Why We Need to Know About the Monsters

Alex Wroblewski.

The third night of FotoIstanbul, Stanley Greene was introduced as a legend. A conflict photographer for 25 years and one of the cofounders of the photo agency NOOR, Greene has worked all over Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and he was in town to give a talk about his work, most notably Open Wound, Black Passport, and more recent work from Syria. After he took the stage, he walked us through his work, giving crucial backstory to both his career as a photographer and the images on screen.

In making the case for why he photographs what he does, he said, “We have to remind you that there are monsters at the door.”

At its core, NOOR is a photo agency whose photographers shine a light on human struggle and survival in the most difficult circumstances, and as Greene pointedly said, they have to remind us about the sources of these conflicts, about the monsters. Greene spoke passionately about finding life in Syria where the civil war has created over three million refugees and internally displaced over twice that amount. His images of Syria were not the bang-bang images you’d expected from a country ravaged by civil war. They show life as it is, while obliquely pointing to the horrors happening just outside the frame.

“I’m always looking for the second truth,” Greene said at one point. There’s the truth we’re presented, but that doesn’t tell the full story. What we see isn’t always what’s fully there, and in the case of Syria, there is life beyond the warfare. The people who can’t leave keep on living, and that is the Syria that is alive and present and in Greene’s photographs. The monsters he’s reminding us about are present in the conditions of the environment: rubble, bullet holes, blown-out buildings and more.

In seeing these photographs, we can better understand what it means to be alive and to value what we do have. The easy option is ignorance, to keep the monsters out of sight and out of mind. The harder option is acknowledging them and coming to terms with the consequences of their actions, the very real human toll of power run amok. Ideally, no one should have to live the way they do in Greene’s photographs of Aleppo and other war-torn regions, but they do.

Here are some quotes from Greene’s talk that evening:

“Why do we do this? Why are we storytellers? Why do we keep taking pictures?”

“I want to understand why things are the way they are.”

“When you start to look at photographs, you start to understand influences.”

“Like Capa said, I’ve always tried to get as close as I can.”

“I use photographic influences and information in every picture I make.”

“Scrape me away, I’m a street photographer.”

“I was not going to show bang bang.”

“Always remember your fixers.”

“Love, by the way, is the most important thing to have in your life. Once you have love in your life, you can go out and photograph murder and destruction.”

“Courage is controlling fear.”