Seeing Syria's War Through the Lens

Oct 9, 2012
Originally published on October 9, 2012 12:21 pm

When the Arab Spring broke out two years ago, photojournalist James Lawler Duggan grabbed his camera. As waves of protests pulsed through the Middle East, Duggan, on a leave of absence from the Corcoran School of Art, followed conflict through Bahrain, Libya, Egypt and finally into Syria.

This past August, he crossed the Turkish border and made his way to Aleppo to capture images of Free Syrian Army rebel fighters. Working for Agence-France Press, his photos were distributed all over the world.

As helicopters fired rockets and regime tanks rolled through abandoned neighborhoods, Duggan, 25, set out to document what he says gives meaning to his own life: the human extreme.

His work represents a delicate balance between accessing risk, taking meaningful photos and dealing with the aftershock of seeing such extreme violence.

"Photographing something graphic spares you the trauma of it," he explains. "The focus on capturing the frame affords you a callus. But it catches up to you later."

Unarmed, Duggan put faith in the Free Syrian Army fighters who were guiding him — while also trying not to become too emotionally attached to them, a survival technique in its own rite.

"I never broke down crying in Syria," he says, looking down at a photograph of a man with crimson torture scars on his back. "But I have since I came home."

The photo, taken in a Free Syrian Army safe house, shows a man who had just been tortured by Assad regime forces. It is perhaps Duggan's most widely published photo.

Minutes before the photo was taken, Duggan explains, two civilian men walked into the room, one looking clearly roughed up. The other man at first seemed unharmed, but when he took off his shirt, Duggan clicked his camera. "At the moment, it wasn't clear the power the photo would have," he says.

In a way, the shot could symbolize how the war is everywhere in Syria — even if it seems hidden.

Photographers in war zones often have to be in the line of fire in order to capture it. While Duggan says he doesn't take unnecessary risks, he acknowledges the incredible dangers of "bang-bang photography," referring to a group of photographers who documented apartheid and violence in South Africa in the early '90s. Looking back, he says he can think of numerous occasions where he jumped headfirst into a potentially deadly situation.

"It's fashionable for conflict photographers to tell each other to be safe and not to take unnecessary risks, but at the end of the day, we're all trying to get closer and push the envelope. I spent two of my nine lives in Syria," he admits.

This month, he (along with this blogger) will be participating in RISC — Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues — a course that gives freelance journalists medical training for life-threatening situations. The program was set up by Sebastian Junger, a friend of photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed during the conflict in Libya.

"I'm honored to get this opportunity," Duggan says — adding that all freelancers should prepare for the realities of combat.

He says he constantly thinks about the impact of his career on friends and family. "I wear a flak jacket for my mother, not my editor or anyone else. My mother."

You can see more of James Lawler Duggan's work on his website.

Sophia Jones is an intern with NPR News.

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