Narratives of Displacement

The ongoing crisis in Syria has developed into the defining con­flict of our current political climate – a humanitarian disaster for those who are displaced or living there, an arena for a proxy trial of strength between various geopolitical forces and alliances, and the driver behind the refugee exodus that has promoted a nationalistic backlash in Europe. The conflict has already lasted longer than WWII. As a result, nearly half a million people have been killed. Almost 11 million – half the pre-war population – have been forced from their homes and much of the country lies in ruins. It is also a “war of narratives”, with all sides competing to tell their version of what is happening, and where accurate information is hard to come by and verify.

As part of the Imperial War Museum’s, London, wider season Syria: A Conflict Explored, the gallery offers A Lens on Syria, the first UK exhibition by Russian documentary photographer, Sergey Ponomarev (b. 1980), comprising colour prints and digital media. After working in Russia for Associated Press, Ponomarev em­barked on a freelance international career in 2012. He has since won the Pulitzer Prize (2016), the World Press Photo Award (2017), and the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award (2017) for his work on the European refugee crisis. It was his first visit to Syria as a tourist in 2009 that inspired a lasting fascination with the country and a commitment to document the realities of life for its people.

Ponomarev has covered Syria both under the Assad regime and in the ensuing crisis. His work draws attention to the distinc­tions between propaganda and fact, and raises awareness of the official restrictions upon journalistic access, which shape percep­tions of the conflict in the wider world. Using minimal equipment, his main concern is making visible the consequences of conflict on a human scale, employing an aesthetic use of colour and composition. Originally drawn to journalism, the artist found that the language of photography seemed to him a more pow­erful medium for storytelling than the written word.

Displayed across four rooms, the exhibition is in two sections: Assad’s Syria and The Exodus. The former features 24 colour photographs displayed in three rooms as large digital prints from Ponomarev’s photo-essay of the same title (2013-2014). He was one of very few photographers allowed access to the Government-controlled areas of Syria during that period. The Exodus is a digital installation of more than 40 images taken at the height of the European refugee crisis between 2015 and 2016, which he covered as part of a New York Times reporting team. It is a portrait of human resilience, determination and suffering. As the artist notes: “There were many hard moments: children crying, wanting to eat or sleep or go to the toilet; women carrying heavy things and understanding nothing; men exhausted because of the travel and pressure and uncer­tainty.” The display is a searing vision of the globalised condi­tion, a documentation of displacement as being an unwanted and unnecessary new form of identity.

Until 3 September. For more information:

1. Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014, Assad’s Syria (2013-2014). © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times.