place but the destruction left in its aftermath was widespread in Salah al-Din, southern Aleppo. "During the day I was mostly with one young fighter who translated," says Jérôme. "His English was very basic – but simple words like left, right, back and forward was all we needed." Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 50mm, 1/60 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos

Showing more by showing less

Jérôme had the idea for the project after his first trip to Aleppo in 2012. "A lot of people were photographing the fighting or the hospitals. I wanted to do something different," he says. "It can be hard to keep audiences' attention on a conflict like this. So instead of wounded fighters, I took pictures of the streets. Sometimes you can show more by showing less. You leave space for viewers to form their own ideas, to use their imagination."

These cityscapes reveal in forensic detail the scale of destruction on the eastern side of the city. By showing market squares or shuttered-up shopfronts – the types of places that you see in cities the world over – Jérôme's images make viewers reflect on how it might feel to see the cities they know under these circumstances. "Most people live in cities – it's universal," he says.

While the shattered bricks and mortar work as a kind of metaphor for the impact of war on Syrian society, they also tell an authentic story about the reality on the ground. "When the city is under siege, it becomes like a ghost town," says Jérôme. "People don't go on the streets because of the danger of snipers."

As with the hanging sheets, the fighters have repurposed materials they have found in the buildings and streets. An ornately decorative wooden-framed mirror is being used as "an anti-sniper mirror", for example. "It's a very simple, very efficient trick the fighters use to see if there's a sniper around the corner of the street," Jérôme explains.

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Street shots on a tripod

Photographically, Jérôme's approach for this series was in complete contrast to how he normally works. "I shot everything on a tripod because I wanted maximum details," he says. "I shot with a very small aperture to have the widest possible depth of field, so sometimes I had to use a low shutter speed. The process was very static; I chose my angle and then I couldn't change it. It was more visual.

"When you are shooting reportage-style, you are moving around the subject, and there is a huge element of chance. With the tripod, you're able to completely control the framing."

Jérôme shot the series on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV) using a remote trigger to avoid camera shake. "I was shooting at f/11, f/16. I had to go to 1/15 sec with the shutter speed, sometimes less, so any vibration would have a negative impact."

A once-busy souk near Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque lies in ruins.
"I knew a few photographers who worked on the western side of the city and daily life was normal – the shops, restaurants, everything was open," says Jérôme. By contrast, this is a view of the once-busy souk of the old city near Umayyad Mosque, Aleppo. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 40mm, 1/30 sec, f/2.8 and ISO800. © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos
An avalanche of dust engulfs shop fronts in al-Arkub, Aleppo.
"I tried to photograph places common to many cities, like markets or main streets, but with no people in them, because this is the reality of a city under siege," says Jérôme. These are shuttered shopfronts in al-Arkub, Aleppo, on the frontline of the fighting. Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 52mm, 1/125 sec, f/2.8 and ISO1000. © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos
A window cleaner outside the 40th floor of the Torre Latino Americana in Mexico City, with the sprawling city below. Photograph by Jérôme Sessini.

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Navigating inner-city conflict

During the four weeks that Jérôme was in Aleppo shooting the project, he stayed in a house set up as a form of media centre for journalists. There was electricity to charge his batteries and provide Wi-Fi, but only enough water to shower once a week. It was a bitterly cold winter, and heating and food could be hard to come by. "I speak only a few words of Arabic and that was a problem, because at that time there were very few fixers in Aleppo," he says. "My fixer was working with several journalists." Every evening they'd discuss the places Jérôme wanted to photograph, and his fixer would find out whether it was possible.

"I was careful about always listening to the fighters. Combat in inner cities is difficult because it changes all the time from one street to another. In one day the government army could take a street, then lose it, then take it again. So it was important to be aware of their position."

At around 8am, Jérôme's fixer would drive him to the area he would be working in that day. After finding out which streets were safest, the fixer would leave, generally returning to collect him in the early evening, although sometimes Jérôme had to make his way back by taxi – risky if the driver wasn't clued up on the current location of troops.

A burnt-out vehicle and broken household items litter a bombed-out Aleppo street.
"I would ask the fighters which street corner was safe," says Jérôme. "It was never 100% sure but they would tell me, 'You can go 100 metres in this direction, 50 metres that way – but no further.'" Taken on a Canon EOS 5D Mark II with a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM lens at 35mm, 1/80 sec, f/11 and ISO100. © Jérôme Sessini/Magnum Photos

Robust yet discreet kit

Working in hostile environments can be testing on gear, so it was important to Jérôme to use a camera that was "solid" but also, knowing he wanted to exhibit the series, rendered colour with the utmost precision. "The colours on the Canon EOS 5D Mark II are very close to reality. They're soft, not too flashy, not too much contrast."

His kitbag contained two lenses – a Canon EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM and a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM. Although he praises the sharpness of the 50mm prime, he tended to use the zoom 90% of the time because of the flexibility it offered in the field. "I didn't want to carry a lot of lenses. I wanted to travel light because I already had the tripod, so I had one lens, and a second one in case."

Working with unobtrusive kit also meant that Jérôme was able to conceal his identity when required, such as one day when he had to pass through one of the Islamist militia checkpoints that at that time were just starting to spring up around the city.

"If they had seen me with a camera it would have been a big problem, but they didn't notice I was a photographer," he recalls. "That was the last week of the trip. My fixer told me, 'I think it's time for you and all the press to go now. We cannot protect you against those guys.'" He left Syria the same way he'd entered, across the border with Turkey. Just months later, a group of fellow photojournalists were kidnapped by militants while travelling into Aleppo on that same route. Years later, Jérôme's photos remind us of what the people of Syria still face every day on the shattered streets of Aleppo.

Skrevet av Rachel Segal Hamilton


Jérôme Sessini's kitbag

The key kit pros use to take their street photographs

Close-up of a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Camera

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV

Designed to perform in every situation, the EOS 5D Mark IV is beautifully engineered and a thoroughly accomplished all-rounder. "The colours are very close to reality. They're soft, not too flashy, not too much contrast," says Jérôme.

Lenses

Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM

With its incredible f/1.2 maximum aperture, this super fast lens is a consummate low-light performer with fine creative control over focusing and depth of field.

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