“He was crying because all the people around him were freaking out”

Sebastiano Tomada, an Italian photojournalist, entered Syria from Turkey on September 22, 2012. He wanted to head directly to Aleppo.

He’d spent weeks trying to cover the Free Syrian Army-controlled area of the city, and the battle along its front lines. During this time, Tomada was constantly surrounded by aerial strikes, wounded civilians, rebels, heavy crashes and mortar fires.

On October 3rd he went inside Dar al-Shifa, one of Aleppo’s last standing hospitals. Not long after, he came across a man carrying a wounded child, the child pictured in his World Press Photo winning image. Tomada’s photo shows a severely wounded child who awaits medical treatment in one of the city’s last standing hospitals.

We talked with Sebastiano about the photo and what he learned from shooting it.

CV: Could you describe the situation in Aleppo the day you took the photo?

Sebastiano Tomada: It was at the height of the fight. There was a lot of back and forth between the Free Syrian Army and the Syrian Army. I was with other photographers not so far from a pretty important front line. Suddenly things got very, very bad. There was a crazy amount of artillery, mortars and air strikes. People were being hurt here and there. We decided to go to the hospital to see what the situation there was like. Hospitals are a good place to understand what is happening: how hard the fighting is, where the wounded are coming from, which neighborhoods are being targeted.

CV: How did you find the baby?

ST: The situation at the clinic was terrible. There were a lot of wounded people. I was walking and I saw a man carrying a baby who was yelling and screaming. I followed them to a room. The baby was put on a medical bed. Doctors came in. He had wounds all over the body. His head was split open. I don’t think he was crying because he was feeling the pain, he was crying because all the people around him were freaking out.  Suddenly a mortar hit very, very close to the clinic. And everybody, even the doctors who were in the room with the child, left. So I was left alone in the room with the father and the child. I didn’t know what to do. I had not taken pictures yet. It’s not that you snap pictures randomly. You either take a little bit of time or you try to sneak a picture. The father couldn’t take it any more too. He was leaning against the wall. I couldn’t help him, I couldn’t do anything. The child was probably one year old. He was just looking at his hands. Blood. ‘What is this red thing?’ He probably didn’t know what was happening.

CV: How many pictures of the baby did you take?

ST: One vertical, one horizontal. And then everyone came in. For respect, you don’t stick around. Those bedrooms get really busy. I went out of the room and I found the father on the ground crying. I thought that the best thing that I could was  to sit next to him and wait a couple of hours. So, I just sat next to him and waited a couple of hours.

CV: Do you know what happened to them?

ST: I don’t. We had to leave after a while because things got even worse.  I didn’t really speak with the father. Towards the end, right before I left, I gave him some water from the fountain. I remember him pointing his right arm … at the air. Screaming ‘Allah, Allah, Allah’.

CV: How do you deal with these situations on a personal level?

ST: It doesn’t shock you there, in the moment. You don’t deal with things there, you deal with things once you’re back home. But I have not reacted in a bad way to these things yet.

CV: Your photo won many awards and it was published all over the world. How does that feel?

ST: At some point it bothered me a lot because for the first time I felt that I had used somebody, to make money off it. I did a campaign to raise money for Syria. It was my way of, not saying thank you, but, saying sorry. I felt that I had to give back one way or another. It’s my job, but for the first time in my life I feel that I took advantage of someone.

CV: But aren’t photojournalists supposed to generate some reflection about what’s happening?

ST: Yes, our job is to show whatever is happening, but there’s a limit to everything. There’s a sense of respect that you have to bring. A lot of people don’t think about this.  At the end, whether we’re helping them or not, we are their guests, they’re giving us access, protecting us, feeding us, showing us around. Also, I’m still not convinced that journalists can really make a difference. I still haven’t seen that personally. We can open a window on what is happening, We can give them the possibility to make a decision on the matter or the situation, but a lot of times you’re making things more complicated for the viewer.

CV: What did you struggle with when you started your career as a photojournalist?

ST: I had no idea how to approach a story and relate to people. Relating to people on a daily basis is very human thing to do. But relating to people who have been wounded or hurt is a total other animal.

CV: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned over the past years?

ST: To make friends on the ground, because they’re the ones who will actually save you or get you out of any situation. It’s all about friendship and respect.

Photo Above: A wounded child awaits treatment in one of the few hospitals left standing in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Sebastiano Tomada/Sipa Press USA.

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