Defying Syrian Authorities with a Camera Lens

A view of Aleppo, in the desert hill-country of northern Syria. i i

A view of Aleppo, in the desert hill-country of northern Syria. Far from the central authority in Damascus, the city was once the final stop on the Silk Road. Its merchants have been trading with the outside world for thousands of years. Issa Touma hide caption

itoggle caption Issa Touma
A view of Aleppo, in the desert hill-country of northern Syria.

A view of Aleppo, in the desert hill-country of northern Syria. Far from the central authority in Damascus, the city was once the final stop on the Silk Road. Its merchants have been trading with the outside world for thousands of years.

Issa Touma
Issa Touma's photography festival in Aleppo

Issa Touma's photography festival in Aleppo, Syria, has become increasingly well-known. The last one drew more than 10,000 people from around the world. Issa Touma hide caption

itoggle caption Issa Touma

Photographer Issa Touma is the man behind an increasingly well-known photography festival in Aleppo, Syria. Touma uses his images to try to crowbar open Syrian cultural and intellectual life. That often leaves him butting heads with Syria's authoritative regime.

Untitled image, from Touma's "Sufi" series

This untitled image, from Touma's "Sufi" series, is part of "NAZAR," an exhibit of Arab photography currently on display in Houston. Syria's Sufis and their fading way of life are a subject of Touma's work. Issa Touma hide caption

itoggle caption Issa Touma

During the last festival Touma held, the Syrian government cut off electricity in an attempt to shut it down. Nevertheless, some 10,000 people from around the world attended.

Authorities often object to Touma's subject matter. Two years ago, his Aleppo exhibition included pictures of naked women, taboo material in much of the Arab world. As punishment for his defiance, last year the Syrian government closed Touma's gallery.

In order to be independent, Touma must play a dicey game of chicken with the ruling Baath Party. He makes it clear that he has no interest in politics and does not oppose the party's rule — as long as it does not try to control his photography exhibitions. Touma's festival has become such an event in Syria that even though party officials disapprove, they still attend.

Touma says he's tried to explain to officials that his work helps enhance the Baath Party's reputation. But he says they don't or can't believe it.

"Usually, they say you should follow, you should respect the minister of culture or this official person from the Baath Party," Touma says. "I think for me, I cannot respect [a] person who is trying to stop [an] art festival."

Touma's work was recently on display in Houston as part of "NAZAR," an exhibition of Arab photography. The exhibit opens in New York on Sept. 8 and runs through Nov. 13 at the Aperture Foundation on 547 W. 27th St. in Chelsea.

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