Moises Saman is one of the leading conflict photographers of our time. In recent years, he has worked in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and Libya. In the August Issue of WIRED, Saman’s photographs and interviews from Aleppo in Syria accompanied Matthieu Aikins’ article about bomb-makers in the rebel homemade arms industry. The assignment was Saman’s third visit Syria since the onset of civil unrest in March 2011. Early in the conflict, he documented protests against the regime in the cities of Hama and Homs and in 2012, Saman was in Aleppo shortly after the Free Syrian Army had taken control.
follow-up, we asked Moises Saman to talk about the changing times in Egypt, his mindset in war zones, the pressing issues for today’s photojournalism, and what he’s been reading. We also exclusively share Saman’s personal edit of his career highlights.
WIRED: In your observations, how has the conflict in Syria changed in the past two and a half years?
Moises Saman (MS): Dramatically. What started as a homegrown peaceful protest movement against the regime has morphed into a full-on civil war with a vicious sectarian undertone. The presence of foreign elements on both sides of the conflict has added another layer of complexity, making it even harder to find a solution to end the conflict. In the meantime, the humanitarian crisis resulting from the civil war has reached an epic level, with close to 2 million refugees now seeking shelter in countries bordering Syria, and an estimated 4.5 million internally displaced people struggling to find safe haven inside the country.
WIRED: What do you think before taking an assignment in such a dangerous place?
MS: It was important to have as much current information on the subject and the situation on the ground in Aleppo before committing to take the assignment.
WIRED: You’ve repeatedly been in zones of conflict, documented and seen a lot of violence. Why do you keep returning to theaters of war?
MS: I did not set out to become a “combat photographer” when I started my career. I suppose my work was influenced by the events of my generation, namely the 9/11 attacks and the global repercussions in its aftermath. Personally, as I grow older, I find it more and more difficult to continue to return to these places of conflict, because continuously working in war zones is in some ways a selfish choice — one that is hardest to bear for the people that care about you.
That said, I still find some motivation out of a sense of commitment to my work, hoping that the photos will be a factor in the ongoing dialogue about the realities of conflict.
WIRED: What is the story for you in Egypt, currently? What have you photographed these past weeks? What are conditions on the ground like?
MS: My work in Egypt is continuously evolving, parallel to the social and political developments since the start of the Revolution, but not necessarily attached to the news events. I have tried to be there and photograph the important milestones since the fall of Mubarak, but with a personal and sensitive approach that also speaks to my own experience as a foreigner in this country in transition.
The violent events of last month were a dangerous departure from what I’ve witnessed in the past two years. Rocks and sticks gave way to sniper bullets. Isolated street battles common in Cairo were replaced with mass killing.
WIRED: Have you ever got close to your subjects to the point it has caused problems?
MS: I am always careful not to have a negative effect on the situation or subject that I’m photographing, but unfortunately I can’t say for certain that I have never gotten anyone in trouble because of my work. In my opinion “professional distance” and “objectivity” are vague terms, because in my work I search for the intimacy and trust that requires me to be close to the subject, to be accepted.
WIRED: You’ve said that when you began photography you did so on a self-financed trip to the Balkans and that you were more interested in the lifestyle. Does the lifestyle still excite you?
MS: That was 14 years ago and I think I’ve gotten that selfish desire out of my system. Now I’m more interested in sharing, in being part of someone else’s life as much as of my own. I have accepted that the lifestyle is unsustainable.
WIRED: How do you deal with witnessing death?
MS: There is no formula, I still struggle to understand death, especially when it’s the result of random violence, manipulation or when it could have been easily avoided.
WIRED: What are the main frustrations of your work?
MS: The work comes with many frustrations. The main one is finding a balance between my work and my personal life.
WIRED: And how about the rewards?
MS: I recently worked on a story about human trafficking in the Sinai, where Bedouin tribes kidnap and torture African immigrants for ransom. I photographed a survivor of one of these torture camps whose two hands had been brutally cut off by his torturers. The story received an overwhelming response in Germany, where it was published, and a group of doctors who had seen the photograph offered to perform prosthetic surgery on the hands of the survivor.
WIRED: What are your proudest moments of your career so far and how do you measure the impact of your photographs?
MS: Being accepted into Magnum Photos was definitely a proud moment, but I measure the impact of my work in terms of how much it can influence positive change.
WIRED: How does Magnum support your work?
MS: Partly by allowing me to stay in a region — finding assignments that run parallel to my wider body of work on the issues that I’m interested in. But the biggest support comes from a sense of belonging to a unique group of talented photographers that, despite their many differences and backgrounds, share a commitment to carry on the tradition of the agency.
WIRED: What are the most interesting and relevant current discussions about photojournalism and image-making?
MS: The discussion about honesty in photojournalism is very interesting. By this I mean how “truth,” commentary and personal vision can have a positive or negative effect when delving into an issue that has real consequences for the subjects involved.
WIRED: You encourage photographers to read more. Any recommendations?
MS: Anything that sparks your imagination — fiction, non-fiction. Lately, I have read a lot of history, and currently George Orwell’s classic Homage to Catalonia.
WIRED: You shoot in color, but sometimes post-process and publish as black and white images. Tell us about that.
MS: Some specific stories I see in black and white. It can depend my mood, or the mood of the work. There’s no formula. I mostly work with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 camera and almost always with just one 35mm F/2 lens. Technically speaking, I find black and white easier — you have more freedom. The picture doesn’t need to be perfect. With color, if the colors themselves are not strong then the image does not work. Black and white, on the other hand, gives you more leverage; you have more space to focus on the content, instead of composition or lighting.
WIRED: Given the inherent stress of conflict photography, do you intend to step back from it in the near future?
MS: Depends on what your definition of near future. Eventually yes, but not yet.