Bassam Khabieh is a Syrian freelance photojournalist who for five years chronicled the siege of his home city of Douma. His photographs have been featured in some of the world’s most prestigious publications. Khabieh was awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal for photographic reporting requiring exceptional courage and enterprise. At Colby as the 2018 Oak Human Rights Fellow, Khabieh spoke with Colby Magazine editor Gerry Boyle ’78.
Below, Khabieh speaks of the people and the photographs.
We’ve seen your photos of Douma in the throes of war. But what was it like there before?
Most of the people in Douma are farmers, and the city is surrounded by farms. Grapes and tomatoes and apricots and old olive trees, very old. At some point people were forced to cut their trees for firewood. And since the city was surrounded by farmland, it was exposed to the fire of snipers and Syrian soldiers.
Before you began photographing, you were in IT?
I studied for five years and I had just two more exams to graduate from university. I couldn’t go through with the exams because of [government] security. Most people from Douma City were from the opposition. It was too risky to keep working from Damascus. I came back to my city, which was liberated from Syrian forces. So I feel safe there.
Did you lose family members in the war?
I lost two brothers. One of them died in an air strike, first of May, 2013 . The other died in February 2015 from a missile strike.
At what point did you decide that the siege needed to be documented?
In 2011, when the Syrian uprising started, I was taking pictures with my cell phone. I had published my pictures using a fake name in order not to expose myself. When I came back to my city, I started to use my real name because the Syrian regime says in its propaganda that everything is fake. So I felt that I should use my real name if I wanted to cover war crimes. I felt that it should be by somebody who is real.
You’ve won international awards for conflict coverage. How did you become so skilled so quickly?
I didn’t know that one day I would be a war photographer and my pictures would be published in very prestigious newspapers like the New York Times. … Not all people stay calm. Some people draw back and try to cover themselves. At some point I felt I could be the one who may be able to document the war crimes when the mortars or airstrikes hit the civilians.
Why do your photographs have a different feel than other war photographers’ work?
Some photographers come and take breaking news but there is not enough focus on the daily life. Somehow I was connected to the people I take pictures of because they are my community.
For that reason were there photographs you didn’t take?
It is not easy to take a picture of them when they are suffering. You need to be patient. You have to have feeling for people. There were a lot of pictures I didn’t take because I was the first one to arrive. When you see a child cry, you should help them, not take pictures of them.
Your photographs seem to focus on two sides of this tragedy: one is the horror of it, and the other is people’s resilience, the power of the human spirit.
Over the five years of the siege, people started to accept reality, that the world will not get involved to stop this war. So they try to proceed in their life, show the resilience of their spirits. A lot of people get married, including me. They have children. They try to rebuild what the war destroyed. They try to clean up what the war left behind. This was amazing because we were living in the most dangerous area in the world.
Some would think this experience would destroy your faith in humanity. But with you it seems to have done the opposite.
I have a hope, but I don’t know where it comes from. Every Syrian I talk to had no hope that the war would stop. The people who committed these war crimes would not be subjected to any kind of accountability. But I think someday this will happen. The people who were involved in these war crimes will be subject to justice.
Do you feel this has all taken a toll on you?
It has affected me from the inside. Because it’s not just about the pictures. There was a relationship. It is difficult to look back as I work on my archive.
Bassam Khabieh is the 2018 Oak Human Rights Fellow. His beautiful but searing work bridges Oak’s 2017 theme, “Film, Photography, and Human Rights,” and its 2018 theme, “War and Human Rights.”
Witnesses to War: The Children of Syria, stories and photography by Bassam Khabieh, is intended to provide a close-up view of the impact that the war in Syria has had on children. “Rather than portray children as victims, I want to illustrate the incredible resilience of Syria’s children.”