How do you tell the story of war, and, more specifically, the last Syrian War, which started in 2011, after the constant flood of images that has saturated the media? This war ushered in a new era: never has a conflict been so extensively documented by those living it. Be they demonstrators, police officers, soldiers, militiamen or torturers, everyone has filmed it and shared it on the web. The most violent videos are the ones that go viral. The horror is trivialized and “Syrians are sentenced to indignity” in the words of photographer Alexis Cordesse.
It was happenstance that led Cordesse, a war zone veteran, to produce the “Talashi” series, which is being published by Éditions Xavier Barral. A war photographer for years, he has had his images published in the French and foreign press and exhibited at the Visa pourimage festival (1992), and he took part in the first World Press Master Class (1995). In the mid-90s, he began moving away from classic photojournalism essays and underwent a drastic change in his approach. He returned to the field of current affairs with new requirements, including an in-depth reflection on the ethics of witnessing the suffering of others.
A Syrian friend of his, Maha, who had just arrived in France with her husband and her two children, told him that one of her daughters had taken with her photos she selected from a family album, and that she had tied them together with a pink ribbon. It took two years for Cordesse to gain access to those photos, which were being stored elsewhere than in France. “When I opened the tin cans (in 2017), I experienced an extremely powerful off-camera effect compared to the news footage about Syria, which was being aired non-stop at the time. I asked Maha to entrust some of the photos to me, and after a while, I realized that these relatively mundane images were, literally, extraordinary.”
Cordesse went looking for more images, from other families. “It was very complicated, because there are quite a few Syrians in France, between 25,000 and 28,000. And even more complicated given that the not-for-profits working during a crisis had better things to do, which is perfectly understandable.” He met with Syrian exiles in the Paris region, in the Lyon region, and in Marseille. Thanks to a CNAP grant, he traveled to Turkey and Germany. Over the course of two years of research, he met with a little over eighty people.
“I’ve looked at tens of thousands of images, of which I kept about 2,950, and there are over 50 of them in this book.” These images date from 1990 to 2019, and “in a simple, precise and unembellished way,” they show life in Syria, they tell the stories of Maha and his daughters, the story of Ahmed whose building collapsed after an air raid, of Salam who lived in Deir es-Zor, a city that fell into the hands of the Islamic State organization, the stories of Muhammad, Haifa, Tuka and Hala.
Through images of a football game, a birthday party, a day at the sea, Talashi depicts a daily life that is gone forever. As Hala, one of the protagonists of this series, looked at the photos Cordesse had collected, she was reminded of a sequence from a Pedro Almodóvar film: a crossfade in which the images of the present overlap those of a childhood memory. The photographer asked her if she could think of a word in Arabic to translate this impression of erasure via images. Hala suggested talashi, which translates as fragmentation, erosion, and disappearance. Where life disappeared, Cordesse sought to bring it back to life.
By Sabyl Ghoussoub
Born in Paris in 1988 into a Lebanese family, Sabyl Ghoussoub is a writer, columnist and curator. His second novel, Beyrouth entre parenthèses [Beirut in Parentheses] was released by Antilope editions in August 2020.
Talashi, Alexis Cordesse, Atelier EXB / Éditions Xavier Barral, 35€.