F-Stop Magazine Logo


Book Review: A Handful of Dust by Nish Nalbandian

September 12, 2014, Gaziantep, Turkey
Ali says, “Most Syrian situations are bad. There are no jobs. Thank God I have this career. Other people sit in a park or garden while I am at work with my family and I love it. I love going to work.“

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.”

December 2, 2015, Gaziantep, Turkey
Mahmoud left Syria after being detained by the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. “I was arrested once for two days at a checkpoint that belonged to Jabhat al-Nusra just for wearing a necklace, which is forbidden in (extreme interpretations of) Islam,”he says. Being a gay man led him to seek asylum in Germany, where he now lives with his sister.

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.

March 9, 2014, Görentas, Turkey
Abu Malik’s five children stand outside their home overlooking the Syrian border in Görentas. The kids spend most of their time outside playing or looking for something to do as there is no school.

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.

December 8, 2015, Reyhanti, Turkey Jamal Hazara, his wife, Haldia, and their two young boys, from the Idlib Countryside in Syria, fled to the farming area of Halay in southern Turkey after bombing and fighting escalated near their home in 2014. In 2015, the family was squatting in a small abandoned farm building with a leaky roof and no insulation.

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.

March 9, 2014, Görentas, Türkey
Former Nusra Front judge Abu Hamid, 43, takes a moment of fun, joking that he should be riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Working as a judge and a religious teacher before the Syrian Revolution, he was conscripted to work for al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra as a judge when the group took over his hometown of Deir ez-Zour. Abu Hamid had spent the previous fifteen years teaching young Muslim extremists that violence was not in accord with the teachings of Islam. However, under Nusra he was tasked mostly with dividing up oil revenues in what he considered was an unjust system. When he was ordered to rubber-stamp the executions of innocent people he was appalled and terrified. When he asked the local Nusra Emir why they had executed these people he was told to stop questioning his orders or they would kill his family. That day he piled his family in his car and fled to Turkey.

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

About Hans Durrer

Hans Durrer is an author and addiction counsellor based in Switzerland. www.hansdurrer.com/, 12-step-addiction-treatment.blogspot.ch/. Two of his books are in English: Ways of Perception, Bangkok 2006; Framing the World, Houston 2011.

Location: Online Type:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Events by Location

Post Categories