Road to Nowhere

Robin Graubard’s debut book is a stark documentation of Eastern Europe following the dissolution of the USSR

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

Besides the long, paisley dresses and other vintage fashions, there really isn’t much dissimilarity between today and the events documented in Robin Graubard’s Road to Nowhere. The first major book of the photographer published by Loose Joints, Road to Nowhere is a stark documentation of Eastern Europe during the 90s following the dissolution of the USSR, conceived through a diaristic manner in which Robin bore witness to the Yugoslav War, Bosnian genocide and Kosovan uprising. She journeyed to Russia, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and others, lensing and telling stories of hardship, suffering, war and hunger. And what with Russian invasion of Ukraine and ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, these pictures show that history does indeed tend to repeat itself.

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

Road to Nowhere features primarily unseen imagery shot over the 90s, yet the visuals themselves appear timeless – they could have been taken yesterday, just a few years back or even decades. She worked solo and sought out stories that were close to her heart, revealing the difficulty of these lived experiences and powerfully juxtaposing them with the emerging subcultures of post-Soviet life, such as those seeking joy and normalcy amongst it all. Chores, games or dancing at a concerts are therefore comparatively sequenced alongside the deteriorated urban landscapes and buildings impacted by shelling. It’s a devastating depiction of conflict, but equally one of resilience. 

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

With a career spanning 40 years, Robin’s work is often seen merging the autobiographical, editorial and documentary. She came of age in the counterculture and punk scenes of the 60s and 70s in New York, set against the urban backdrop of revolt and rebellion. She worked as a photographer at a newspaper; there was a strike and it was shut down. Consequently she bought a flight to Prague and met a group of women outside a UN building, who were discussing how no one was covering the war in Sarajevo. Receiving the press credentials from Newsweek, she set up base in Prague and stayed for three years.

“I photographed the war in Yugoslavia, oil smuggling in Rumania, runaways and orphans living in train station tunnels in Bucharest, and a school for girls in Prague,” she writes in the book. Proceeding to travel alone throughout the Balkans, she’d met families, lovers, translators, bus drivers and soldiers. In Belgrade during 1995, for instance, she spoke with a group of soldiers, some “dogs of war” who were the “most elite Serb and Russian mercenary soldiers on the front line”, she writes. “They seemed young and bedraggled.” She spent time photographing them and they were posing with peace signs. “Most of the soldiers in the picture died during the war.”

Robin was often on the front line and at the heart of conflict. Not only did she experience heavy shelling at night in her apartment while in Sarajevo, she also had a near miss when a bullet shot past her head during check in. “The man at the front desk seemed to be in some sort of trance and just ignored it,” she pens. On one occasion, she was walking to the hospital in Sarajevo through what was sniper alley, accompanied by a translator who’d been shot four or five times. Usually walking around on foot through Sarajevo, Robin recalls, “Somehow, I made it out”.

An impactful debut from the photographer, Road to Nowhere sees 130 photos compiled over 228 pages. The book is published by Loose Joints.

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

© Robin Graubard 2022 courtesy Loose Joints

Why Take Photographs?

Photographer Giles Duley – who himself was photographed minutes after he lost both legs and his left arm in 2011 as a result of stepping on an explosive device – asks how photography can be justified when documenting the horrific injuries of war

Abdulah in Erbil, by Giles Duley

I’ve covered few stories that have affected me as much as documenting injured civilians in Mosul. The time I spent there, earlier this year, left me questioning the validity of my work and bereft of hope. For a month after returning home I hid from the world. When faced with such darkness and violence, what value can a photograph have? Does it become voyeuristic to capture and share those moments? Against such horror a camera seems impotent, its use almost perverse…

I believe photography comes with great responsibility and as soon as I lift my camera to record somebody’s story, I have to ask myself: Why am I doing this? Nothing in photography goes more against human nature than the process of pointing your camera at somebody injured, afraid or in real peril. So, why do it? Does it, can it, make a difference?

In February I was based in a hospital run by EMERGENCY in Erbil. Every day they were receiving dozens of badly injured civilians from the fighting for Mosul. Even after over a decade of photographing the effects of conflict, the scenes I witnessed there were amongst the worst I’d ever seen. Babies with amputated limbs, a young child paralysed by a sniper’s bullet, whole families lost. It was beyond words.

In the past, I have referred to how I try and find a positive in such situations, a moment of humour, or to show the love between loved ones, families. But what I witnessed from Mosul left me beyond that: there are times when you can find no such image, no positive. I think back to Raghad, a man I met in the hospital: For four days, I watch him sit silently by his injured son’s bed. He nods when I walk by, nothing more. Then one day he comes over and grabs my arm.

“It was not my fault,” he pleads through dead eyes, a hollow expression I have rarely seen. “I did what I thought was right.”

He tells me his story: His family sheltered beneath a table in their home as bombs landed around them. The house opposite was hit, then the house next door, and at that moment his nerve gave; he told his family that they must run. As they left the front door, a third bomb dropped. Raghad’s wife, three daughters and two sons were all killed instantly. A son, Abdulah, survived, left blind in one eye.

There is nothing you can say to such a story. You cannot say ‘things will get better’, because they never will. There is no hope, no positive angle. This is the real face of war and its sinking, sucking horror.

I photograph his son against a white wall, a patch still on his left eye. Skin pitted by shrapnel, his expression as hollow as his father’s.

I could only see the darkness and terror of what was happening. I was shooting angry, disregarding my normal practice of not showing the blood and gore. I wanted the world to see what was happening and reel away as I had.

As the days passed, I knew this was wrong. It should not be about me, but about those I was photographing, and to do their stories justice I had to work in a balanced way. I don’t like the phrase ‘to give people a voice’, they have voices already – my job is to make sure those voices are heard.

But there’s still that question: Why do it? What difference will a photograph make anyway? Only recently I’d heard my inspiration, the war photographer Don McCullin, say there was no point to his decades of work because wars still go on. So, if my photograph makes no difference, why point my camera at a child who’s just been injured? It’s an intrusive act.

On the last day, I sit with Dawood Salim, a 12-year-old boy who has lost both of his legs and most of his right hand. For the past week, I’ve been visiting him and his mother: He always smiles and jokes. For the first time, I feel ready to take his photograph.

I ask his mother, “Do you mind if I photograph your son?”

She looks at me with a defiant yet resigned stare: “When a child is injured like this, the whole world should see.”

Does this answer my doubts? Does that make it all ok? Of course not. But it reminds me of my simplest role: to act as witness, to tell their story. What Dawood’s mother has said has not given me permission, but has challenged me to do what she has asked. There is no point in taking a photograph if I do not then do all I can to make sure the whole world sees it.

That is where my duty lies.

This is an excerpt from issue 21 of Port, out now. To buy or subscribe click here.

Duley’s exhibition, I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See was shown from Wednesday 4th through Sunday 15th October, The Old Truman Brewery, 89 Brick Lane, London, E1 6QL.

In this article, he reflects on the exhibition and presents a video collaboration of the event directed by Phoebe Arnstein.

Showing the Impossible: Syria’s refugee crisis

Attempting to capture the plight of Syrian refugees, photographer Giles Duley visits a camp in Lebanon to illuminate the complex stories of its inhabitants

Khawla, 12 years old, at the makeshift camp where she lives near Tripoli, Lebanon. September 2014
Khawla, 12 years old, at the makeshift camp where she lives near Tripoli, Lebanon. September 2014 Photo – Giles Duley

In my work as a photographer I’ve documented many refugees’ stories: in Bangladesh, South Sudan, Angola and Afghanistan to name just a few. But the Syrian refugee crisis was the first I’ve witnessed from its beginning. Over the past four years I’ve spent much of my time in Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan, or following the refugee trail across Europe. While I can never truly understand, those years have given me some insight.

My work doesn’t focus on the dramatic, the scenes of mass exodus or panoramas of camps. Instead my work focuses on the mundane, the daily: documenting families and their journey. Many of these families I have revisited over the years, and it is through their experiences I try and tell the story.

One of the hardest things has been to watch the children of those families grow, as hopes of peace and returning to Syria fade. To bear witness to a whole generation stuck in limbo, often uneducated, highly vulnerable, bored, listless and increasingly without hope. Children left maimed by the war, disabled children unable to access basic medical care, psychological scars manifested in eating disorders: just some of the stories I’ve tried to tell.

Children like Khawla, a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon who I first met in 2014. At the time she was 12 years old and lived in a small makeshift camp by the sea, a few miles from Tripoli. She lived with her sister, six brothers and mother. Her father was missing in Syria. The camp was on wasteland by a cement factory, the air thick with its dust. There was little protection from the elements, the children got sores from insect bites and everyday there was the threat of eviction.  There were no schools for the children, no jobs, the hospitals and doctors too expensive. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees provided Khawla’s family with food coupons, but there was no support for accommodation or shelter provided. The tent Khawla lived in was made from blue tarpaulin, torn down movie posters and salvaged wooden posts. It neither protected them from the heat or sheltered them from the cold.

Her family had fled their home in Idlib, Syria after three years of living in the midst of a brutal civil war. With no end to the war in sight and with living conditions becoming impossible, they took refuge in the relative safety of Lebanon. There though, they had nothing. Without a father her family was particularly vulnerable.

For a while her mother and sister worked in a salt factory; like many refugees they were taken advantage of, paid far below the normal rate. While they worked, Khawla looked after the tent and two of her brothers, both of whom are disabled. Then one day there was an accident, the tent burned down and what few possessions they had were lost.

For Khawla this was the end; she could take no more. She swallowed rat poison in a suicide attempt and told her sister that she had done it to help the family – one less mouth to feed.

Khawla didn’t die. Her sister told her mother and they managed to get her to hospital. She spent 13 days in intensive care, pushing the family further into debt.

How do you photograph a story like that? How do you do justice to Khawla without exploiting her vulnerability? For weeks I visited her family and the camp, without finding the photograph. If it doesn’t feel right, I’d rather not even get my camera out of the bag. Yet her story had to be told, for she is not alone. Increasingly there are stories of young Syrian refugees feeling suicide is their only option.

Finally, though, the photograph did come to me. We were sitting outside chatting, when Khawla walked by, the setting sun behind her. In that moment I saw the image. The glare of the light would come close to fogging my film, leaving her silhouette almost ghostlike, the image reflecting her own frailty. It’s as if she is about to fade away.

In May 2016, two years after first meeting them, I revisited the family. Things have changed little, if anything they have grown worse. Khawla, who is so quick to learn, doesn’t attend school. She has a nervous smile that lights up a room, yet still talks daily of suicide and a desire to end the suffering. The family is struggling to survive with no breadwinner and the two disabled boys needing extra support. Since her suicide attempt Khawla has had no counselling or psychological intervention.

But she is not alone, in the region there is a whole generation of children suffering like Khawla. According to a Unicef report, an estimated 3.7 million Syrian children (one in three of all Syrian children) have been born since the conflict began five years ago, their lives shaped by violence, fear and displacement. In total, Unicef estimates that some 8.4 million children (more than 80 per cent of Syria’s child population) are now affected by the conflict, either inside Syria or as refugees in neighbouring countries such as Lebanon.

Syria’s next generation is growing up uneducated, marginalised and brutalised; they are vulnerable, exploited and often without hope. Who is to blame? What can be done? Ask any Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) and of course they will say the solution is peace in Syria. But as more regional and world powers become involved, that seems unlikely any time soon.

The reality for now is that the world has to find ways to help the children in Syria, in the camps in neighbouring countries and those who’ve resettled in Europe. There are amazing projects being run, individuals dedicating their lives to help and NGOs providing support – but it is not enough until every Syrian child has access to education and a safe environment. It is, after all, this generation that will be expected to rebuild their shattered country. They are the hope for the future in the region and they cannot be abandoned. 

Giles is a photojournalist and triple amputee whose recent work has focused on the impact of conflict on civilians. He was awarded a fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society in 2013, and has won several awards at the Prix de la Photographie Paris: P×3. He is currently photographing the long-term effects of conflict on communities around the world for a five-year project called Legacy of War.

Photography Giles Duley

This article is taken from PORT issue 19, out now.