Photobook Review: Documenting the Complexities and Horrors of Syria’s Raging War
In his book An Act of Unspeakable Violence – recently published by Editions Xavier Barral – Matthias Bruggmann presents a flow of intense images that depict the intangible brutality underlying the Syrian conflict.
© Matthias Bruggmann, from the book, An Act of Unspeakable Violence. Khan Assubul, Reef Idlib, February 20, 2013. The jail run by Sheikh Dgheim, which was located alongside the courthouse, in a Mamluk caravanserai. The prisoners were said to be mixed common-law and regime fighters.
Matthias Bruggmann followed the war in Syria, in its entirety, from 2012 to 2017. Trip after trip, he captured its ever-changing nature, documenting a war that was becoming more violent and confusing with each passing day. A war that turned public gardens into cemeteries, a war that created forced murderers, a war where those really responsible will most probably never be judged.
His photographs, presented raw with their captions gathered at the end of the book, put the civilians at the centre of the conflict - because all 23 million Syrians are victims of this war. There are horrendous photographs, with decapitated bodies, faces disfigured by anxiety and pain. Yet, a lot of his images are somehow quiet, forcing us to take some time to understand the complexity of the situation. Image after image, the chaos intensifies. Muted. And with this, we get a sense of what the war was and somehow still is on an everyday basis – a vortex of violence that the government attempts to hide by maintaining an appearance of normality.
© Matthias Bruggmann, from the book, An Act of Unspeakable Violence. Al ghota, Homs, May 28, 2012. Bassel Shehade, a Christian filmmaker, returned to Syria from the United States, where he was studying thanks to a Fulbright fellowship, to document the revolution and train others. This cost him his life.
The last photograph in the book, shot in August 2017, depicts a movie team wrapping up and cheering at the end of a day shooting in the midst of ruins. In the caption, we learn that this movie was later acclaimed by the Syrian Minister of Culture, who praised it for “contributing to document what happened in this terrorist war against the country”. To incarnate the government’s re-writing of history as a conclusion is no smooth statement.
Thorough captions and long essays by journalists and humanitarian workers conclude Bruggmann’s investigation. And while all of them agree on the war’s dreadfulness – Nir Rosen, a journalist and humanitarian adviser, compares the war to Mark Antony’s injunction in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” - each writer offers a different analysis of the conflict.
© Matthias Bruggmann, from the book, An Act of Unspeakable Violence. Reef Homs, September 11, 2013. The swimming pool at Al-Khair Hotel, above Marmarita. A number of the young men are from the Christian militia that protects Marmarita and helps besiege both the Krak des Chevaliers and al Husn, the Sunni village built around it. The Krak fell to the Syrian army in March 2014.
The Syrian war is impossible to summarise in a Manichean manner - “Syria was not “one” but multiple”, Rania Abouzeid writes. Surely there has always been a perverse regime, that may only be stronger now, but the war was also characterised by the absence of a leading opposition voice, and mainly by the impossibility to identify real allies and opponents. Words offer the necessary historical contextualisation to understand the unravelling of the conflict – one that left a country with the same government but with a population more divided than ever.
An Act of Unspeakable Violence by Matthias Bruggmann
Published by Editions Xavier Barral
Texts by Issam Abdelrahim, Rania Abouzeid, Mazen Bilal, Amjad Farkh, Labib Nahhas and Nir Rosen
336 pages // 101 colour photographs // 16 x 22.4 cm // €39
Matthias Bruggmann is a Swiss photographer whose work explores the deconstruction of the norms of photography through the representation of complicated situations and places. He is an alumni of the Vevey School of Photography.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.