“Martyr’s Brigade" - A Conversation with @sakirkhader
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On the occasion of the release of its debut photo book published by our friends at 550BC, One Block Down had the chance of sitting down with Dutch photographer and film director Sakir Khader.
In our conversation, we explored his background, his work, and the concept behind “Martyr’s Brigade,” in which Sakir Khader provides an intimate, unfiltered look at a rebel group fighting in Syria. The layout has been designed to show bleak ghost towns and serene landscapes paired with a portrait of fighters who still roams these ruined towns years into the Syrian War, with many of these fighters being teenagers that grew up during the War.
First of all, thank you a lot for your time Sakir; Pouria told me that you arrived just yesterday from Afghanistan. For the people who don’t know you or your work, can you please briefly introduce your background and your upbringing?
Well, my name is Sakir Khader; I was born in the Netherlands, but I have origin from Palestine, so I grew up amid violence and everything. Every summer vacation, I went back to Palestine, to Nablus, the city where my family is from. I was always seeing weapons around, the military around, but also the daily life, people going on with their lives amid everything. But violence was planned in our everyday life.
For me, it was an interesting point because I was always looking at everything from a visual and aesthetic point of view, like, wow, this is what I want to show my friends in the Netherlands. But I didn’t have a camera as I was very young, but I always told my friends about what was going on.
So one of the main reasons for becoming a film director and a photographer was the access I have and the world I can show to the people in the West. People accept me and my camera because I’m from the area, and I can show a different perspective.
Photography, for me, is a way to both show people and create an archive of things that happened, so they will never be lost in history books.
When was the first time you started taking photos?
Well, I think it was around 2009/2010 when I went for the first time alone in Palestine, I had a very small camera, an Olympus camera, and I was photographing everything that I found weird and exciting. And when going back to the Netherlands, I remember showing my friends the photo. There were very peculiar elements, like fake Nike clothing with Adidas logos near the Swoosh, a bizarre aesthetic.
And then later on, from 2013/14, I started to make serious content.
So it started as a passion for reportage photography?
I would say more commentary photography than anything else, honestly. I like to follow subjects and stories for a long time, instead of having to work for a newspaper or something similar. Because I’m originally a filmmaker, I make documentaries and shoot my documentaries with my own camera. Every time I was there, I always looked at what was going on and captured it. I like to capture moments.
Do you think photos are better than videos to capture these moments?
Well, I always had my photo camera with me, strapped on my shoulder, and my big camera for videos. Then sometimes, I just leave one of the two if I want to focus on a medium.
You have been visiting Palestine since you were a child with your parents, but you started getting into photography only when you went there for the first time alone; when did you start getting passionate about the medium of photography?
My passion for photography started earlier than when I went for the first time in Palestine alone. When I was 12 years old, I remembered looking inside the library at war photography books about World War II, and I remember loving these black and white pictures of war. I fell in love, and I immediately wanted to buy a camera, but you know I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t know anything about photography, as I didn’t have anyone around me that could suggest me or give me advice. So I had to really discover it on my own, and when I became more independent and started working, I could finally buy some cameras.
I started working with a 100 euros camera, and now I’m working with a 6/7 thousand camera.
So since you were a kid, you were always interested in conflict photographs?
Yeah, because I was always interested in war since I started learning about history in school.
Then I slowly started to discover contemporary wars. At the beginning of the 2000s, the Second Intifada in Palestine began, and I remember always watching Al Jazeera and seeing footage that wasn’t present on Western news. After, I also discovered photobooks by western photographers that covered the conflict with photos. They had a substantial impact on me because they were really able to capture a moment in history, even better than video. In my films, in fact, I also use a lot of photos together with videos in combination. Because sometimes a picture can tell a complete story; you look at it, see the emotion, see the surroundings, and everything else.
When did you start to work in the world of Journalism?
In 2014, the year before, I was a student at the university, I was studying journalism, and I was always asking my teacher about how to become a war journalist, etc... And they were always saying to me to finish my studies and wait etc... But I couldn’t wait, it was the moment. There was the Arab Springs during that year, and I wanted to work. So I quit school and got an internship at a really good Dutch newspaper.
Starting to work there, I learned a lot, and after the internship, I was able to get a contract; my first major big story was about human traffickers in Turkey who were smuggling refugees into Europe. It was actually nominated for the Dutch Journalism Award as well.
So you started to work in 2014, and how long did you stay with that newspaper?
I worked with them for almost three years. I was always telling them that I wanted to do film and photos, as at the time, I was mainly a writer. So I went to Dutch Public Broadcast with a program creating documentaries, but I was always part of a team even there. I couldn’t develop my own stories, I wasn’t independent, and I felt like I couldn’t tell stories from the inside.
Finally, I had the chance when working on a story about refugees smuggling themselves back into their own country, from Greece back to Syria. This story was actually selected for a Journalism Award at the Dutch Journalism Award.
Then I went to another Dutch public broadcaster, VPRO, and I stayed there also working with Vice. Together with Vice, I created a 5 part series about Iraq, “Ruins of Iraq.” I stayed there for six months; Vice produced it, but VPRO distributed it.
Vice is excellent as they can blend in the conflict, and that’s my style as well, one man alone with a passion for people, finding a narrative and documenting it with videos and photos.
So after one and half years, the series was done. Now I mostly work with VPRO for documentaries. I made some documentaries about a Syrian YouTuber, Obada, about the life of refugees in Europe. An interesting person that is very well known in the Arab World but unknown here in the Netherlands. It was even selected for the “Gouden Kalf”, the most prestigious Dutch Film Awards.
What is the concept for this project with 550BC, “Martyr’s Brigade”?
Many people think of rebels as a bunch of fighters who only scream “Allahu Akbar” and go fight. But not many people know the story about the life of rebels fighting behind the scenes; they are ordinary people they got friends and family.
This book with 550BC is significant because it shows the story of a brigade, very close to the frontlines, and shows this group's human side.
It’s a portrait of the life they live there as fighters. There are pictures of them washing clothes at their base, posing with their guns, or shooting with sniper rifles on the frontlines. It shows different aspects, and one of the most important things is how young these people are; they are teenagers, 17/18 years old kids.
And how long were you stationed with this brigade? Did you always stay in the same base or change location?
I stayed there with the Brigade for three months, changing different locations.I also shoot some films there, but it will take a little more to work on that, as I need to edit everything.
I kept it for a long time to have a unique insight into what happened in the area since then Assad took over that territory, and many people from the book died.
I want to tell their experiences and what is going on there. For example, I remember one time I was on a motorcycle, and there was a Russian drone dropping bombs from above, and the guy who was driving, who now is dead, just started driving like crazy between the ruins. We hid in a house, going into a cave. As it is a very mountainous area, every home got a natural cave near, and we stayed there until the drone went away.
When did all of this take place?
It was 2019, specifically the end of 2018 and the start of 2019.
This is your debut photobook, is it your first book because you were looking for the right partner, or is this the first project with a concept you wanted to publish?
Honestly, I was looking for the right partner; that is something essential. Someone that I trust as a brother, not just a work relation. Because you need to trust your partner blindly as I also want to give them freedom, as everyone got different skills and qualities, I can photograph really well, and Pouria (550BC Founder) is a fantastic publisher, and I trust him with what he does.
His work with 550BC is always on point and really insightful, and it is very nice to work with someone with the same mindset, where the minds are “connected.”
What can Westerners learn from Martyr’s Brigade?
“Martyr’s Brigade” is a book that tells the story of fighters who are defending their area, fighting for their freedom. And what I want to show with the story of “Martyr’s Brigade” is a group of ordinary people not well equipped, not very well trained, with no ties to Al-Qaeda or other organizations and groups.
They are just people from Homs, a city in Syria, who protested before taking up arms; for example, one of the main characters of the book is Abdul Baset Al-Sarout.
He was the goalkeeper of the Syrian National Football Team, and he was one of the best goalkeepers in all of Asia. He first started to manifest during the protests, but then the government began to attack him, and they killed many of his friends and family, so he took up arms; there is a film about his story called “Return to Homs.”
The book is about his brigade, founded by him, and his fighters in the area.
I also saw recently from your Twitter account you talking about the reality and difficulties of being a photojournalist with Middle Eastern origins. Like what happened when you got arrested in Greece. Can you explain more about this, and what are your thoughts about the West's stereotypes about Middle Eastern journalists?
If a Dutch white man goes to Afghanistan or Syria, they will get invited to every talk show and newspaper asking about how they got there, etc… But if it’s me, a Dutch with origins from Palestine, and I do a story about the Taliban or the war, everyone is questioning how I get access there, while if I were white, they would celebrate me even more for the access and content I got.
When I go cover, for example, the Palestinian cause or other stories in the area, people find it weird that I got access, always thinking that I had to enter an organization to gain access.
It happened the same thing when a Syrian journalist interviewed Osama bin Laden; he got a prison sentence in Spain. When CNN did it, they were celebrated for that and its journalistic effort.
Yes, there is always this sort of thinking that if you were there and you got access, it means that you got something to do with those organizations…
Yeah, exactly, when in reality I get access because I speak the language, I’m from there, and I understand their cause. For example, I got banned from Turkey; I cannot get into Turkey as they say I am a terrorist.
Did that happen when you worked on the project regarding Syrian refugees?
No, even before. They were saying that I was making movies for ISIS, while in reality, if ISIS captured me, they would kill me. But it’s because of what I wear, and having a beard, for them, is a declaration that I’m part of a group. The same thing happened in Greece, I was walking with refugees on the Greek part of the border, and I got arrested by Greek police who were saying that I was the smuggler, and everything that I got like a camera, press card, and Dutch passport, was just cover. And they put me in prison; I got questioned by the Greek intelligence asking me about my relationship with Islam, how many times I prayed, and all of that. They also got two white German journalists in the same area, but they were released shortly after, while I got arrested and sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison; luckily, in Greece, you don’t have to serve a sentence if under four years.
And what was their reason?
They sentenced me for being in a military zone, sort of trespassing. It’s always hurting and frustrating because even the Dutch government didn’t do anything for me while they intervened to protect the freedom of the press on other occasions.
I think the problem is that European countries often have a sort of double standard on these things.
Yeah, it is weird, and it just hurts.
In the future, do you think you will continue to cover Middle Eastern conflicts or expand to war in other parts of the world?
Of course, I think my journey in the Middle East just started because of the language I speak and the cultural understanding. It is part of me; I never go and make stories to win awards or make money; most of the things I do, I don’t earn a lot, and I lose more time because I always want to make things perfect.
I always want, first of all, to enter the subject’s heart so that he opens up and can tell me stories and his feelings straightforwardly and authentically. Instead of filming someone without building relationships, I like to build relationships with people and get close to what they believe, think and feel.This, I believe, adds something to the work and makes it stand out compared to other story tellers.
Do you think that through publications like 550BC and media like Popular Front, new generations are growing up with a more authentic understanding of the world, as traditional media are falling behind with young people?
Well, there is a significant difference; if I want to watch to get informed on what is going on in 20 minutes, I watch the news, but then if I want to go in-depth and have local stories and alternative narratives, I go more on pages like Popular Front and 550BC, as it would be impossible to find those content on a media like BBC.
Popular Front and 550BC are made for the new generation; it is raw reporting.
And what are your following projects?
Well, I just came back from Afghanistan, and it will be a short film that is releasing this year and some very cool projects with Pouria (founder of 550BC).
We want to make a book about Palestine and work on the Dutch underworld; I never shot in the Netherlands, but it is something that I would like to do. We have some crazy stuff going on.
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