I first discovered the work of London-based photographer Lottie Davies through her series North and have come to admire the way she captures other places and people. A few weeks ago, I was revisiting her portfolio and spotted her images of Syria taken in 2007. A striking contrast from the images we currently see coming out of Syria. I asked Davies to take us back to that trip, the people she met there, and her approach to photographing them and their land.
What led you to work in Syria in 2007?
Lottie Davies: Actually it was a very personal trip – my father is very interested in early Christian architecture, and Syria (Aleppo particularly) was a cultural hub during early Christianity. He wanted to visit the area and learn more about its history, so we went together and split our time between his explorations and my photography. For a female photographer in an Arab country, it was the perfect combination – travelling with my father was considered extremely respectable, so we were welcomed everywhere, and unusually, my father was able to meet women because being with me was considered appropriate.
What was your impression of Syria and its people?
Lottie Davies: Syria is a beautifully verdant, thriving place. The countryside is green, the earth dusty and warm. Aleppo bustles with markets and people selling clothes, SIM cards, and plastic trinkets alongside jewelry, spices, and traditional foods. It is a mixture of medieval fortified city and modern trading centre; ancient temples sit next to apartment blocks covered in satellite dishes. The country’s position means that it has been a meeting point for cultures and peoples for many centuries and that is still very evident in its daily life.
Your images often focus on the people within their cultural context. Why do you take this approach and what did it reveal in the Syria project?
Lottie Davies: I find the differences between cultures totally fascinating, the subtle differences which develop in different climates, different geography, and within different religious and social contexts. That’s what human society is about; how we live together and organize our interactions on a family, local, and international level. I try to approach each project with that in mind, so that I can learn about other cultures and understand the subjects of my photographs better. I feel it is important to at least try to understand someone’s cultural context if you are purporting to represent them.
In Arab countries, welcoming visitors and inviting them into your home is considered extremely important and part of everyday life. My father and I were invited to have tea, coffee, lunch with total strangers who fed and watered us and were genuinely interested in getting to know us. Arab hospitality is famous, of course, and I was struck by the difference to Britain, in my experience. We are so suspicious of ‘foreigners’ here, the last thing we are likely to do is invite a total stranger from another culture into our home and give them lunch and ask about their opinion on the war in Iraq. In Britain, we are much more private. I think we would consider it an imposition on their time, might oblige them to eat with us when they would probably rather be on their own, would we have the right food, we would worry that we would offend them, and let’s face it, we can be fairly xenophobic when the mood strikes.
For me, and my work, the experience was about being open, and just seeing what the day would bring. I had no particular preconceptions about the place or its people, I was simply curious. Of course, at that time there was no war, and although the state had a fairly tight grip on the population, it was beginning to relax (hence the relatively new ability to watch non-state television like CNN and the BBC) and there was no obvious sense of state control. The people I met were just people along the road who live around Aleppo, whose day to day concerns were their family, their jobs, their livestock, what they would eat for dinner, just like the rest of us…
What are your hopes for the people of Aleppo and Syria?
Lottie Davies: Clearly I hope for an end to the conflict as soon as possible, and thereafter peace and self-determination for the Syrian people and others across the Middle East. If I were to go back to Syria and meet those people again, I would wish them Allah yafrijha alekum, which translates as ‘May God free you from your troubles’.