This week I spent some time speaking with John Wreford. John Wredford is a freelance photo journalist who covers the Middle East and Arab world.
By James Scott
Where were you born and how did you end up covering the Middle East?
I was born in London and grew up around Oxford UK, I became fascinated with the Middle East in 1990 during the first Gulf war, visiting Egypt and the Middle East for the first time on holiday, being there at that time gave me a different perspective than the media at home, I knew nothing of the Middle East and all its issues-it was also my first visit outside Europe so there was also something of a fascination with such a different culture-I loved the pictures I was taking and very soon was heading back there.
This was the beginning of many visits to the Middle East, I found Syria to be the friendliest and warmest of places, the people I met the most genuine, my short visits were amazing experiences, when eventually I decided to go freelance it was my first choice, the intention was to start in Syria but probably I would have to move on, I didn’t expect I would find enough work to sustain me, it was 2003 though and the beginning of the US invasion of Iraq, the knock on effect was felt in Syria and soon I was working for the UN and International media covering issues such as the Iraqi refugee crisis. One thing lead to another and I stayed.
Was it tough to leave Syria?
After ten years, owning a home, a business, a life, leaving was very hard; when the revolution started I tried to stay, I wanted to stay-to bear witness, to support my friends, not to be intimidated, hopefully to document, in the end events conspired against me and after two years of conflict I left. I had mixed feelings, life there was hard, dangers of war, lack of amenities such as power, rampant inflation, my financial situation, intimidation by the security services etc, the last few months were stressful so in some ways there was a relief, there was also a feeling I would never be able to go back, or that nothing would be left to go back to, I left everything, just some clothes and a small amount of my camera gear, I couldn’t take all of it including hard drives with images-I had enough money to get to Beirut and from there to Istanbul, the challenge of starting again kept me from thinking so much about what I had left behind, really it was just a case of moving on.
Why did you re locate to Istanbul?
Istanbul was an easy choice, it offered affordable living and opportunities, still in the region, many friend’s here-a beautiful and exciting city.
How did Syria change during your time there?
Syria changed in so many ways while I was there, in 2003 the country was expecting the war in Iraq to come to Syria, Bush had talked about Syria being part of his Axis of Evil, it was a nervous time but it passed, then the confrontation with Lebanon over the killing of Hariri, this brought many people onto the streets in support of the government and President, maybe it was not a genuine feeling towards the president but for sure he had a great deal of popular support, he was still young in his job and gaining some respect, he rode out the crisis in Iraq and Lebanon and a new period of prosperity seemed to come to Syria, mobile phones became accessible, private banking, easy access to internet, tourism increased year on year, on the surface from then until the 2011 things seemed to be prosperous, they were for me, this prosperity though did not really effect most people, and democratic reforms never happened.
How do the media operate in Syria?
The media was never really able to do its job in Syria, understanding the complexity of life in Syria, not having access to all areas, being granted a visa, being manipulated by either side, people not feeling free to talk with journalist, media with its own agenda etc. I received many calls from the press and the questions were usually very naïve and simplistic showing really they had no idea of what was happening. That said of course there were those doing the best they could and often at great personal risk.
Are there any winners in this conflict?
The Syrian people are losing, really this is the point, all Syrian people, until this war is stopped, there are only losers.
Any special memories that you hold dear?
I have so many memorable moments, the people I have met from Princess to pimps, sometimes its hard to think beyond the sound of bombs but with each news report I see it often reminds me of previous occasion, I will go back for sure, probably not to live there.
~ Globe Trotting ~