“After Marie Colvin was killed, foreign journalists stopped coming to Homs,” said Ahmed, one of the founding members of Lens of a Young Homsi, a Facebook group devoted to chronicling the gradual destruction of a city caught in the crosshairs of the Syrian war.
Ahmed and his friends were compelled to pick up the slack of foreign correspondents, who are often in town for brief periods, never to return. “We wanted to fill the void,” he said.
For months, Homs residents had been filming events on their mobiles and uploading videos to YouTube. But few were taking the high-quality photographs sought by international media outlets.
In May of last year, the pioneering team, all in their late teens to early twenties, decided that they would use a peaceful method – photography – to document the destruction in their city.
Their lenses are the portal through which the world sees much of what goes on in Homs – the shelling, the fear. But they operate quietly, many using pseudonyms, keeping their activism from loved ones who worry about retaliation from forces loyal to the regime.
“It’s a big secret. Our friends and parents don’t even know,” said Salma Aldiri, another founding member.
The group soon found their Facebook inbox filled with threats of arrest or death from regime loyalists.
“They said, ‘we know where you live and we know your real names.’ But they never found us,” said Salma.
As Young Homsi’s only professionally trained photographer, Salma is often called to offer pointers. But the amateurs have steadily turned their hobby into an occupation, providing photos to media outlets including CNN, Al-Jazeera and Sky News. They are not paid by any of the outlets.
Lens of a Young Homsi was the first initiative of its kind, but before long dozens of sister “lens” groups materialized from the capital Damascus to the opposition stronghold of Binnish in the northwest.
In a nod, each uses the now-famous Young Homsi logo – a silhouette with a camera.
“They took the logo without asking and we are happy about that, because the logo became like a slogan,” said Salma.
The groups have since become a brotherhood of sorts, and Salma said its members hope to one day unify as a Free Syrian photography club.
The common mission of all the photographers is to show the world the sheer scale of the devastation.
“The first thing is to document the destruction and the people, especially the children of the besieged areas. We also photograph security checkpoints arresting civilians,” Ahmed said. “We want to give people hope as well. In one photo, you see green grass growing in front of a row of buildings that have completely collapsed. One guy commented that despite the destruction, the color green symbolizes new hope.”
Some days, the newbie war photographers are confined to certain areas depending on the shifting security situation in the city.
Often, Salma said, “people are stuck in one area, so they focus on that area and talk about people living there. Others visit the displaced people living in schools. Some are taking photos of the Free Army [and] are practically living with them.
“There are some places we can’t go because the regime army is very strong there or the security people are there, so it’s not easy to take a clear photo. But even there, a girl from the area helps us.”
‘The house wasn’t even there’
<div source=’picture’ id=’6191′ flow=’alignleft’ />
For Salma, the most powerful image to date was of young Yaseen and Maryam Sabbagh, a brother and sister photographed playing in their besieged neighborhood in Old Homs.
Only 30 minutes after the photo was taken, a mortar killed the pair.
“Just after we published the photo, we had to update it and say that the children were martyred,” Salma said.
Young Homsi’s lensers were also surprised by international outcry over an image of a wounded cat, unable to use its back legs after being hit by shrapnel. “We were angry at the beginning because they never cared what happened to humans. But when an animal got injured, there was all this interest.”
The group nevertheless followed up on the cat’s treatment at a field hospital until a final photo was posted of the cat walking normally.
The story garnered a large following as Facebook users debated the priority of animal rights in the context of war, prompting Young Homsi to post a public statement about the controversy:
“There is a severe lack of medicines and doctors in this neighborhood, but the cat was treated under anesthetic as several attempts were made to remove the mortar shell shrapnel from her back…
“It should be noted that we treated this cat, as with several animals daily, on the basis of humanity and caring for life and our surroundings…
“We did not treat the cat because of your reactions or the uproar and messages received from animal rights organizations and the international community. Trust that the world and its opinions mean nothing to us inside Syria anymore.”
<div source=’picture’ id=’6192′ flow=’alignright’ />
While the cat story attracted an unexpected and large international following for the team, its biggest audience is comprised of fellow Syrians who are attempting to keep track of what’s happening on a day-to-day basis in Homs.
“People started asking about their houses, their schools, their grandparents’ house. It was very emotional. They would send us a message, ‘please take a photo of my house. I just want to know if it’s still there,’” Salma said. “Many times the photographer couldn’t send the photo because the house wasn’t even there.”
‘We want to document the rebuilding of Syria’
The group sees no end to its work.
“Even if the shelling stops or Bashar al-Assad steps down, there are many things we have to photograph and document. The people will rebuild their houses. They will try to get back their lives. Life will go on,” Salma said.
Its success reflects a wider change in Syrian society, one in which cameras are no longer a source of fear and every person can be a citizen journalist. “Before the revolution people were very afraid from any camera on the street. But now the whole concept is changing,” she added.
“People are getting cameras all the time, or mobile phones with very low resolution. They just want to film themselves and put it on YouTube or any platform. The camera is the only way to make your voice heard out of Syria.”
Asked what he thought was more powerful, a camera or a gun, her colleague Ahmed did not think twice. “For us,” he said, “it is certainly the camera. If not, we would have already picked up weapons.”