“Of course there’s an element of danger and risk about working in Syria, but it’s relative,” Bradley Secker argues. “Why should I just stay in the USA or Australia or the EU?”
The British photographer’s move to the Turkish border town of Antakya is the latest in a series of journeys in the Middle East. While early projects focused on the quirky or surprising – Palestinian hip-hop artists, migrants sneaking across the Turkish border into Greece – the Arab uprisings have placed Secker in pole position to provide the Western press with images from Syria.
And as well as crossing into rebel zones, there have been other trips to make, such as to the opening of an exhibition of his portraits in London, and a play inspired by them.
In Kütmaan (Arabic: hidden, concealed), images, audio and text are used to recount the experience of Middle Eastern gay asylum seekers as they wait to hear about their fate. Although the focus is on their experiences of the region, LGBT asylum remains a controversial issue in the West, where the concept of a human right to express sexuality has only recently been applied to asylum cases.
Most of the men portrayed are Iraqis or Iranians but many of the photographs were taken in Syria or Turkey and in some cases the men have taken care to hide their identity. “If I was going to do it in the UK it could be very out and proud and colourful – rainbow flags and all that stuff,” Secker explains. “But it’s more about the people and what situation they are in. They don’t have much money, they’re not in a great legal situation, they’re displaced from their country, their family and their friends.
“It’s probably quite a drab setting for a photograph but that’s reality.”
Beyond the actual click of the button, much of the work of portrait photography involves getting to know the subject and making them feel relaxed. By contrast, photojournalism demands the photographer to be both active and invisible: “Your job is to record what’s happening without changing or interfering as much as possible.”
Still, sometimes it is difficult to avoid being the centre of attention. “People are more aware of the media’s power now,” Secker says. “They may blow something up just for a picture. Like on the West Bank, when you get images of huge burning things – it’s the way you shoot the picture and what you choose to put in the frame.
“You could cut a tire out of the bottom of the frame and just have huge plumes of black smoke with people with the flag running and it could look completely different from the reality.”
He was prompted to go to Syria after realising that while many images were coming out of the conflict, they belonged to the narrow medium of mobile phone cameras. “There’s nothing wrong with that but I wanted to go in and photograph from a different angle.”
The first trip in February 2012 involved nine hours of walking overnight. “It was not difficult to get across the border – we picked up the fence and went under – but going from Turkey was difficult because there were no free zones, or liberated zones as they’re called now.
“It was very much localised which town or which village was in charge of the opposition, and which towns or cities were pro-government.”
Once inside, he found the rebel areas becoming organised, but tense. “The Free Syrian Army battalions were still forming and growing in size and defections were still happening.
“I met lots of people in towns and in the province who were doing work documenting violations, bombings, killings, arrests and torture, which is still going on now but in a different way.”
Northern Syria has since become more accessible, leading Secker to be more strategic in what he hopes to capture on his trips. “A lot of photographers and journalists are full throttle, especially the hard beaten war correspondents they just go in and see lots of blood and gore.”
“I could go to Aleppo tomorrow with my passport, I wouldn’t have to sneak across the border. But I would probably come out with the same images a lot of other people have.
“I think it’s important to photograph what’s happening behind the front lines, the villages and towns that are supporting the opposition and that are being besieged by the Syrian regime. People living in olive fields without any food or water. Those images say more than just guys running around with guns.”
Kütmaan runs until 30 November 2012 at the Leighton House Museum, open 10-5.30 daily (closed Tues). Exhibition is free but normal museum charges apply.