17 Oct 2016


Interview by Marita Muukkonen

London Film Festival Best Short Film Award to 9 days – From my window in Aleppo

HIAP congratulates Issa Touma for winning the London Film Festival Best Short Film Award with his film ‘9 days – From my window in Aleppo‘.

For this occasion we publish here an interview of Issa Touma from HIAP 2014 publication.

Photo: Christian Celebration by Issa Touma

Memories of Dead Cities / Syria
Interview by Marita Muukkonen

Photographer Issa Touma (SY) was in-residence in Suomenlinna for the “Nordic Fresh Air” programme, autumn 2014. The programme is directed towards art professionals at risk for violations of freedom of expression, or speech, or for practitioners who need a “break” from a difficult context in their home countries. In 2014 art practitioners hosted by the programme were leading singer of Tahrir Square Ramy Essam (Cairo) and Issa Touma (Aleppo). The Nordic Fresh Air residencies at HIAP are curated by Marita Muukkonen of Perpetuum Mobilε. Issa Touma’s “Memories of Dead Cities/Syria” was exhibited during his residence at TR1 Kunsthalle, Tampere, which took us to the streets of Aleppo before, and amid, the war zone. The exhibition later travelled to Graz Austria.

MM: Issa, your photographs capture the everyday life of Aleppo Syria, in the midst of a war zone. Why did you decided to stay in Aleppo, unlike many other artists and intellectuals who have left Syria?

ISSA: I was unsure in the beginning about my decision to stay, especially when many of my close friends are in the West. Since 2012, they offer to house me and help me survive the war. Because I was always close to the street people of Aleppo, it was hard for me to do this without trying to help — to nd some way to call attention to the people suffering. All sides try to hide this from the news, so that they can plan dirty political agendas.

I think artists participating in international Art Camping, and photo festivals, help people in the West see a big part of the reality which is: Syrian conflicts cannot be freedom war, when you plan your war between civilians. My decision to stay helps many others to stay as well. Today, after my return from Finland, artists and other people tell me: “With your coming back we have more hope for the future because no one returns after they travel West”.

MM: We worked for a year to organise your visa to come for a three month residency in Helsinki, autumn 2014. What does this difficult visa procedure mean to you? How did the residency in uence your artistic practice and the annual international photography festival you organise in Aleppo? How do you manage to organise a photo festival in the middle of a war? You have organised it every year, except for 2013, despite the political situation.

Issa: Yes sure, because of the war, I knew it would be difficult for you and I know everyone at HIAP worked very hard to make the visa office trust to give the visa. I am a new face in Finland, and they don’t know me well. Afterwards, despite receiving my visa, the embassy asked (in a friendly way), “Are you really going back to Syria after three months?”. I replied, “I always do”.

When I was invited as a juror for the Backlight Festival, it was a good opportunity to meet international and local curators and photographers. In our many meetings, we talked about the war and the civilians who suffer in Syria. I were shocked to discover how interested they were to know, and how the media in many Western countries was not telling them the truth. That is why almost everyone liked to come to support the Aleppo International Photo Festival. This years festival carries the artists and festival together in support of Syrian civilian life. This grants a chance to Syrian civilians to stop the affront to peaceful art work.

MM: You told me in Helsinki that true stories are on the streets, not in the media. How can art contrast the stories in the media and tell truths? How do you do it in your own art practice and in your festival in Aleppo?

Issa: Yes they are in the streets, always the streets show the reality. With all the power of Western media, we were efficiently able to show the reality and inform the public about what’s going on. Most of the time we were swimming against the current, challenging many of the big international policies, medias, and secret agencies. With only some volunteers we had our voice, and time revealed (after four years of war) we were right. I smile sometimes when I see some hopeless politicians and famous journalists use our words like: “3rd side” in Syria and “oppositions war is not freedom war”. Change can start only when you educate women in the middle east. There is a long list of things that need to be done. I do not try to photograph the war, I try to tell stories of the lives of these people, and I do not like them to become simply “dead numbers” in the news .

About Issa Touma

Issa Touma is a self-taught photographer who lives and works in Aleppo Syria. Finding himself isolated from the international art world and photography scene, he established in 1992 Black and White Gallery; the rst photography gallery in the Middle East. After its closure in 1996, Touma founded Le Pont, an independent art organisation and gallery which promotes freedom of expression and stimulates the local art scene through international events. In 1997 Le Pont organised thefirst iteration of the International Photography Gathering, in Aleppo, one of the first international contemporary photography events in the Middle East.

In spring 2012, Le Pont Art Organisation initiated Art Camping workshops, which attempt to counter the violence of the insurgency with artistic interventions around Aleppo. In 2006 Touma served as the artistic consultant for the exhibition Images of Syria at Moestings Hus, Copenhagen. He continues to work as a renowned art photographer and curator in the midst of the chaos of contemporary Syria.