The Things They Bring to Battle
Posted on January 31st, 2013
Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini has been photographing conflict zones from Afghanistan to Haiti to Libya to Syria. His work has been published both in the US and Europe. I met Sebastiano when he was part of a panel, “Picturing War” that I moderated at PhotoNOLA in 2011. I have also edited his work, and when I saw this project, now featured in The New Republic, I knew I wanted to have him answer some questions.
Give us a little background about how you came to photography
“I wish I had an interesting story about how I first picked up a camera but I really don’t… I wanted to impress my family and friends. I wanted their attention. I was not looking to make a difference.”
Tell me how this project came about?
“I was covering the conflict in Syria and had been “Embedding” with the FSA (Free Syrian Army) in late October as the fight between the regime and the opposition was at its most kinetic point.
During a particularly bad day of fighting between the Free Syrian Army and the Assad regime, a band of rebels took refuge in the basement of an abandoned factory building in Aleppo. They had just lost two men and were in desperate need of more supplies and more fighters. As we all waited for the shelling to stop, I discovered a small hole in one of the factory walls. With that opening providing our only light, I photographed many of the rebels, each with the single item they claimed was the most crucial in their struggle against the government.”
It’s very different from what you normally shoot, how has it influenced you?
“In a War zone, at least for myself, you enter in a automatic mode; you know what your assignments are, you know what your editors want, you know what the magazines are looking for so you work around those lines. You don’t have the time to look for a side project; you shoot what you need, you keep your head low and you file your work daily while preparing for the next day.
Working on a personal project is good break from reality, it’s a way of stepping back and taking a deep breath, it’s refreshing, it gives you the time to realize that War itself is just a frame to everything happening around.”
What do you want people to think about when looking at these photographs?
“I don’t think I want people to think anything in particular about these series of images, this was a simple and straightforward series of portraits, it simply happened and it fitted naturally within the events of the day…I came to terms with the fact that no one can understand or experience what it is you really feel, nor what your work is about. I stopped explaining what my work consists of and what I am trying to convey. Information is what comes to mind, all the rest is way to personal to explain in words.”
As a conflict photographer your work is usually documenting activity. Was this harder? Liberating?
“Liberating, for me and the fighters, and a distraction from the reality we were experiencing, it was just me and them.”
Anything else you want to say?
“Clarity, simplicity, honesty, that is what I look for.”
Moussen Alawi, 25-year-old FSA fighter says: “I’m in charge of the artillery, I carry our mortar rounds, they look like flowers”.
Aiman Swade, 31-year-old FSA commander says: “I am the leader of these fighters, my radio is what I carry with me all the time, its how I organize and direct operations…besides that I carry my families memories, they all died in Al Bab.”
As the fight between the soldiers loyal to the regime and the members of the Free Syrian Army intensifies along the front lines of the besieged city of Aleppo, a selected group of rebel poses in front of the camera and answers one question: “What do you carry?” They have entered the highly contested area of Ramussen, one of Aleppo’s regime-controlled neighborhoods, to fight against a fully equipped Syrian tank battalion. On the first day of their mission, they have lost two men and have had four injuries. Hidden in the basement of a abandoned factory building they wait for resupplies and more fighters.
Isham, 19-year-old FSA fighter says: “Cigarettes, yes cigarettes are what I carry with me all the time…”.
Kachadur Manukian, 25-year-old FSA fighter says: “They killed my mother and father, I will kill them with my knife, I wait for that day, this is why I always carry my knife, I will kill them like I would kill a goat…”
All photographs Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini/SIPAUSA