Lens Young Homsi: Photographs ‘convey suffering in a way that motivates people to share them’

Afternoon light filters through broken glass, touching the faces of buildings pockmarked by bombs and bullets in Waer, the last, defiant, rebel-held district of Homs city. There, Muhannad Hamoud brings the scene into frame and presses the shutter-release button.

The 25-year-old photographer is the last remaining member of Lens Young Homsi, a revolutionary photography collective in Homs city. A law student when the protests began in 2011, Hamoud threw himself into the demonstrations “from the first shout.”

When the Syrian army began firing on demonstrations, some in the opposition picked up guns. Hamoud picked up his camera. “I wanted my action in the revolution to remain a peaceful struggle,” the photographer tells Syria Direct’s Sama Mohammed.

Hamoud, a pseudonym, was one of five young citizen-photographers who made up the Lens Young Homsi collective. Other Lens Young collectives were established in other Syrian areas, such as Damascus and Hama.

Today, Hamoud is the only one left in Homs. Some members of the collective left Homs city, while others fled after being detained by the regime.

Hamoud says he wouldn’t leave, so he stayed in Waer, alongside 50,000 other people. There, during years of regime encirclement and bombardment—which continues sporadically despite ongoing surrender negotiations—his lens has captured destruction and life in equal measure.

“The importance of life as portrayed in the pictures, as I see it, is that it brings hope out of our pain.”

All photographs courtesy of Lens Young Homsi.

Homs city's Bustan a-Diwan district, June 2013.

Q: As someone active in the revolution since the beginning and a resident of a blockaded area, how do you view recent events in east Aleppo? Is this the end?

Everyone views what is happening in Aleppo the same way: the world has abandoned the revolution. For Waer, the fall of Aleppo is like the loss of a brother, a friend. The blockaded areas empathize with each other. Every time one goes, we feel as though we have been left alone. We always say, ‘now it’s our turn.’

Of course, we have not reached the end of the revolution. Even if we were all defeated and displaced, the revolution would go on. Good will triumph over evil, no matter how long it takes.

 Homs city’s al-Qusur district, November 2013.

Q: In your pictures, we see destruction and sorrow, but at the same time a lot of life. You don’t just document attacks, you capture life. What does the latter mean to you?

The importance of life as portrayed in the pictures, as I see it, is that it brings hope out of our pain…the hope you might not see when passing by the ruins of Waer. It is a way to combat despair, photographing the sun from behind the destruction.

I have heard many comments on my work from those around me in Waer. Most of them are grateful, seeing in my pictures what they do not see when they walk through the rubble.

 Homs city, January 2014.

Q: In many of the pictures on the Lens Young Homsi page (this, this and this, for example), private spaces such as kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms are open to the world, exposed by bombing and shelling. We see parts of private lives—food still on the table, a bed. What message should we take away from them? How do you feel when you are standing in and photographing these places, witnessing the memories and lives of absent others?

I really like your question, but the idea is quite simple. Most of us in Syria, our memories are open to each other. We have shared them. Even if not everybody who passes by knows what his neighbor’s wall meant to him, that wall has been opened, exposing his memories to passersby. One knows that this opening is a wound. And the people have shared their wounds.

This is how I would explain it. But in general, I take these pictures to combat traditional methods of photographic documentation.

 Waer district, November 2016.

Q: In your previous answers, you described your photography as a way of documenting the events in Homs. At the same time, many of the pictures appear to have an artistic sensibility. What is the importance of art in documentation? Do you believe art helps convey the suffering of blockaded people to the world?

The importance of art and creativity in photography is precisely the speed with which it reaches the world. In this way, it conveys suffering in a way that motivates people to share it. It is like [written] news, but faster.

 Waer district, October 2014.

Q: Where did the idea for the Lens Young Homsi page come from?

The idea for the Lens Young Homsi [Facebook] page came from a group of young guys in Homs. It grew out of the need to document events with images on social media, to convey them to the world faster, in an artistic and talented way.

 Waer district, March 2016.

Q: There were five young photographers, you among them, responsible for the page. Your friends left Homs, but you stayed. Why?

The rest of my friends on the Lens Young Homsi team left for different reasons. Some left after they were released from regime detention, others after they were expelled from their neighborhoods in [Homs] city.

I stayed because I live in the Waer district. In terms of the love I have for my city and my work, I am no different from the ones who left.

 Encircled Homs city, May 2013.

Q: Have you faced danger in your work?

In documenting, we face it often, especially during bombardment. But we are used to it and don’t pay much attention to it.

We are still alive. In Homs, that itself is a miracle.

 Homs city’s Jourat a-Shiyah district, November 2013.

Q: What are the most beautiful moments that you captured with your camera? The worst moments?

The most beautiful moments are the mass demonstrations, the blockaded children whose laughter the siege has not silenced. The worst are the bombings, the families fleeing into shelters.

 Waer district, June 2015.

Q: Do you feel your photography has developed and changed over the past few years?

Of course. I have and continue to try to develop myself in the field of this work that I love, by attending online courses in photography, filmmaking and cinematography.

 Homs city’s Bustan a-Diwan district, November 2013.

[Earlier this year,] I received two certificates in cinematography and filmmaking from the British Academy for Development and Training through the Arto distance learning academy in Kuwait.

It was like an impossible dream for me, to get these certificates in a field that I love and work in, while I have been living under siege for years!

 Waer district, May 2013.

Q: You have taken hundreds of pictures. Is there any picture that you can’t forget? Or that is particularly important to you, personally or in the scope of your work?

To be honest, I take many pictures, I document a lot. I don’t publish most of my pictures, only the ones that affect me. That is why I was drawn to photography in the first place. As you noticed, the pictures that convey suffering are artistic, to give a kind of hope at the same time.

boarding the regime’s green buses to leave Waer district, September 2016.

Most of the pictures I love and don’t forget are selfies with one child in particular, who his famous for his smile, nicknamed Homs Fares. I took a picture with him when I was saying goodbye to him, when he left Waer for Idlib with his family.

[Ed.: Hundreds of rebels and their families left Waer for the opposition-held north Homs countryside in September in accordance with a multi-stage ceasefire agreement with the Syrian government. The agreement later stalled after the Assad regime failed to uphold one of its main terms—the release of thousands of opposition detainees. Negotiations continue.]


 Waer district, September 2016.

Q: Did you participate in the early demonstrations? When did you start taking pictures, documenting the events in Syria?

Yes, I was involved since the first shout in Homs. If I could go back and do it all over again, I still wouldn’t hesitate.

My photography started in earnest in 2013. I turned my hobby into work that I could give in the service of the revolution. I wanted my action in the revolution to remain a peaceful struggle.


 Besieged Homs, December 2013.

 

Sama Mohammed

Sama is from Daraa province. She received her bachelor's degree in literature in 2011 and taught English in Sheikh Miskeen. In 2013, she moved to Jordan and worked as a freelance translator before joining Syria Direct.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.