‘Syria: A Conflict Explored’: Exhibition Review

‘Syria: A Conflict Explored’ at The Imperial War Museum North.

It’s not always about what you see. Sometimes it’s about what you don’t see, or what you don’t hear, or what you’re not told. This is what I took from the new – and powerful – exhibition at The Imperial War Museum North, ‘Syria: A Conflict Explored.’

The exhibition includes documentary photographs by award-winning photographer Sergey Ponomarev. ‘A Lens on Syria’ is a collection of images that explore the ‘human consequences’ of the conflict. At first these images look to be of the beautiful ordinary, a still of daily life, focusing on the people of Damascus and Homs. You’ll see a man watching a sunset from his souvenir shop, or women selling goods on the street, or a man looking through his flat window, through the foliage outside. What the images don’t show you is the chaos happening just beyond the shot. That man casually gazing out his window? He is actually watching gunfire happening down the street.

Yes the images alone are powerful, but when you read the caption and get a better understanding of what you are witnessing, the whole feel of the photograph dramatically changes.

© Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times Homs, Syria, 15 June 2014 Assad’s Syria (2013-2014)

The photographs alone are outstanding. They show an emotional snippet of the lives of the people living within this war. But what I also love about this exhibition, is how the images are displayed. Text to accompany the photographs is printed on what looks like breeze blocks. These concrete blocks, raw and rugged in texture, could represent the building blocks of these people’s lives. They also reflect on some of the images where you can see the destroyed, apocalyptic-like buildings, hit by bombs and excessive gun-fire, now empty, torn and broken. It is like Ponomarev grabbed these blocks directly from the rubble and used them to describe his images.

Alongside the framed, there is a slide-show of images on a reel, following the people who are fleeing Syria to migrate to Europe. It follows them as they try to escape, as they board dingy’s to travel across the ocean. You see the struggle and the fear that engulfs these desperate people. You see them reach land and struggle further as they are refused entry into European countries, as they battle to cross boarders before the country closes them. Images of children separated, lost and confused. Boys jumping through train windows as they try to escape to another country. The whole display was honestly, quite heart-wrenching.

Sergey Ponomarev has a great ability to capture images of the people, struggling to live their day-to-day lives, quietly suffering under the storm of the conflict. The beautiful images delicately show the strain that people are under, without being gruesome. They are an honest insight, which I think a lot of people are craving for.

A statement at Imperial War Museum reads; ‘Accurate information is hard to come by and simplistic explanations in the media often confuse the picture further.’ This exhibition tries to change that and give truthful and open information. Alongside the photographs of Sergey Ponomarev, there is a video installation ‘Syria: Story of a Conflict.’ This video aims to give clear and unbiased information about the conflict. With a running theme of the ‘shattered’ the video is displayed on a screen, through a projected image of broken glass, with actual shards hanging free mid-air. Broken and shattered, words which can be used to describe the display as well as the conflict and Syria itself.

The video is like watching an in-depth news story, within a beautiful and elaborate installation. It was an informative, balanced view, without the propaganda and media influences. Just like the photographs, this video aims to tell you things that you may not know, or what you no longer hear in the news. That is, the words of the people, the victims of this conflict, those alive trying to survive, and those passed that can no longer tell their story.

© IWM Visitor watching the installation film experience inside the Syria: Story of a Conflict exhibition

There are some shocking statistics printed on the Imperial War Museum North site which feature in the video:

‘The ongoing conflict has already lasted longer than the Second World War [It started in 2011]. As a result, nearly half a million people have been killed. More than eleven million – half the pre-war population – have been forced from their homes and much of the country lies in ruins.’

Half a million people, that is almost equal to the population of Greater Manchester. Have these facts been forgotten? Are they still being discussed in the news? How much do we hear of the people, still struggling daily to survive? That is the theme of this exhibition, it’s a voice for those people who don’t have one, or whose voice has been forgotten, or even hidden. It is this exhibition that bring the people’s voice to the forefront, to stop the messages from being hidden and to reinforce what is still happening in our chaotic world.

‘Syria: A Conflict Explored’ is on at IWM North till 28th May.

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