Courtesy - Lens Young Homsi

Ahmed Da is, by his own account, a citizen photojournalist. He shared with us his story of how he organized Lens Young Homsi, a group of like-minded photojournalists, who set out to use a Facebook page to tell the world about life, death and destruction in Homs, their hometown. To date, their Facebook page, featuring countless images of a city under siege, boasts over 81,000 “likes.” Salma Aldiri, a former photographer who works as the Facebook page’s administrator in Amman, Jordan, translated some of Ahmed’s thoughts and added her own. Neither used their real name in this narrative.

Middle East Voices’ “Syria Witness” features personal accounts by citizen-journalists inside Syria about the grim challenges of survival in a war zone. These activists are often the only available street-level information source about life in a country whose government restricts independent reporting.

With Syrian expatriates having begun to enter areas of Syria now under rebel control, we have expanded the series to include their accounts as well.

Syria Witness reports cannot be independently verified and, for their personal safety, some contributors do not use their real names. Accounts may be edited for reasons of clarity and style, but no changes to content are made.

Ahmed Da in Homs; Salma Aldiri in Amman – February 2013

Ahmed: I’m one of five amateur photographers working inside the districts of Homs documenting the revolution. We are friends who joined together to take these photographs.

We used to work separately. Most of us had no experience. I was a student. Now, we work together as a team, documenting the destruction in our city’s districts, including parts of Old Homs.

Select images from the Lens Young Homsi Facebook page:
(image authenticity cannot be independently confirmed)

We decided to call ourselves the Lens Young Homsi. The oldest photographer of us all is aged 25. We affirm that youth are the ones who work for this revolution to triumph and to gain freedom for all Syrians. We haven’t received any professional training or financial support whatsoever, not even from the Syrian opposition outside of Syria. We built it all ourselves, and the Nikon, Canon and Sony cameras we use were all bought with our own money.

We don’t have an office. We have a Facebook page through which we communicate with the outside world.

Video from Lens Young Homsi’s portfolio
(content authenticity cannot be independently confirmed)

Salma: There were maybe only 10 professional photographers in Syria before the revolution. They were famous and working with Reuters or AP. They were known by everyone, especially the security people.

They didn’t leave Syria, but they couldn’t document anything about the revolution because they were known. They stay at their homes now preferring not to expose themselves to any risk, because the security services know everything about them.

I was actually one of them. I was a freelancer. But not anyore.

“We want to send a message that, whatever is happening, there is still life in this place. Not everything is about destruction in the city.” – Ahmed Da

Ahmed: Cameras on the street were not a usual thing before. We are a new generation of photographers in Syria. Any activist with a video camera can now document events.

It’s a completely new kind of relationship between people and a camera, really a new phase in the history of photography in Syria.

‘It’s all about hope for Homs’

Ahmed: It’s all about hope for Homs. The whole city was under bombing and people were saying there is not any kind of life in the city. Yes, there is fighting going on, but there are are two types of struggles. One takes place in the streets; in the other, we see people struggling to go on with their lives: their quest for food and medicine, their quest to educate their children. We show it all, even kids playing in the streets.

“We want to send a message that, whatever is happening, there is still life in this place. Not everything is about destruction in the city.

Since a few months ago, many areas are under the control of the Free Syrian Army. In the areas that aren’t under siege, we take photos of the streets there in order to show Syrians and others abroad how the city has changed.

Syrian refugees also ask us to take photos of their houses and to send them through e-mail. Daily, we receive dozens of requests to go and take photos of destroyed or damaged houses to send back to their owners and show them the conditions of their properties.

Most of our work, however, is about the war itself. Our work has also been featured on several TV channels and online publications – Al Arabiya, Sky News, France 24 and Al Quds, among others.

Protected by the Free Syrian Army

Ahmed: Rebel-controlled areas offer us a lot of freedom of mobility but put our lives in danger because of the daily – sometime non-stop – bombardments of those areas by government warplanes.

In the areas under the control of the regime we risk being arrested at countless military barricades or checkpoints where soldiers and shabiha (pro-government militias) arbitrarily arrest civilians.

Still, danger lurks everywhere. One day, a Young Homsi Lens photographer was taking pictures of  two children, one of them on a bicycle. About half an our later, he heard the loud sound of shell exploding. He learned that it had killed both children. Their names were Yaseen and Maryam. The shell had been fired from a district of Homs controlled by government forces. (The first image of the above slide show reportedly features the two children referenced here  – MEV.)

Once, a sniper fired a shot at another Lens Young Homsi photographer as he was taking photographs of the destruction of homes caused by extensive shelling by T-72 tanks in Hom’s Jouret Al Shayyah neighborhood. Later, another sniper fired a shot at another photographer standing on a rooftop overlooking a large police station in the city center. The photographer was struck in the leg.

Of course, we are protected by the Free Syrian Army brigades in Homs city, but we cannot mention any names.

Camera as weapon

Salma: At the outset of the revolution, every Syrian decided to fight in their own special way. For us photographers, our weapon is the camera.

“These men have always loved photography and they know how important it is. I don’t think any one of them will stop after that. They have a relationship with the camera that will never end.” – Salma Aldiri

Ahmed: It was a very simple decision. We don’t know how to deal with weapons so we are not going to handle them. We use the weapon that we know. That weapon is our camera. For us, it is a crucial weapon because it allows the outside world to see  what is really happening on the ground in Syria.

And we agree on this point: we really believe that what we are doing now is going to help us win this revolution.

Salma: In the next stage, we will be building a new Syria. We believe we should be there as the photographers. These men have always loved photography and they know how important it is. I don’t think any one of them will stop after that. They have a relationship with the camera that will never end.

Ahmed: The spirit of the activists is very, very high – actually, higher than anyone could ever imagine. Victory shall come soon. We have nothing to lose.

 SYRIA WITNESS: Documenting Life, Death and Destruction

David Arnold

David Arnold coordinates the Syria Witness project at Middle East Voices and reports on Middle East and North Africa affairs for both Voice of America and MEV. The Syria Witness project publishes on-the-ground citizen reporting, giving Syrians the opportunity to offer to a global audience their first-person narratives of life on the streets of their war-torn country.