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Moises Saman

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If 2011 was a year of simple, powerful narratives — of revolution and sweeping change — 2012 was when things got a lot more complicated.

The aftermath of the Arab Spring’s upheavals saw uneasy transitions toward democracy. The exhilaration of freedom dissolved in the face of new struggles and contests for power: in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, the streets are once again filled with protesters angry over the advent of religious radicalism, the return of authoritarianism and the unemployment and tough economic conditions that remain. In Syria, peaceful demonstrations in 2011 morphed into a bitter, bloody civil war that has claimed over 40,000 lives and rages on. Hostilities between Israel and its adversaries in the occupied territories were once more renewed as the peace process collapsed and the road map to a two-state solution looked to have been crumpled up and tossed away. And in the U.S., a seemingly endless, costly election cycle served only to restore the status quo: the re-elected President Obama faces many of the same challenges and obstacles he did before Nov. 6.

Throughout 2012, TIME’s unparalleled photojournalists were there. We stood within the tumult of Tahrir Square and shared moments of quiet with the world’s most powerful President. We documented both the ravages of war on Syria’s blasted cities and the devastation nature wrought on our own backyard in the Northeast. At a time when so much hangs in the balance, bearing witness can be the most essential act — and that’s what we do.

Ishaan Tharoor

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Syria has always been a tough place to cover for journalists. Confidently authoritarian with a ruthlessly formidable security and intelligence apparatus, Syria has long been one of the most policed of Arab police states. So when some Syrians defied their government to take to the streets in the southern city of Dara‘a in March 2011, the temptation to cover the story was overwhelming for many, including myself.

The story of the Syrian uprising is ultimately the tale of regular citizens silencing the policeman in their heads, breaking their own personal barriers of fear to speak, to demonstrate, to demand, to reject, to no longer be afraid, to live in dignity. It’s about what these people will do, what they will endure, and what they are prepared to become to achieve their aims.

It is also the story of a significant portion of the population that considers the regime of President Bashar Assad the country’s best option, because they believe in its Baathist secular ideology or directly benefit from its patronage or don’t have confidence in Assad’s opponents and fear what may come next. Understanding what this segment of the population will accept in terms of state violence, the narratives they choose to believe and their concerns is a critical component of the story, though one that is harder to obtain, given the paucity of press visas issued by Damascus.

The only way to tell the Syrian story, really tell it, is to be on the ground with the men, women and children who are central to it, whether in Syria on in the neighboring states that many Syrians have fled to. It isn’t easy to do — the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York City, has dubbed Syria the “most dangerous place for journalists in the world” — but it is essential. Nothing beats being there. There is no compensating for seeing, feeling, touching, capturing, living the story.

The images here are a testament to the power of being on the ground, of sharing and capturing a moment for posterity, of translating an element of a person’s life through imagery.

Take a look at the photos. Can you place yourself in these situations? Can you imagine what it must be like? What do you feel when you look at the images? Are you drawn into them, or are you repulsed? Can you relate to them, or are they too alien? This is the power of translating on-the-ground reporting to an audience. This is why we must and will continue to document the Syrian uprising from inside the country when we can, and we — members of the foreign press corps — are not alone. Sadly, as is often the case, local journalists (both professional and citizen) have disproportionately borne the brunt of the casualties in this crisis. Still, this story is not about members of the media and what we go through to tell it; it’s about the Syrians who entrust their testimonies, their experiences, their hopes, their fears, their images to us in the hope that they will help explain what is happening in one of the most pivotal states in the Middle East.

—Rania Abouzeid

This collection of testimonies is the third in a series by TIME documenting iconic images of conflict. See “9/11: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” and “Afghanistan: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” for more.

Abouzeid is a Middle East correspondent for TIME. Reporting by Vaughn Wallace.

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Last week, as protests once again raged in the streets of Cairo, Magnum photographer Moises Saman was there. Over three days, he documented the ongoing street battles near his residence in the Garden City area—right around the corner from the American Embassy and Tahrir Square.

With rocks and tear-gas canisters flying through the air, Saman understood that he only had a small window of time to work.

“If you’re putting yourself right in the middle, eventually you’ll get hit,” he said. “You have to work fast.”

Taking cover behind a burnt car, Saman photographed protestors in the streets early on the morning of Sept. 14th. It was there that he shot the photograph featured as the opening Worldview spread in this week’s issue of TIME. Police and protestors had clashed throughout the night, following a string of unrest earlier in the day that had resulted in the attack of the American Embassy. Arriving at the protests, Saman found a varied scene.

“It was around 7 or 8 am,” he told TIME, “and the mood was tense. There were not many photographers around—I was one of the only foreigners.”

The street gleamed with pools of water from police water cannons, reflecting men standing defiantly in the street. Improvised tools of outrage littered the roadway: stones, chunks of concrete, burned-out vehicles and broken tree branches.

In the background, lines of men fanned out, some with arms crossed, others recording the spectacle with their cell phones. Taking advantage of a brief lull, several sat on the curb, nursing their exhaustion from a long night of clashes and tear-gas.

Moving quickly, Saman photographed young men as they scavenged for stones. Working in the no man’s land between the groups, the photographer needed to turn his back to police in order to capture the action in front of him. Although security forces weren’t firing live ammunition, the risk of injury was still high: “Getting hit with a rock will ruin your day,” he jokes.

Living in Cairo for the past year has taught Saman that he can’t afford the luxury of hanging around a scene waiting for the best light and peak action. It’s often when one lingers too long that problems can arise.

“You need to work quickly,” he said. “You need to work with purpose.”

Moises Saman, a Magnum photographer based in Cairo, was previously featured on LightBox for his work from Libya.

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