Living with War – A Book Review

© Russell Chapman
© Russell Chapman

The UK-born, now Switzerland-based photographer Russell Chapman has released a new photo book. It’s called Syria: Refugees and Rebels. As the title clearly indicates it’s a time capsule of the ever more devastating situation in Syria. It’s a very personal testament, though, without the usual war glory – or should I say war gory – we find in the regular news and media. Instead of going to the battle zone, Chapman mostly focuses on the ordinary people and how it is to be living under the spell of civil war. And for me that is the strength of the book and what makes the photos stand out.

As Russell Chapman states in the introduction: «I try and convey the huge emotional impact of being in a war zone and the effect it has on the people of Syria; those who stay in the country and those who have fled to refugee camps.» And he continues: «With my images I have focused very much on people; it is they who are trying to survive during this brutal time. I want to show the resilience of a people that I now feel very close to. They really have no choice but to be resilient.»

Chapman has a very quiet and respectful approach to the people he photograph. In his picture your clearly get a sense of this respect and his willingness to meet people on their own terms. He does not just rush in and out again to get that spectacular image that would make the front page. Instead he takes his time and shows people’s lives and the conditions they have to succumb to without unnecessary, exaggerated gestures and without any kind of visual gimmicks. It’s straightforward and honest photography. That is not to say the photos are boring. On the contrary, their clear-cut and candid style bear witness to the inner strength and integrity of the Syrian people Chapman has turned his camera on. And they show the complete photographer Russell Chapman indeed is. The photos’ honesty is almost brutally shocking and demand attentiveness of the viewer.

The photographs showcased in the book were captured last spring. Chapman spent a month in Syrian, mostly in the Aleppo area, as well as a month split between Lebanon and Jordan in order to visit the Syrian refugee camps there. This is reflected in the structure of the book, divided in three sections. Of the three I find the middle section Life in Aleppo, visually the strongest. Some of the photographs, particularly the ones in black and white, have a bit of a Cartier-Bresson feeling about them. They capture fleeting instants with both strong content and telling moments, as well as with enhancing compositions. The last section, The Rebels, also stands out. The photographs here demonstrate more of the actual war, but still with the focus on the human aspect. The first, and in my eyes weaker section, The Refugees, gives a sense of the hopelessness, but also this resilience Chapman speaks about of Syrian people. The book’s absolute strongest image in my opinion is found in this section, though. It’s taken in a camp in Tripoli, Lebanon, and shows the ragged shelters against a setting sun. A boy is captured running and blurred in the foreground while a young woman looks on from the rightmost edge. The black and white adds to the dreariness of the place despite the dazzling sunset, which brings forth an additional and gloomy contra.

Syria: Refugees and Rebels is a powerful visual chronicle with numerous strong and poignant images. I still think the book could have been further lifted with a tighter editing. As it is now there are a handful of pictures that don’t add to the narrative as a whole or aren’t quite moving enough. Also I find the way colour and black and white photos are blended throughout the pages somewhat arbitrary or even unresolved. In general I believe the book suffers a little from a less than perfect design. It’s a little heavy; in particular the font used in the text seems both dense and compact. The photos are as best when given space, singularly and bigger on a page, while the design works somewhat against them when they are put together on the pages.

Despites these minor objections, Syria: Refugees and Rebels is a book I can truly recommend. The photos tell a touching and forceful story. At best they move the viewer and make a lasting impression. The book is a strong document of what it means to live under the spell of war or in the misery of a refugee camp. It tells the story of the Syrian people.

Syria: Refugees and Rebels is available at for 72.55 US$. It is shipped as a hardcover book.

Syria Refugees_Book Cover

36 thoughts on “Living with War – A Book Review

  1. Du rör dig över stora områden både geografiskt och litterärt, det uppskattar jag och det ger ett djup och en stor trovärdighet åt dina ord och bilder. Det är alltid lika spännande att komma på besök på In Flow och idag var det återigen ett nytt ämne.
    Vilken fantastisk bok du recenserar, känner att den vill jag se mer av. Var in på RCs blogg och även där hittade jag bilder och ord att njuta av…stor närvaro och känsla.
    Du är generös och har ett stort hjärta, det genomsyrar din blogg där du alltid lyfter fram andras kreativitet och ser bakom det uppenbara. Här kom jag in på ditt tidigare inlägg som handlade om just detta med kreativitet och förmågan att se och våga. Jag började skriva om detta, men det försvann ut i cyberrymden och jag tappade inspirationen…som det så ofta är när man blir avbruten av något man inte kan styra.
    Hursomhelst så uppskattar jag dina ord och bilder och dina kloka kommentarer hos mig…tack.
    Önskar dig en fin helg var du än befinner dig…öst, väst, syd eller nord!

    1. Takk for de varmende ord, Gertie. Det betyr veldig mye for meg at du ser sammenhenger og oppfatter at mine ord har stor troverdighet. Selv tror jeg på at vi kan løfte hverandre frem og har lite forståelse for det som mer og mer gjennomsyrer vårt samfunn – at alle bare skal tenke på seg selv. Det gjør livet så mye fattigere. Det er ingenting som beriker livet så mye som å kunne dele. Igjen takk, Gertie.

  2. You did a stellar job of introducing us to the visual storytelling of Chapman, and his documentation of this tragic series of historic events. You’ve used your own photographic eye to give a solid critique.

  3. Great review Otto. The description is wonderful, and I like how you described his methods. manly “does not just rush in and out again to get that spectacular image that would make the front page. Instead he takes his time and shows people’s lives and the conditions…” Those who go through those patient and extra process to grab the real emotion in the photography tend to consistently produce emotional shots. Very well done.

  4. I like the title of the book. Being Vietnamese I know something-something about war. Your review is thorough, and the lack of engaging photos is a good point. Although many books I have seen don’t have many photos or photos at all. Unless this book is categorized under the educational section (?). Have a great weekend.

  5. Like there are so much wonderful photoblogs to follow, there are also a lot of beautiful photobooks read (or see 😉 ). Thanks for this review, Otto.

  6. Otto,
    You think there for you are! Or something like that. You really think through the subject at hand and investigate it completely and then you arrive with so much more! It is truly a pleasure visiting your very interesting and beautiful blog. I can’t wait and want more…. Thank you Sir, claudy

  7. It seems we could all benefit from a book such as this. We need to see what it means for these people to live in a war torn country. Will we ever pay enough attention to prevent history repeating itself?

    1. It is a very good question, isn’t it. So far it seems like we don’t learn much from previous disasters. If one thing is certain it is that history repeats itself. Unfortunately.

  8. I hope I am not out of place here to say thank you. It has been interesting to look at the responses to Otto’s review of my book. The aim has always been to raise awareness of the situation of the Syrian people in the most direct way possible. Yes my book is subjective but I have always aimed to be totally honest with how I present the material.

    1. You are not out of place to say thank you, Russell. As to your subjectivity; I think that is part of your strength as a photographer – honest subjectivity. The idea that photography or journalism can even pretend to be objective is no less than ludicrous.

  9. Thanks Otto for making the point. Honest subjectivity is the most important thing to get across. You might have given me an idea for an article, the subjectivity of my work in Syria.

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