Cengiz Yar is a photojournalist who has entered Syria seven times and spent extensive time with the Syrian people, as well as worked in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and the US. CATALYST speaks with him here...
What drew you to Syria and the desire to capture the Syrian people through images in the first place?
It’s never an easy decision to hop on a plane to a foreign country and head into a conflict zone, but the choice to cover the Syrian war seemed to have been made for me. There was so little coverage about the conflict. I studied the war for two years and sat back watching as the nation destroyed itself while the international media, America’s in particular, seemed to ignore the plight of the Syrian people. It disgusted me how little discussion of the situation existed on the national stage and knew I needed to do my part to help shed light on what was going on.
Can you briefly describe the various trips you took to Syria.
In December I flew into Turkey and made my way down to the border where I crossed into Syria and was then smuggled into Aleppo. I negotiated with a Free Syrian Army militia and they allowed me to embed with them in the city. After that I headed back to the border region where I spent time working in the makeshift refugee camps.
What challenges did you face photographing the war?
There wasn’t much about my time in Syria that wasn’t challenging. From constantly being on guard, lugging gear and armor around, watching what I ate and drank, carefully selecting who to trust, and making sure I was seeing the whole story and photographing accurately.
What was your experience like photographing the Free Syrian Army, how did they treat you as an American?
The militia I was with was extremely friendly and I felt like they honestly had my best interests in mind wherever we went, even if they were trying to slant my reporting in their favor. They were always trying to keep me safe and asking if I was alright when we were under fire at the front lines. The Syrian culture is beautiful and generous, and the fighters certainly tried their best to convey this even in the most dire of circumstances. I don’t think being an American changed the dynamic of how I was treated very much, perhaps only adding certain cultural curiosity to our conversations.
What one moment in Syria stands out for you?
I was walking through the makeshift refugee camp of Bab Al Salameh on the Syrian side of the Turkish border and interviewing the people living there. They had all fled from the neighboring cities and towns of northern Syria and were trying to get into Turkey. It was the middle of winter and people were freezing. All the trees surrounding the camp had been cut for firewood and there was little food. Each person had their own stories of suffering the conflict that brought them to that horrible place. An older woman beckoned me over to her tent where her invalid grandson was swaying back and forth on the floor. He was barely clothed, mumbling, and crying. She shared her story with me, of how her son, the boy’s father, was killed a few days before his wife, the boy’s mother. Of how their house was destroyed in a regime bombing run and that her grandson, sitting on the floor before me, was all she had left. She couldn’t feed him and the few doctors there were in the camp were not prepared to help with the mentally disabled. She had tried to get her grandson across the border and into Turkey but she didn’t have the proper paperwork to get him across legally and didn’t have enough money to pay bribes for smugglers. She sat in the tent, holding her grandson and crying. I’ll never be able to forget that.
Do you feel your photos help the Syrian people, if so how?
They certainly didn’t help anyone directly or immediately, but I’m not sure documentation of these types of situations ever really does. They did, however, help spread news of the conflict, and document a sliver what was going on in the war at a ground level for future generations. But do I think I did enough? No.
With all your background there, what is your opinion about potential US military intervention in the region?
It is a question with no “good” answer. We have vacillated long enough on the question of whether we as a nation are too weary to care. Neither action nor continued inaction is acceptable for competing reasons, but the sad truth is evident: Americans just don’t care enough about Syria. When I say this, remember that over 100,000 people have died already. That’s an average of over 100 people per day, for the past two and a half years. While we weigh the merits of potential military intervention, people continue to die. While we crunch the numbers on the dollar figure cost of enforcing a no-fly zone, innocent civilians continue to be bombed. Any form of intervention will be destructive and difficult, but having seen the war up close, I can tell you honestly: there is no acceptable alternative after two and a half years of bloodshed for anything other than immediate action.
CHECK OUT CENGIZ'S PHOTO ESSAY IN THE MISSION GALLERY
Based out of Chicago, Cengiz is a documentary photographer and freelance photojournalist whose work has been featured in publications around the world. His photography focuses on human conflicts, both violent and peaceful, and aims to encourage understanding by fostering interest and making the alien familiar. He has worked in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, and currently working on a long-term project about gun violence in Chicago