Karam al-Masri’s image of improvised sniper defences in Aleppo is the greatest architectural photograph I know of, says Edmund Sumner

Edmund Sumner

Karam al-Masri

I first became aware of Karam al-Masri’s picture of upended busses in Aleppo in the summer of 2016. I only saw it in passing, but it chilled me to the core. I knew immediately what it was about, and could see the genius of the image.

What makes it particularly powerful for me is how it differs from the typical ‘war photograph’ this wasn’t a standard assignment captured by a ‘foreign correspondent’: one can tell the photographer was familiar with the area, familiar with the people and familiar with the unfolding tragedy, This wasn’t an assignment, this was home.

As image it’s part Robert Capa, part Andreas Gursky, part ‘Apocalypse Now’. Over the years it has become something of an obsession for me: I think it’s one of the greatest architectural photographs of all time, even much more so as it was never intended nor considered as such.

The photo depicts a war without guns, architecture without architects. Taken in the spring of 2015, it portrays a typical street in a typical neighbourhood – in fact the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood in downtown Aleppo. If it weren’t for the three ‘planted’ bus carcass, it would be an unremarkable scene.

The picture took me back to the images I recall from my childhood of Sarajevo’s infamous ‘sniper alley’ in the early 90s. Like Sarajevo, Aleppo had become a front line in a barbaric civil war. Like Sarajevo, Aleppo’s civilian population was caught in the middle, targeted by snipers on the ground and barrel bombs from the air, and normal life had very much ground to a halt. This was a slaughter.

In Sarajevo, civilians dug tunnels and hung white sheets to provide cover from the snipers’ guns. In Aleppo, they went one stage further and ‘planted’ bus carcasses at strategic junctions. Crude, sure, but effective. In Aleppo, like Sarajevo, the residents had taken matters into their own hands and produced something with a surreal yet terrifyingly defiant beauty.

To understand the power of this image, one needs to understand the way it combines but also subverts two photographic genres: that of architecture and that of war. When one thinks of war photography, one thinks of movement, of action, and more often than not, of tragedy. When you think of architectural photography, you may think of aspirational visions of perfect urban utopias. With ‘Aleppo’, we are seeing war portrayed though an architectural eye, seeing it as a calm but melancholic piece of urban theatre. The architectural element is portrayed by the community’s pragmatic response to being under siege, an act of surreal defiance.

The image has made me reflect on the nature of what architectural photography is, and how it’s consumed.”

Technically, it utilises hallmarks of classic architectural photography. First, one-point perspective, and second, implied narrative – side stories, side questions, side mysteries. The food seller, children playing (al-Masri waited 30 minutes to capture a person moving near the busses) – normal simple scenes enabled by impromptu barricades protecting from unseen dangers. The overcast light visually gives it a distinctly ‘Germanic’ feel for me, referencing the work of great Düsseldorf school photographers such as Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth. There is an air of compassion running in parallel to the post-apocalyptic landscape; there is hope.

To understand the picture more, one needs to understand the photographer’s story. Karam al-Masri was studying to be a lawyer at the University of Aleppo when the Arab Spring took hold in 2011. His journey into photography initially started covering protests on social media, which led to his imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Assad regime and later by ISIS.

By the time al-Masri came out of prison his home and neighbourhood had largely been destroyed, and many of his family members were dead. Inspired by the notion that the pen is mightier than the sword, he decided to try to “use his camera as a weapon” and became a full-time photographer. After the death of the reporter Marie Colvin, much of the Western media saw Syria as simply too risky and pulled out, leaving a void in photojournalism that helped to propel al-Masri’s work into the limelight.

I eventually managed to make direct contact with al-Masri during the recent lockdown and bought files to make two large prints. We continue to be in dialogue, and although our photographic and everyday lives couldn’t be more different, I have a respect for him and do hope he keeps his head down and continues to produce work of the power and poetic beauty of this image.

The image has made me reflect on the nature of what architectural photography is, and how it’s consumed. Is it merely driven by PR – just social media catnip commissioned by architects hungry for fame and commissions – or is it a calm, analytical objective look at the urban environment and how architectural intervention either improves or worsens the life of the inhabitants? I’d suggest the answer lies somewhere in between but al-Masri’s work has made me think. The image of Aleppo’s bus barricade is powerful as much because of the questions it leaves unanswered as the answers it provides. It has won accolades including a special jury prize at the Days Japan photographic contest, but for me it’s simply the greatest architectural photograph of all time.