World Press Photo of the Year nominee Mohammed Badra

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Back in 2011, Mohammed Badra was studying architecture at Damascus University, a 20-minute drive from his native Douma. Then war broke out in Syria and he was forced to abandon his studies, initially becoming a first-responder for the Syrian Red Crescent, and then starting to take photographs of the conflict. “Taking a picture is documenting history,” he says simply. “I am an architecture student, I was pushed into photography.”

In 2015 Badra joined EPA [European Pressphoto Agency], and started to focus in on images of children. Children are “the biggest losers in this war” he says, and there are many caught up in the crossfire, with the UN estimating that some 500,000 are currently living in 16 besieged areas in Syria.

And it’s the child that’s the really shocking factor in Badra’s photograph from Eastern Ghouta, which has been nominated for the World Press Photo of the Year. Showing victims of a suspected gas attack in hospital on 25 February 2018, the image includes a small boy hooked up to breathing apparatus.

“I always use my ethical compass while creating a picture,” Badra tells BJP. “I imagine myself in the injured situation, or imagine that I’m taking a picture of one of my family members. When I see a victim I see myself, because in Douma it could easily be me or anyone next in those positions tomorrow. They are a mirror of our possible future, and this idea terrifies me.”

The suspected gas attack is controversial, particularly as using chemical weapons is outlawed. That there was an attack seems undeniable, with the Syrian American Medical Society confirming it treated 16 patients – including six children – for “symptoms indicative to exposure to chemical compounds”. But who is responsible is a moot point, with the Syrian government consistently denying it is using chemical weapons, and with Syrian President Assad’s backers, the Russian government, accusing rebels of using them as a “provocation”. 

Badra notes that “each person has his private opinion”, and acknowledges that “I am one of the victims”, but adds that: “We know the victims, and we know the criminals, all of us know!”

“It’s very clear actually,” he continues. “Eastern Ghouta was besieged by the Syrian forces, and the bombing campaign started on Ghouta during the [UN] ceasefire. News reports always say different things, but I don’t think it is fair to take hundreds of reports saying that the Assad regime did that, and compare them to a few reports saying something different. I believe that the world knows the culprit – a world that can send space stations to faraway planets to take pictures must have pictures of warplanes dropping bombs and barrels.

“Because I am a Syrian national, because I am one of the victims, because I’ve listened to thousands of testimonies, and because of the collective knowledge of how dictatorships deal with the people they oppress, I have built my own opinion around what happened,” he concludes.

But while Badra draws on his experience of Syria and Assad to inform both his opinions and his photography, he says that there isn’t a big difference between what he shoots and what foreign photojournalists shoot – other than that he’s able to get access.

“It’s not about being a local or a foreigner, it’s about how to capture the moment and understand the atmosphere,” he says. “About how the photographer can make a connection with the victims, read their eyes. Local photographers are maybe closer to the people more than foreigners. But there are so many foreign photographers that make great coverage, because of their fresh eyes.

“I support having both local and foreign coverage, but it was under siege,” he adds. “You need to ask the ones who prevented foreigners from getting inside, the ones who besieged the city.”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy