Ammar Abd Rabbo spent 20 years photographing Syria’s ruling elite. The Franco-Syrian photographer followed former Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to formal events, trying to capture spontaneous moments of the often stern head of state. He documented the day he died, photographing current President Bashar al-Assad praying over his father’s grave.
He was also there to document the transfer of power from the conservative Hafez to his son, the seemingly more modern Bashar. Abd Rabbo would go on to form a close relationship with the new Syrian president, portraying him as an unassuming family man who drove his own car.
“[Bashar] would tell me how he had a photo lab in his bathroom growing up and how he used to print his own photos,” said Abd Rabbo. “We had a common interest to discuss.”
But when the conflict broke out in 2011, Abd Rabbo shifted his focus from the Assad family to the violence.
Syria Deeply spoke with Abd Rabbo about his role as the official photographer of Syria’s ruling elite, his once-close relationship with the Assad family and how he documented Syria’s fraught history in the run-up to the war.
Syria Deeply: When did you start taking photos inside Syria? What was the assignment?
Ammar Abd Rabbo: I believe it was in 1990 when I was working for the French news agency Sygma. I wasn’t assigned but I took the opportunity to capture photos of Hafez al-Assad giving a speech inside a stadium celebrating the Baath Party’s rise to power. There were very few photos of him at the time and they were mainly the same boring ones taken by official news agencies. You never saw him very lively or even waving his hands. I noticed there would be an opportunity to get quite close to him, so I obtained the necessary credentials and took off.
Syria Deeply: What was it like photographing the day Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, after ruling Syria for three decades. How did people react?
Abd Rabbo: It was 17 years ago, so the pictures I took were before the digital age. It was a sad day for many people, even maybe for some who didn’t necessarily love Hafez al-Assad because it was still a page of their life being turned. Hafez ruled Syria for 30 years, which is a lot, so for many people, he was the only leader they knew. Many were also a bit scared of the chaos that might erupt in the wake of his death.
On such an event you are not much into creativity, you are more into just documenting what is happening. There are photos of Bashar praying on his father’s coffin. There are photos of the atmosphere in the street. One of the things that really struck me, and that I wanted to keep a trace of, was how the regime decided on the day he died to cover anything in Damascus related to joy with black tarp. For example, advertisements and billboards of shampoo or someone laughing or kids – all these things were hidden and covered with tarp so people wouldn’t face any smiles. I thought that was really surprising as it looked like it came from George Orwell’s “1984.” It is always interesting to try and express how dictatorship shapes and interacts in everyday life.
Syria Deeply: When Bashar al-Assad came to power in 2000 there was a brief period of intense social and political debate that became known as the Damascus Spring. Did your photography change during this time?
Abd Rabbo: That was a very coincidental year because Bashar al-Assad’s rise to the throne also marked the arrival of digital cameras, and Bashar is quite a photography enthusiast. On different trips to Damascus from 2001-2002, I met with him and his wife. He would tell me how he had a photo lab in his bathroom growing up and how he used to print his own photos. We had a common interest to discuss.
When he became president, he was really interested in portraying himself in a different view from the official, presidential photography of his father. In the beginning, he was very much against having any self-portraits displayed. He said he didn’t like it. He purged the old photographers from his father’s era and brought in new ones with new technology, a new set of eyes and a new way of doing things.
On the occasions we met, Bashar would sometimes ask me very technical questions (how to deal with the lighting and different cameras) but also about the message itself. I always explained that every photo also carries a message. You can tell the world if Bashar is someone nice, funny, laughing, angry, scary, etc.
Syria Deeply: In February 2011, shortly before the revolution broke out, Vogue magazine published an article titled “A Rose in the Desert” about first lady Asma al-Assad. The article commended Bashar and Asma for seemingly having embraced westernization. What is your take on the description, given that your pre-revolution photographs of the couple appear to have the same message?
Abd Rabbo: None of what you said about Bashar al-Assad is made up by Vogue or by me, it is true. When Bashar drives with his car or plays with his kids, he is definitely doing that.
On a political side, his image was also intriguing because, in the wake of Hafez al-Assad’s death, many thought Syria wouldn’t open up and wouldn’t be a freer country. In other words, Syria was going into a dead end, which meant blood everywhere and horrible war, like now. So when Bashar came to power – because he studied in London and took the metro [Underground], because he married a Sunni and because he appeared different from many people in the regime – they thought it could help open this system from inside.
Unfortunately, it did not work this way. It was a hope many of us had and this hope was also expressed in these kind of images. He is more like the happy father. He was someone very accessible that you could talk to and rely on and identify with. The problem that I realized was that these images I took were forbidden in Syria. So, the images were shaped for those outside Syria to see because Bashar, and his entourage wanted to send a message to the world, like through Vogue, that “we are nice and we love our kids.” But inside Syria the message was “we are tough. We have to scare you, beat you up, arrest you and perhaps even kill you if you dissent from our opinion.”
The glamorous photo of an elegant couple would replace the ugly truth of oppression.
Syria Deeply: Let’s talk about the 2011 revolution. What was your personal position on the revolution in the wake of the government crackdown?
Abd Rabbo: Since the beginning of 2011, starting in Tunisia and Libya, I took a very clear position to be with the people, not with the dictatorship.
One month later, when the revolution broke out in Syria, I was also in this same mood. It is logical for me to be next to the people who want their freedom, not next to the dictators who are killing them. This is why I did not go to Syria anymore. My last visit to Damascus was in May 2011. My personal position was very clear and unambiguous. Of course, the regime didn’t like that because they couldn’t put me into their conspiracy box. I was someone who traveled with them and knew them quite well.
Above all, I can’t not see what is happening in Syria when it is my job to see what is happening in the world. I am not in denial or hiding. I returned in 2013 to Aleppo to capture those suffering from the fighting.
Syria Deeply: You said that you have a duty as a Syrian to show what is happening. You showed life in Aleppo from the extraordinary to the mundane in 2013. What were the conditions of photography there?
Abd Rabbo: I wasn’t that interested in showing the soldiers, the army or the fighters because what was interesting was to see those who are suffering from the fighters – so this is the idea behind showing the kids going to school, the market. I was much more fascinated by those who stay and who resist and who try and create a new society, which is very difficult.
After 50 years of Assad’s party shaping the society, it is interesting to see how people are trying to escape this system and how they are trying to invent a life and society from nothing. These people were really fascinating and I wanted to see this and to show it to other people in the world. Unfortunately, the magazines and press I usually work for were not interested in most of the photos that I took during that visit so I decided to take them to exhibitions and to showcase them in a book for an audience to see.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.