Award-winning photographer Nish Nalbandian's debut monograph A Whole World Blind depicts the realities of Aleppo, Syria where war has become part of everyday life. Shot over the course of a year and a half between 2013 and 2014, Nalbandian's photos are a honest and uncensored testimony to the strength and vitality of the people living amidst cataclysmic turmoil, from fighters in the thick of the nation's ongoing civil war to everyday citizens trying to coexist with the nonstop violence.
Through a mixture of portraiture and documentary photography, as well as oral testimonies and memoir, the book immerses readers in the lives of rebel fighters, child soldiers, and others caught in the conflict. Nalbandian made seven trips inside Syria, with some lasting up to two weeks, until spring 2014 when the Syrian Revolutionary Front kicked ISIS out of the northwest city of Idlib. By this point, ISIS's presence had grown throughout the Middle East, and the threat to journalists was too great for the documentarian to continue. We spoke to Nish about
over email, as he is currently in Mosul, Iraq, embedded with Iraqi Special Forces to document their fight against ISIS.
VICE: How long have you been a photojournalist? How did you start?
Nish Nalbandian: This is actually something I've come to later in life as a second (or third) career. Photography was a hobby for me until about five years ago. Previously, it was simply my creative outlet. But as interest in my work started to grow, I decided to give it a go as a profession. The first photos I sold documented a motorcycle trip I took from Denver to the tip of South America.
What drove you to turn your lens toward the conflict in Syria? Was there a specific spark?
I visited Syria in 2009 and made some friends there. When the revolution broke out in 2011, I lost touch with those people, so I was following things closely. There was a lot of coverage coming out at that time, and a lot of great news photographers doing really good work, but my intent was really to go and do something a bit different. I have a photograph of my grandfather in Syria in 1916 when he was fighting against the Ottomans in the French Armenian Legion. He had lost his family to them in the Armenian Genocide, and had ended up like so many other Armenians (those who survived) in Syria. I wanted to try to recreate some of the feel of that portrait. I feel like I was only partially successful at that.
Did you have any first-hand experience with ISIS, and did the group's ascent have any immediate, observable ramifications on the culture?
I did not have any personal experience or problem with ISIS while there, but I did see ISIS flags in a few places before they really took hold. When they started kidnapping and holding journalists, it made me evaluate the risk of going as too high. While I stopped going, I was still in contact with people living inside who were threatened, arrested, and robbed by ISIS as they spread through the Aleppo area. They were not not in control of Aleppo when I was there, they were a growing power. And when I was in Idlib, they had just been kicked out. People reported then that they were glad to see ISIS go.
In the introduction of your book, you talk about the terrifying experience of hearing explosions in the near distance for the first time. Was there a point in the process of documenting this conflict that you stopped flinching as well?
Well, sort of, yes. You really do get used to hearing these sounds, and your brain becomes capable of filtering out the ones that may immediately affect you. At first, I noticed every explosion and burst of gunfire in the distance, but after a while I only reacted to close and more immediate sounds. I guess it's a learning process. You really do take cues from the people around you who lived with this for years on end.
For more on the Syrian Civil War, re-visit VICE News' 2014 doc "The Long War":
The juxtaposition of the more quietly beautiful images, such as the glimpses of land that look minimally touched by war, and the violent photos throughout the book is really powerful. Was it an intentional choice to soften the harshness of the realities of war?
It was definitely my intention to put those quieter moments in alongside or interspersed with the more graphic work. Not necessary to soften the harshness, but to show the reality that life goes on even in war. As photojournalists, we focus on the news—on the out-of-the-ordinary events—and that's what we often take pictures of. But that doesn't show the full picture, and my real intention was to offer a wider vantage into what happens in a place like Aleppo.
I felt if I only included classic "war" imagery, I wouldn't be telling the story accurately as I saw it. And what I saw were people with a lot of resilience living their lives with this war happening around them. Like much of life, was is not constantly uptempo, it ebbs and flows and moves from place to place. We tend to focus on the 'hot' parts of what is happening because they are so dramatic and removed from everyday life. But that misses the fact that the less hot places are still there, and I wanted to show it all.
One of my favorite portraits in the book is of the Kurdish fighter, Rukan, pointing her weapon out of a small hole in a wall overlooking the front line. What is the story behind this photograph?
Rukan was the leader of a small unit in the Kurdish fighting forces (YPG). When I went to visit them at their front line position in their neighborhood, they kept up their watch of their section of the line. Everyone rotated through a watch, and Rukan went to check on the other fighters at one point. She was not firing in this picture, just putting a trained eye on what was going on. Like much of what goes on in fighting units around the world, it was just routine, day in and out activity for her. From what I observed, waiting and watching took up much more of all the fighter's time than actual fighting.
Historically, war photographers have spoken about the emotional toll that being so close to suffering takes on them. What did you have to do to keep moving forward with your life and career?
I was aware of the potential for PTSD, and so I made sure to talk about and process my feelings about the things I saw. Some of it was pretty hard to see, especially when involving kids. I preemptively saw my shrink after I saw the worst things, just to keep it from becoming a problem for me. Honestly, while these things are hard to witness, I think that these experiences have made me a better person. I feel more compassionate and understanding of people, and I have a lot less tolerance for complaining about minor things now. Seeing other people be so resilient in the face of such difficulty I think has inspired me to be more resilient. But, on the other hand, when you see it continue to happen, man, I guess I have to admit that it has made me a bit cynical seeing how people can treat each other so inhumanly, over and over again. That's the toughest part for me.
Do you have any personal favorite photographs from the book? What significance do they hold for you?
Ah, this is a tough question… I tend to like the quieter pictures, like this one of two old men sitting down in front of a shop, or another of a man holding roses. But I think the most important ones for me are these black and white ones of a displaced family in Aleppo. They were really in a sad state, and it was hard to go back to my comfortable life knowing they were in such misery and poverty. I like being able to see the look in people's eyes. The significance is in the connection I had with those people. I'll never forget them.
See more photos from the book below.
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