Russian photographer Sergey Ponomarev has been documenting the conflict in Syria since 2013. Initially on commission from the New York Times, he was one of only a few photographers allowed into the areas of the country under the control of President Assad’s government. These photos form the first part of this exhibition, ‘Assad’s Syria’: three rooms of big, beautifully composed, printed and framed images. There are destroyed concrete buildings and children among the ruins. A man and his bike are highlighted by a fire started by a mortar attack. Elsewhere, Syrians take tea and try to pretend nothing’s wrong. It’s nuanced, multi-faceted. At 36, Ponomarev has already won a Pulitzer Prize and the Robert Capa Gold Medal. He knows what he’s doing – he doesn’t get his thumb in shot or anything.
The second, much smaller part of the show, ‘The Exodus’, is a digital projection of 40 photos Ponomarev took between 2015 and 2016 of the European refugee crisis that developed as a result of the war. They’re just as accomplished, but full of urgency, chaos and despair. People tumble out of boats and riot as borders are closed. Everyone is either running or numbly sitting still.
I didn’t initially get why the two halves were so disparate. Then I did. ‘Assad’s Syria’ is about place; ‘The Exodus’ is about people. You could see their respective treatments as saying something about how we value places – whether Homs or Homerton, Palmyra or Peckham – more than people. In ‘Assad’s Syria’ the figures in the images contextualise their situation: an old man and his granddaughter search the rubble of their flat; the owner of a souvenir shop watches the sun set on another tourist-free day; a soldier guards ancient ruins, soon to be destroyed by Isis. But in ‘The Exodus’ we see what happens when people are denied the context of place, when their humanity alone serves to justify their location. The landscape becomes as generic as the refugees’ jeans and sneakers: barbed wire, hastily erected metal rat-runs, ugly fields. The uniforms of the riot police vary from border to border. Slovenia, Hungary, Greece – they all look the same. All that matters is to get over there, to not be here. We see how these are people stripped of everything. This is a powerfully simple show. But then it tells a very simple story: war means being dispossessed.