Love and life in Syria

When I visited Damascus a decade ago, I observed many times similar scenes of a comparatively free private life, despite the regime’s strong grip on politics and society. This is now unimaginable in Syria. What was gained in the 1960s/70s, is now seemingly lost. We should, however, not forget that this region has its own humanity and should not be reduced to a mere theatre of war as portrayed in the daily news. Just like the Balkans, it will eventually overcome the civil war and rebuild itself. We just cannot see this at the moment, since virtually all imagery currently coming from the Middle East is marked by pictures of war, suffering and destruction.

See more photographs on my Instagram feed.

Vanishing memories

It is more than ten years ago that I visited Damascus, a short side-trip after a conference in Amman. Recently, I went again through my overflowing hard disk with photographs taken since I could hold a camera (although I still have hundreds of Kodachrome slides and black and white negatives in their original analog formats), and found the stack of images from that four-day visit, most of which have never seen a social network from the inside. One is right above this paragraph.

Instagram, with its terrible rigueur of forcing perfectly framed landscape or portrait photographs into artificial squares (not the natural habitat of most pictures, except perhaps those of the fashion photography élite, who often work in medium format – check out Richard Avedon), was never my medium of choice. However, over time it has become clear that even the very well-established picture-takers have fallen for the overpowering popularity of the service: Magnum and VII Agencies are represented, as are the New Yorker and the New York Times picture blog. From Bruce Gilden to Chris Anderson, Ed Kashi to David Alan Harvey, high-profile photographers have hopped on the bandwagon, and now IG also offers other formats. So no reason anymore for me to limit myself to posting iPhone snaps, pushed hard through various filters to make them more trippy.

More complicated is the uploading of “normal” photos to IG. Since the service is mainly catering to mobile shooters, it doesn’t make it exactly easy to regular-camera-holders to share their work. There is no free plug-in for Lightroom, so the workflow involves a lot of resizing, exporting, copying and re-importing. What one doesn’t do for some social media presence.

To come back to my first paragraph, I decided that I would – after some due warning embedded in a few images posted to IG – post my visual memories of Damascus, a place that represented the wonderfully authentic Middle East at the time, which is now in the process of disappearing into the violent quagmire that is the Iraqi-Syrian civil war. Whatever the underlying political context, I am afraid the Middle East I was able to visit in parts – not enough – since the 1990s, is a thing of the past. You can follow these pictures on Instagram itself but I will also add some of them – without too much text – on these pages over the next days.

True or false?

Welcome to Hallstatt, location of the world’s first known salt mine, originator of the well-known Iron Age culture of the same name, recognised as UNESCO World Heritage Site! The quaint and picturesque village, which lies in China’s Guangdong Province, attracts millions of foreign tourists every…. hang on, hang on – China?

Hallstatt, I

Well, since 5 June 2012, the world has two Hallstatts. There is the original, perched on the shores of the Hallstätter See in Austria’s Salzkammergut, with its thousands of years of history, and possibly – due to the salt mine in the mountains above – one of the first places of human settlement. And there is Hallstatt 2, built between 2011 and 2012 by the Chinese mining company China Minmetals Corporation.

Hallstatt, II

Clearly, the initial push for producing a copy must have been – apart from the obvious attractiveness of Hallstatt – the fact that the town was already under siege by Asian visitors for the last decade or so. A carbon copy in China would allow even larger visitor groups to partake in the cultural delights of the town, without having to deal with pesky Austrian villagers, odd currencies and long travel.

Hallstatt, III

Even for European visitors, Hallstatt does not feel  entirely right. Only connected to the outside world since the early 20th century – visitors previously had to cross the lake to get to the place – one sometimes gets the impression as if the town’s inhabitants are a bit overwhelmed by all the interest. The tourism industry is well-oiled for sure, and even the most innocuous looking building has been turned into a shopfront for tourist tat. But at the same time, Hallstatt still sports some original inhabitants, which was made clear by an old lady who, in-between muttering grumpily to herself, told the hapless visitor to shove off and not walk straight into her house (which is on the main square and for all intents and purposes looks like a shop).

Hallstatt, IV

No, it is more the feel that the entire place has been set up for a film production company that surely will show up in a few moments. The Austrian, American, Japanese and Chinese extras are lingering in the background, seemingly waiting for the stars to arrive. The waiters in the outdoors cafés are furtively looking over their shoulders as if they know more than anyone else about the show. The kids with their dogs jumping around the fountain on the central square, pretending to play but really only rehearsing their act. It all feels terribly unreal, and while the cameras never arrive, the set is always ready.