"We’re like moths flying into the flame. You know, sometimes your wings get singed or you just burn up."
Veteran conflict photographer Stanley Greene went to Syria this spring without a reporting assignment. Things in the rest of his life weren’t going well, “so I figured ‘what the hell, this is something I know how to get right’.”
The final push came when someone told him: "This is another Grozny, another Chechnya". “Same amount of destruction, an Islamic war – so I went," Greene told Thomson Reuters Foundation at the Visa pour l’Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France, last month.
Greene worked in Jabal al-Zawiya in northwest Syria in March and in Aleppo in April. There he found a war that had pushed people almost beyond the limits of sanity. Civilians, including mothers and children, were forced into hiding, even inside tombs, hunting for scraps of food and targeted by snipers when they dared to emerge.
Others fled the country, and more were certain to follow, Greene said. Over 2 million Syrians have already sought refuge in neighbouring states.
"The people are leaving. You are about to see mass exodus. All these countries are about to be put to the test. Jordan which has had a relatively safe passage through the Arab Spring could get sucked in before it knows it. Look at Turkey's discontent (at) refugees spilling over. Lebanon… The scenarios are endless," the American photographer said.
With his Easy Rider headscarf, rings and ripped leather pants, at the age of 64 Greene is still an irrepressible dandy – a vagabond in the world of non-fiction storytelling.
He dreamed of becoming a musician or a painter when he left his native Harlem. But for the past four decades, he has used his camera with guts and instinct as a tool to mirror society’s convulsions and paradoxes.
He experiences what he photographs. In San Francisco in the 70s, he "lived, bled, drank, ate, screwed, made art", and captured a raucous tale of music intertwined with drugs.
In the 1980s, he followed in the footsteps of classic photographers, bathing in the sparkling world of Parisian fashion. As high fashion got off its pedestal and came down to street level, with gay culture on the rise, Greene flirted with fashion photography and androgynous model Brigitte Nielsen.
A HUMAN FACE
In 1989 he became a fully fledged photojournalist when he sat on the Berlin Wall, recording history in the making, as the Cold War divisions between East and West crumbled to dust.
For nine years from 1994, he covered the Chechen war with absolute dedication. "The Chechens were seen as the enemy…the terrorists, so it was very hard to give them a human face,” he said of his book, “Open Wound: Chechnya 1994 to 2003” (Trolley Books). “Most of my work is trying to give the individuals who are at risk a human face."
In Syria this year, Greene became obsessed with getting into the heads of rebel snipers. “One sniper who had a picture of his brother’s little girl on his gun was avenging her. So he’s killing anything that moves. And look at this woman sniper - just as cool and collected as you can imagine, killing people,” he said.
“I was really fascinated by these individuals and what motivates them to climb up into these buildings, to get into a good position and shoot people, nameless people."
So how is Syria different from Chechnya? "There are no good guys in Syria. Even on a bad day the Chechens had humour and humanity. And people are not together (in Syria).”
Worse still, Syria’s conflict has attracted extremist Islamist groups, like bees to a honey pot. "You have the possibility of a real religious war; you have the possibility of a real jihad on your hands. And the reason Russia does not want this to happen is because they know that foreign fighters will bring this war to the Caucasus," Greene warned.
Either way, the photojournalist sees no end in sight. “As a conflict photographer we are about to be employed again covering all of this because this is not going to go away - we are looking at 10 years of war. Hopefully less but I doubt it," he said.
‘LOOKING OVER YOUR SHOULDER’
Covering Syria has proven to be a highly dangerous enterprise for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Syria was by far the deadliest country in 2012: 31 journalists were killed here out of a total of 73 worldwide.
Combat-related crossfire was responsible for over a third of journalist fatalities globally last year, and 35 percent of those killed were camera operators and photographers.
At the Perpignan festival, photographers agreed it's getting more and more difficult to cover Syria. “It’s really hard to photograph something when you are looking over your shoulder. If you think there is a possibility of you being kidnapped, of you being shot, the possibility of you being blown up…” said Greene, referring to the growing number of foreign journalists kidnapped or threatened by jihadist fighters hostile to their presence in the country.
Despite the worsening risks, the American photographer decided to head to Syria anyway, without the backing of a media organisation. “Society needs people like us to go to these nasty places. And they should send us because we are going to tell the truth. We are not going to pull any punches; we aren’t going to make you have a nice day. We are there to spoil the party,” he said.
“There are only two kinds of people in these places, NGOs and journalists. You want to call us merchants of misery? That’s an easy hit but you can’t just dismiss us," he added.
While Greene does indeed show us the despair of Syrians in their everyday struggle for survival, he does it with grace and dignity - once again we see the human face behind the tragedy of war.
Watch the video: Eyes on Syria's shattered lives by Stanley Greene
"Photographers talk: Eyes on Syria's shattered lives" is a series of videos and blogs that report on the human face of the Syrian conflict. We are interviewing the best photojournalists covering the war - both well-known and emerging names. Suggest outstanding work using #EYESonSyria
Stanley Greene is founding member of NOOR
He was been awarded the Aftermath Grant for his project The Rise of Islam in the Caucasus
Polka Magazine – In the ruins of Aleppo by Stanley Greene
In Aleppo clinics 'you walk on blood', says photojournalist (Sebastiano Tomada)