by Alex Ray
April 22, 2020
“In a way, I still find so much beauty amid this destruction,” says Salah Maraashi as he wanders the now-ghostly old souks (covered markets) of Aleppo with his camera just before sunset. Perhaps only a photographer could find such destruction alluring.
Old Aleppo’s once-bustling but now ruined alleys are abandoned and silent. Pink and gold sunlight picks out detail in the collapsed stone and splintered wood. Occasionally people’s silent silhouettes pass, shuttling between isolated remnants of commerce among the lanes.
As Syria’s only professional 360-degree photographer, Salah is on a mission to bring the country’s still-breathtaking beauty to the world. He’s taking me on a tour of some of Aleppo’s hundreds of damaged heritage sites, which he has documented in stunning interactive photos since August 2018. Mostly built during the 12th to 16th centuries, old Aleppo was home to more than 120,000 residents before war broke out in 2012. More than 30 per cent of the World Heritage city was destroyed in the fighting, according to UNESCO.
Born in Aleppo 40 years ago, Salah knows the city and its hidden gems as well as anyone. They have been further revealed to him by shop owners such as Abu Saeed, a shoe trader from the Mahmas souk, who admires Salah’s work and has helped guide him through the 13 kilometres of souks with its hundreds of khans (inns), mosques, churches and historic houses.
Abu Saeed saw Maraashi’s work on Facebook in late 2018 and reached out to show his appreciation for capturing the old city sites in such a beautiful way. Abu Saeed said he had been depressed with “indescribable sadness” after entering the old city when fighting stopped in 2016. He offered to help guide Maraashi through the extensive old city and the pair formed a friendship built on a love for the spirit of the city and its inhabitants.
“We residents of the area consider these stones our soul,” said Abu Saeed as we enter the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Jdeide, where the paint was only just drying after three years of work to repair damage from the war. As we slip through narrow laneways, rubble crunching underfoot, Salah tells me he took up photography 12 years ago after seeing a picture of a camera online. “I thought it was a beautiful instrument so I bought the best point and shoot camera I could afford,” he says. “I was disappointed when my photos didn’t turn out like those I saw online, so I taught myself how to shoot properly.”
He has managed to make a successful living from photography, mostly for commercial clients, while raising four boys through four years of savage fighting for control of the city. However, it was only after taking up 360-degree photography that Salah’s work gained national and international recognition.
Salah’s contributions to a project to create virtual tours of Syrian heritage sites received an award from Syria’s Tourism Ministry in 2018 and he was invited to attend the International Virtual Reality Professionals Association conference in Belfast, Ireland in June 2019.
As fascinated by computers as he is cameras, Salah enjoys processing images just as much as getting the shots. Yet Aleppo’s power blackouts, while usually predictable – four hours on, two hours off – mean this can be slow going. “It’s happened 1000 times that I’ve been on the computer processing photos and the power cuts and I lose everything” he says. Electricity is not the only ‘technical’ obstacle in Salah’s way.
His Facebook profile shows he is a “Google Street View Trusted Photographer,” yet so far this has not helped him much. “You get this title when you take over fifty 360-degree photos with no stitching errors and no shadow or highlight errors in the photos, very high-quality shots,” he explains.
Google lists ‘trusted photographers’ in their index of for-hire professionals who are allowed to use the ‘Trusted’ title for marketing. However, Salah gets no benefit from this because Syria does not show up on Google’s trusted ‘photographer’ list of countries. This is apparently due to ongoing US sanctions on Syria which particularly affect online services and payments.
The sanctions and Google’s related policies limit not only the audience for Salah’s valuable catalogue of Aleppan heritage. They also greatly restrict his potential income. Salah does the vast majority of his work for free, only taking money for commissioned projects. To receive payment from abroad he must use the bank account of a relative in Dubai.
As a Syrian, Salah is also banned from purchasing paid boosting of his Facebook and Instagram accounts and risks a complete ban if he uses a VPN. Also, Adobe products like Photoshop are blocked in Syria, making software harder to get. “Art should not be affected by politics, it has nothing to do with it,” Salah says.
Surprisingly, Salah is yet to receive a single request from an international media organisation or NGO for his work. Given the Syrian conflict has been accompanied by an intense global media war, with persistent misrepresentation of images and words, Salah says he is cautious about who he allows to use his photos.
Salah thinks his passion for photography may derive from his boyhood love of ‘golden era’ films and actors of the 1940’s and 50’s, from Egyptian dramas and Kurosawa classics to Hollywood noir. “I was captivated by their simplicity and use of light and contrasts,” he says.