His haunting and compelling images capture stories that aren’t told often enough – stories of children who are living through one of the most brutal wars in recent history.
Swedish photographer Niclas Hammarström traveled to Syria three times since October 2012 to cover the everyday life of hundreds of thousands of families who are caught in the crossfire with no escape. Recently, an independent jury of photo experts selected his moving reportage on the effects of the Syrian conflict on children as the winner of UNICEF Germany’s Photo of the Year Award 2013.
I spoke to Niclas Hammarström about the people he met and the scenes he witnessed inside Syria.
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Q: During your last visit to Syria, you were abducted and held in captivity for 44 days. You put your life on the line to bring back these photographs. What motivated you to travel to the most dangerous place for journalists and photographers in the world today?
A: I’m a father of three children and the first time I saw the pictures from Syria – it was mobile video on YouTube – I felt really bad for those children. I live in Sweden, we have a good life, my kids go to school, and they have food everyday. I felt that I had to do something for those children in Syria. I felt the need to focus my work on the children living under the terrible conditions and the suffering that the conflict is creating.
Q: Has life come to a complete standstill inside Syria? How are people adapting to, what’s become, a very bloody reality?
A: There are shootings and bombings almost all the time, at least when I was there, but people have to live their normal life. They have to go and buy food, they have to go to school if the schools are open and go to work if they have work to go to. People are still falling in love and still there are children playing in the streets …the soldiers as well – they still try to do something else and forget about the war. So people are trying to live a normal life but it’s very difficult when you don’t have any electricity or water or food.
Q: One out of every five schools are not functioning in Syria. You photographed children sitting on school benches at the Al-Tawheed school in Aleppo but the benches aren’t in a classroom, they’re out in the cold. Talk us through this striking image.
A: That day, since they had no heat in the school, they moved their classes outside because it was actually slightly warmer outside. It’s not every day that the schools are open because of the bombings. But that particular day, the school was open and they had a guard at the school – the soldier standing next to them. The school has also been attacked by bombs, you see shrapnel in the wall behind the children. It’s a beautiful picture that makes me sad because these children are risking their lives to go to school.
Q: And then there are the thousands who have dropped out of school to support their families and to feed themselves, like 9 year-old Alladin, whom you photographed in Aleppo.
A: Yes, this boy was working at the frontline, picking up used ammunition every day and selling it to the Aleppo market, to get some money to buy food with. It was a very dangerous job for him because just behind him, about 50 metres, there was a shooting and there was fighting going on… he was risking his life every day for small money.
Q: The winning image for UNICEF Germany’s Photo of the Year Award is the photograph of 11 year old Dania Kilsi who was treated for shrapnel wounds at the Dar al-Shifa hospital in Aleppo. What was her story?
A: She was brought to the hospital together with her two younger siblings. They were carried inside the hospital by their father and older brothers. They had been playing outside their house when they got wounded by shrapnel from a bomb. They weren’t seriously injured and I was told they would leave the hospital soon. Her older brother is holding her head (in the photo), waiting for the doctor. They arrived at the hospital at 1.52 pm and left it at 2.27 pm. I have a picture of them arriving and one leaving that’s why I know the time. Dania had a shrapnel wound on her right chin and had a small bandage over it when she left. It looked like a lovely family who cared a lot for each other and were really suffering from the war.
Some photographs are more personal than others, like hers and another boy I saw lying alone at the hospital. He was badly burned all over the body. He was not crying but shaking, freezing – it was very cold inside the hospital. I have a small boy who is almost the same age as him so I gave him my hand… and he took my finger and held my finger and I tried to talk to him and calm him down. I asked the doctors if he was going to be okay and they said, yes, he was going to be okay. He will be in a lot of pain but he will be okay.
Q: These photographs are deeply disturbing and very graphic. Why did you chose to photograph children in such pain?
A: I think it’s very important to show photographs like these and I don’t think that my pictures are very graphic. We need to show the world how bad this war is and what it is doing to children. I am showing people what I saw in Syria. I hope that the war will end and people will care about the situation that they have there.
Contact for media:
UNICEF Germany, Press office, Rudi Tarneden, +49 (0)221/93650-315, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
For use of photographs: www.kontinent.se.