There are pictures of the migration crisis we rarely get to see – pictures of the lives of the millions of Syrians who now live in Turkey. Documentary photographer Nish Nalbandian met very poor and also very wealthy (who managed to move their factories to Turkey) Syrians, some in the countryside, some in cities. His specific goal, he writes, “is to try to get you to see yourself in these pictures. Because these people lived lives in Syria not too different from your own. Try to imagine what your life would be like if a sudden war or disaster had you fleeing your home to a different country with nothing but a suitcase and some documents.”
It goes without saying that it is almost impossible to envisage such a situation for oneself. Yet this is also what most Syrians very probably had thought. Photographs to be understood must be felt. Photographs in combination with the stories behind the pictures stand a good chance to make us feel empathy.
Documentary photography means to to go outside, to leave the studio and confront oneself with people. And, to come back with pictures that give testimony to the people, places and things observed. Documentary also means pictures with words. A Handful of Dust is exemplary in this regard, the pictures and words complement each other perfectly.
Only about 11 percent of Syrians in Turkey live in camps. Approximately 250,000, that is. “The rest have ‘self-settled’ in both urban and rural areas.” In other words: Of the roughly twelve million who left Syria (almost half of the country’s population), around three million have ended up in Turkey. Moreover: “In Turkey, Syrians are not considered refugees. They are called ‘guests’. Once they register they are entitled to access to health care and ostensibly some food or relief. “Needless to say, the degree to which they adapt to their new situation varies yet “some are in very grim situations. Trafficking and abuse of women, girls, and boys is rampant and terrible.”
A Handful of Dust includes texts by Mexican photographer Javier Manzano (“Fleeing the Fires of War“), Syrian refugee and activist Aref Krez (“Before Aleppo Burned“), author and filmmaker Greg Campbell (“The Refugee in All of Us“), and reporter and writer Carmen Gentile (“Resilient Refugees“), who, when once asked what the Syrians thought about the Turks and living in Turkey, answered: “I haven’t talked to every Syrian; I can’t make a generalization.” Nish Nalbandian’s pics illustrate this convincingly.
The people portrayed in this tome want to be heard, seen and noticed. This is what I felt when spending time with these photographs. Photographer Nish Nalbandian gives some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees a face, a body, a voice. He invites us to identify, to feel compassion. And, it will work if we are ready for it.
A Handful of Dust
by Nish Nalbandian
Daylight, April 2018
Also published on Medium.