Oliver Hartung: Syria al-Assad

»Thou, who was raised in the house of the glorious leader! Thou, who are higher than the highest! You, our hope! Faculty of Administration, Directorate of Administrative Affairs.«  Between Idlib and Aleppo, 2009.

Oliver Hartung’s Syria al-Assad is a record of the monuments dedicated to the Assad family - who have ruled in Syria since 1971 - and the landscape that they inhabit. Produced between 2007 and 2009, the series is now being made into a book by Hartung who has started a crowd-funding campaign to help support the project. Michael Tsenti recently caught up with him to find out more.

MT: Michael Tsenti
OH: Oliver Hartung

MT: Firstly, how did you become interested in photography?

OH: I have studied Fine Art in Stuttgart, Glasgow and London. I started off with Painting and Printmaking, but couldn’t connect my interest in the visual world with these “historic” techniques. So since 1996, I mainly concentrate on photography and making books.

North of Damascus, 2009.

MT: What inspired you to focus on the monuments of the Assad family?

OH: When I started my long-term project on the Middle East in 2007, I was looking for images, that could fill the gap between our outdated, romanticised vision of the “Orient” and the imagery of war and crisis that is broadcast in the media. The results formed my first publication “The Arabian Monument” (2012). In Syria, I started photographing the Assad monuments because they were omnipresent and because I became interested in their diversity. Although I did photograph over a hundred of them, the series was a by-product. A lot of the pictures were taken while driving past, as I didn’t always bother to stop or sometimes it didn’t seem a good idea to stop (a big share of these monuments were next to military sites and I didn’t want to get the locals I was traveling with into trouble).

MT: Some of your photographs capture the beauty of the Syrian architecture as a byproduct. How do you feel knowing most of this is now destroyed?

OH: Some of the more official monuments make use of traditional crafts such as mosaic, metalwork or faience, but most look rather improvised and none of them can be called “beautiful”. I find them interesting, especially the hand-made, amateurish looking ones.
I feel deeply affected by the conflict in Syria. I am also aware that it gives my series an actuality, that it might not have otherwise. This makes me feel uneasy. On the other hand: The images provide an insight into the pre-war state of affairs. Maybe there was something wrong beforehand? In a united country, is there a need to proclaim your loyalty publicly? That’s why in retrospect, some of the statements on the billboards and monuments sound very cynical (And not just the official propaganda: Look at the Pirelli advertising!). These objects are asking some uncomfortable questions.
I don’t want to start philosophising in the face of war, but it’s in the nature of photogrphy to show something that has gone. Doesn’t a photograph already anticipate the end of the photographed subject or object? That’s why I think monuments (they always strive to last) make a good subject for photography.

»Sorrow saddens us all and joy makes us all happy. With harmonious hearts and arms linked together, our national unity is as strong as steel. City Council of Deir ez-Zor.«  Deir ez-Zor, 2009.

MT: Although the series is something close to a typology, there are images that disrupt this such as images taken from a moving car, could you talk me through the reasoning behind this?

OH: It is a typology in so far as you can compare the objects and the work gives an (incomplete) overview of public pre-war Syrian propaganda, but there is no coherent photographic language employed (I already mentioned the “drive-by” pictures). Also, I considered a typological concept would be too simple, it would ignore the human loss and tragedy of the present situation, so I have added a handful of more personal images with people or landscapes to break up the scientific, typological flow.

MT: The paintings and colours of the monuments are fascinating. How did this contrast to the desolation of the surrounding areas?

OH: I think, sometimes it’s the monuments that create the feeling of “desolation”, that you describe, in the first place.

»Welcome to the Governorate of Idlib. With regards from the Directorate of Technical Services.« »Dentists of Idlib, loyal soldiers of the homeland and the leader.« [Small sign at rear]  Near Jisr al-Shughur, 2009.

MT: Do you think you will continue with work concerned with the Syrian conflict?

OH: I took the photographs between 2007 and 2009. One now reads them within the context of the Syrian conflict, but I would never make a work that directly comments on an ongoing conflict. For example, I am very doubtful that war photography can deliver what we expect from it.

MT: What made you decide to put the photographs you took from this project into a book?

OH: A gallery wall is definitely not the right place for these images. The book emphasizes the documentary aspect of the work and allows the work’s distribution outside a journalistic or Fine Art context. Through the design, I was able to reflect and comment on my images. For example by using paper, that will age and yellow and using a perforation that reminds one of a tear-off calendar (is there anything more outdated than last year’s  calendar?).

»Pirelli. Power is nothing without control.«  Near Homs, 2009.

MT: Having produced work in the Middle East the USA and London, how has travel helped influence your photography?

OH: Travel is essential for me, because it gives me first-hand experiences that help me to balance the pre-digested, virtual world we increasingly live in. Also, I feel less receptive and dependant on news reports which always have a political agenda and manipulative potential. If, while travelling, through photography, I can communicate and share my experiences. Also, I don’t undertake in-depth research beforehand, I don’t want to go somewhere with a fixed idea or expectation. I do go to places repeatedly though.

MT: With talks in Geneva failing in creating a peace and more talks scheduled, what do you imagine the future holds for Syria?

OH: Who am I to judge or predict anything for this conflict? The only thing I know is that the Syria, that I traveled to and experienced, will not return.

Help fund the book HERE.


— Michael Tsenti