Benjamin Hiller: Shedding Light on the Conflict in East Syria


Benjamin Hiller was born in 1982 into a German-American family. He began to engage himself with journalism, culture and photography early on. After several semesters of studying anthropology in Heidelberg (with emphasis on ritual dynamics and visual anthropology) and a classical trade school training in photography, he began an independent career as a freelance photojournalist in 2008. Since then he has concentrated his efforts on the Kurdish conflict in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, and generally in conflict journalism in the Near and Middle East. His photographs and articles have been published in national and international newspapers and magazines. He currently lives in Berlin. His reportage on Syria can found in the latest issue of LFI.

Q: What equipment did you shoot your reportage on Syria with?

A: I used a Leica M9 and Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 ASPH. to shoot the series.

Q: What characteristics of this camera and lens combination made it suitable for your work?

A: The great thing about the Leica M-System is its small size and the reliability of the body and lenses. You can work far more undisturbed than with a big pro DSLR body and lens. With the M-System, often people do not notice you or they get used to the camera really fast. So its non-disturbance makes it a big asset in conflict zones. Also, the manual focus forces you to concentrate far more on the image process itself. You keep your eyes more on composing the photo than you would with a DSLR.

Q: How did you first become interested in Leica?

A: I’ve been interested in Leica since I began photographing. It always had this mythology around it and was connected with some great photographers. For a long time, I didn’t have the money to buy one, but I watched how the brand developed and dreamed of owning one.

Q: You studied ethnology before turning to photography. Do you feel studying ethnology has helped you as a photographer in any way?

A: Yes, for sure ethnology helped a lot for my later photography work. It opens your mind (and eyes) to cultural differences and similarities. It teaches you to look behind the culture and find the real meanings inside the society. It also gave me the possibility to better approach people from different cultures and try to understand their way of living without prejudices. And last but not least, it taught me to carefully prepare for any travel to another country, e.g. reading and researching the language, culture and history. Because without such background information it is almost impossible to understand the different aspects of another country.

Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your training or education in photography, formal or otherwise?

A: Yes, I learned photography the traditional way. I paused during my ethnology study for two years and went to Nuremberg where I learned photography at the Thomas Hierl GmbH. They worked mainly in the area of industrial and advertisement photography. In addition to learning all about Photoshop and editing, as well as the then high-end large format digital backs, I also learned how to develop black-and-white as well as slide film, from the normal SLR size negatives to the large format cameras. So it was quite a thorough education, as I wanted to know the full spectrum of photographic work before becoming a freelance photographer.

Q: When did photography first interest you? When did you know you wanted to become a full-time photographer?

A: I started getting into photography and journalism quite early. I worked for the school newspaper, writing articles and occasionally taking photos. It was quite clear for me that someday I wanted to do something in the area of journalism, but it was not yet clear if it would be photojournalism or plain journalism. I think around the age of 20 I decided to focus on photojournalism, though I studied ethnology to get a broader look at culture before going into photojournalism itself.

Q: Are there any photographers you look toward for inspiration or who stand out to you?

A: There are quite a few, but I think two photographers stand out especially. First, there’s Sebastião Salgado. His work corresponds a lot with my view on ethnology and photography. Secondly, the war photographer Stanley Greene stands out with his amazing work all over the world and especially his book “Black Passport.” Those two photographers reflect the two different approaches of my own work quite well.

Q: How would you describe your photographic approach in shooting this Syria reportage?

A: It was clear for me that I did not want to take the traditional front-line images with a lot of blood. I often think that these kind of images – as important they are to rally support for a cause – can’t explain a conflict. So I often try to focus on the people in the background, the civilians or the daily life of fighters involved in conflicts like Syria. I took a lot of more static images that try to freeze an expression in a face or a mood surrounding the persons or the places I visited.

Q: What was the inspiration behind the idea to do this series? Was there a certain idea or reason behind it?

A: As I started focusing on East Syria in July 2012 with my first travels into the Kurdish areas of Syria, I thought the war was under-reported by the media. It was and is difficult to get to places like Deir Ezzor and then in 2012 it was hard to gain access in the Kurdish areas. In East Syria a lot of the fault lines of the current conflict come together, like ethnic and religious diversion, the question of oil and gas resources and how the new Syria will be shaped.

Q: What was your ultimate goal, or what did you hope to achieve, with shooting these images?

A: As mentioned above, my main goal was to shed light on the conflict in East Syria, and therefore try to explain the conflict and its different layers more thoroughly than it would be possible by only visiting areas around Aleppo.

Q: Did you want the viewer to have a specific reaction to these photos?

A: I think if the reader would start, after seeing my photos, to get more interested and involved in the Syrian issue, then I have achieved my goal. With these kind of photos, I try to push the viewer into a different position where they reflect on the people in the conflict and can thereby find similarities between themselves and the Syrian people. I hope that I can explain the conflict better due to these kinds of photos and therefore encourage the viewer to start doing some research on his or her own about the history, culture and society of Syria in-depth. Without such knowledge, a complex conflict like in Syria cannot be really understood.

Q: Do you have a favorite photograph from this reportage? If yes, can you explain why it is your favorite?

A: I think my favorite photograph is the mourning of the death of Chalid, from one of the Free Syrian Army Katibas (“brigade”) we followed in Ras al-Ayn, as well as other parts of Hasaka province. It is a very personal image, as just some hours before he was killed we went on a ride together to some liberated villages, visiting a flour mill and a sheep market. Chalid was funny, calm and we had a really great time. At noon they drove out for a battle near Hasaka City (due to concerns of the radical Islamist group al-Nusra we where not allowed to accompany them). Then in the afternoon they came back and Chalid was dead. He was killed by Syrian pro-regime forces, the so-called Shabiha, from a close distance. Life and death are so close inside Syria and I tried to show that in the image. The lifeless body of Chalid, layed out in the sleeping quarters of the Katiba, and a close friend and comrade of his sitting next to him, in shock – as he still can’t believe that after so many months fighting side-by-side his best friend got killed that suddenly.

Q: What are some of the challenges you face as a photographer in a war-torn area?

A: There are numerous issues that can be challenging. On the one hand, getting access to the different parts of conflict-ridden countries is often hard. Then you need to keep a low profile during your travels. Nowadays journalists are seen as high profile targets by the Syrian regime, for instance, and also by some radical Islamist groups or by generic criminals who want to extort money. Today it is almost impossible to switch sides in a conflict to get the whole story, so you are often limited to one side of the conflict. The security itself is always a problem. On the other hand, you have also have to make ethical decisions. Should I take a photo during a funeral of the mourning mother from close up? How far can I go without insulting people with my photographic behavior? And where are the ethical stop signs when you should stop taking photos?

Q: Photographers often go into combat zones or on humanitarian missions and show what is happening to the people involved. Do you think photography can change the world? Can it make a difference in the subjects’ lives?

A: I think it would be naïve to hope that one single image can change the outcome of a war, especially nowadays when the people are flooded with thousands of images on a daily basis. But it can help to rally humanitarian support or bringing special cases, like war crimes, to the attention of the readers. I think photography is still the better medium to reflect on conflicts due to its stillness. A TV report is often just too fast for a real study of the conflict. A still photo forces you to get more involved with the topic shown, study the image more carefully. Though, there should always be a good caption with the photo to help explain the image. If I can help a few people with my work, if I can change the opinion of some viewers and force them to act due to the images seen — and if, through my images, I can give people in conflict zones a voice that would otherwise go unheard — then I am already happy.

Q: Any other upcoming projects you’d like to share?

A: I will continue with my Kurdistan project. In the end, I want to cover all countries in the Middle East where Kurdish people live and produce a book out of it. Additionally, I want to focus more on the economic crisis and what happens here in Germany, like the rising number of homeless people as well as the poverty issue. For sure I will return to Syria to cover the war there again.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three to five years?

A: Hopefully my style will evolve even more and help to transport the message better. Also, I want to incorporate more multimedia features, like sound and video, into complex multimedia slideshows to give a better multidimensional approach toward different topics.

Thank you for your time, Benjamin!

- Leica Internet Team

Please find Benjamin’s full reportage in LFI 4/2013. Also available for the iPad. Find a reading sample here. To connect with Benjamin, visit his Facebook page and website.