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