“I was there before the war,” Ponomarev explains. “I was fascinated by the culture and roots of this nation… It’s a beautiful land.
Taken in 2013 and 2014, the images in the first part of the exhibition — “Assad’s Syria” — are works of art as well as documents of that destruction.
Despite their often ugly content, the aesthetic quality of the photographs — the use of color, the play of light and shade, the flawless framing — is hard to ignore.
“I’m always using light, using color, using metaphors, but I never try to interfere in the reality unfolding,” says Ponomarev. “I never stage images.”
“Reality will give you more surprises… you will see striking or beautiful events happen in front of you.”
He takes very few images, spending much of his time waiting rather than clicking. Most photographers shoot everything they see, a fixer once told him, “You’re unusual.”
“But I know what kind of frame I want and I wait until I see it,” he says. “And I try to be as invisible as I can.”
Inside Assad’s Syria
While many Western journalists have gained access to the country with rebel groups, Ponomarev, a Russian national, was only able to enter with a visa from the Syrian government.
For him, it was “an opportunity to… get something unique from inside the government zones.”
One of the most striking images in the exhibition shows an election portrait of President Bashar al-Assad hung on a destroyed shopping mall in the Khalidiya district of Homs soon after it was retaken by government forces in 2014.
“If there is a portrait of Assad, it means this zone is controlled by (him),” Ponomarev explains. “They hang that as a sign of victory.”
For most Westerners, however, “this picture tells a death toll.”
Ponomarev says he was one of the last Western journalists in Palmyra before it was taken by ISIS. “I keep this photo in my flat, the only photograph (of mine) that I keep there, because that’s a heritage that’s now destroyed.”
From conflict to exodus
Ponomarev became a freelance photojournalist in 2012 after working for Associated Press in Russia.
Since then, he has been awarded some of the biggest prizes in international photography, including the Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for his work with colleagues at The New York Times documenting the lives of refugees arriving in Europe.
Forty-six of the photos he took on that trip are on display in the second part of this exhibition in an installation titled “The Exodus.” Many of them have never been shown in public before.
In a darkened room, a compelling, sometimes distressing, story of flight is played out on a large screen, each image appearing for a few seconds before giving way to the next — a never-ending narrative of the human search for refuge.
Ponomarev sees this narrative as the direct consequence of wars such as the Syrian conflict, and the layout of this two-part exhibition invites the visitor to draw the same conclusion.
Back in the first room we see Syrians apparently going about their normal lives — shopping, baking bread, relaxing at a café, praying.
The war was there, but people continued with their lives, recalls Ponomarev. “There might be an explosion just in the next block, and on the other side of the street… there’s a normal busy street buzz and a traffic jam and people will live normally.”
In the next room, the visual signifiers of conflict become harder to miss: explosions, soldiers, rubble and the look of fear in the eyes of civilians.
Any semblance of normality has gone. Who would not flee from this tide of destruction, the exhibition seems to ask, before presenting us with the desperate stories of those who did just that — but were met with violence and fenced-up borders after reaching Europe’s shores.
The power of visual storytelling
Ponomarev is inspired by the work of photojournalists such as James Nachtwey and Sebastiao Salgado, who “went as deep as they could and tried to reveal the hardships of mankind.”
Yet he’s also aware that the power of photography has been depleted by the constant stream of images that we are fed in what he calls a “digital millennium.”
“We are overwhelmed by imagery and images don’t have the same effect as before,” he says. “Photographers now will never stop wars.”
But Ponomarev believes there are positives too. “We don’t need words anymore (to tell stories) — images are an international language of storytelling.”
The story told in this exhibition is of a conflict that is both continuing and beginning to pass into history. The images on display are “historical documents,” Ponomarev says, as well as reminders of a current, and very pressing, crisis.
This juxtaposition of the contemporary and the historical is welcomed by the museum, which opened in 1917 in the midst of the First World War. By engaging with contemporary conflict, “we’re continuing what we started to do 100 years ago,” says Hilary Roberts, curator of the exhibition.
And war will always be a compelling subject. “War is such an extreme human experience,” says Roberts. “People have the urge to either bear witness — and the camera is a very good way of doing that — or they seek insight and understanding.”
And Ponomarev’s images offer just that.
Reflecting on the experience of reporting from war zones, he unsurprisingly selects a visual metaphor.
“There’s only black and white in conflict zones,” he says, “only life and death, enemy and friend.”
Perhaps that was his experience, but the images he has created are rich with nuance and bear witness to a complex reality that is filled with shades of gray.
“Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria” runs until September 3 at the Imperial War Museum in London. It is part of the museum’s broader season, “Syria: A Conflict Explored.”