She was holding the phone really close to her face in the way that people do when they are not used to video or FaceTime calls and she looked a little lost, her eyes searching around the screen in the way your parents probably do if you try to Skype them. There was something about her skin too, how close it was, lit only by the translucent glow of her mobile phone; you felt you could almost reach out into the phone and touch her, Iman, although she was far away, locked inside Syria.
It went unreported as it always does, but last week her home in the north-east of the city of Hama was plunged into darkness after a series of barrel bombs cut off the electricity supply. She was trying to talk to us – her brother Abohane, his family and I, from Hama as we sat in the Greek port of Piraeus, which is now a temporary refugee camp for him and around 6000 increasingly desperate people.
I had met Abohane and his family while working in Piraeus as a photographer, looking hopelessly for ways to tell the story with images. Only the day before I had watched mobile phone footage of Abohane, his friends and family sitting nervously in a packed dinghy with the coast of Turkey drifting away behind them. Then more footage, but this time of him and his children dancing on the deck of the Greek ‘Blue Star’ ferry that was carrying them from Lesvos to the mainland. They had made it to Europe. Here they hoped for shelter and asylum in Germany although they have in fact remained living in a tent at the Greek port, the last refugees be allowed into Europe.
There was not the money for everyone to make the journey though – it is about US$600 on average for a person to travel in a floating death trap, from Turkey to Europe. Iman’s husband was killed fighting Assad’s troops long ago, leaving her struggling alone. So they decided together that Abohane would travel on ahead with his wife and children and that together they would find the money to bring Iman to them later, when they were earning a living in Germany. But now she cannot join them. Their plan failed at midnight on March 19th 2016 when the door was closed forever by the EU on those seeking sanctuary in Europe. She and her two young children must stay where they are.
‘He is all around now’, she said. My Arabic is not up to much but two or three times I heard her say it: ‘Bashar, the army, they are all around the city, we are surrounded.’ Her fear was palpable and she started to cry. The wetness of her face as she cried, her eyes and how close she was holding the phone containing her brother’s pixelated face is a sight I will not forget.
And then she was crying so hard that her whole body creased up and she had to move away from the camera and pass the phone to her two children who sat there confused, waving at us out of the darkness with little half-clenched fists as we tried to smile and wave back.
It was at this moment that I realised that Abohane too had begun, silently, to cry. He started trying to brush the tears from his face with his free hand while his three small children hung off his shoulders trying to see their cousins in the phone, confused and distressed.
And because I am a photographer and yes, possibly a bit of an emotional vampire, I knew instantly that it was a hell of an image. Without me even realising it my brain had already calculated that it would take me about one second to get up quietly off the wooden pallet that we were using as a seat in the middle of the car park, three seconds to walk around the children’s washing which was drying on a piece of rope and across to the spot where I would get the angle I needed on where he was sitting. I knew instinctively where to stand, where best to capture his tears shining in the orange harbour lights because that is what I do. There were coiled springs in my legs saying: ‘Get up woman, get up and take the photo. You can be over there in less than five seconds. He will not mind and you want this’. But there was a dead weight in my stomach and somehow my feet were shackled to the floor.
Finally, Iman’s battery or the internet connection, which had faltered already three of four times, failed for the last time and we lost her. She probably went and put her children to bed hoping that they would all survive the night and we just sat there while Abohane tried to clear the tears from his face.
So, in one of those classic moments of British ineptitude and deeply uncomfortable determination to totally underestimate the scale of the catastrophe facing us here, I put my hand on his shoulder and said: ‘They will be ok, Abohane’. Which I did not believe and which seemed as stupid then as it does now, but there wasn’t a thing else in the world I could do or say. Just put my hand on his shoulder and not get up and take that photograph from him.
Legend has it that Crazy Horse, leader of the Native American Oglala Lakota, believed that the camera would steal part of his soul. There are no fully authenticated photographs of him, just oral and written history. I have never believed in this, I think it is the wariness of a man who just did not yet know how extraordinary and precious a photograph can be or how it would today have been used to document his fight for his people and their way of life.
The camera is my way of communicating with the world. It has been since the day my granddad bought, for a painfully shy 6-year old, an instant camera from Boots that arrived one Christmas in a simply incredible shiny orange box. When the battery compartment broke, I kept it alive for years with duct tape. A photograph I took through it of my mother who was dying, although I did not know it, as she waved to me from far away is the one material thing I would go back into a house to save from fire. It breathes life into her for me to this day.
But in that moment in Piraeus, part of me knew that if I got up and raised my trigger finger to the shutter I would be stealing part of Abohane’s soul and chipping away at my own. I haven’t seen a man so crippled with grief like that for a while and I just couldn’t do it to him. Maybe my hardwired photographer’s brain didn’t know it but my legs did, the dead weight in my stomach did. And they would not let me get up.
I failed him and myself as a photographer that night but it doesn’t really matter, no one is looking or listening anyway. The EU-Turkey deal is done and those of us who care are all just shouting into the wind. I had failed him already because I am a European citizen. Maybe not directly, but indirectly for sure. I have failed him and his sister and her children. We all have. Abohane is a kind and dignified man now living on charity in a tent in a car park and his sister is trapped, terrified, day and night, with no way out. Those searching eyes will keep looking for him out of the darkness and he cannot help her.
We failed right from the start. Just like the people who lived in the farmhouses of Bergen and Belsen did every day for years. We shut the door, turned off the phone and looked away. Our guilt is complicit and total.
Perhaps it is that that I could not photograph, my own guilt that I could not look at and record, reflected back at me in his tear-flooded face. It is the photograph of that, that I could not take and it will haunt me forever.