Inside war

Montreal-born, Toronto-based photographer Liam Maloney’s Texting Syria premiered in 2014 but is still as timely and important as ever.

Courtesy of Liam Maloney.

In 2014, Montreal-born photographer and visual journalist Liam Maloney premiered Texting Syria at Nuit Blanche Toronto.

A stunning and heartbreaking work, Texting Syria explores the strength and plight of Syrian families displaced by war in the context of digital communication. Through Maloney’s lens, the quotidian act of sending or receiving a text is reframed as wartime communiqué. Through his interactive installation, visitors experience something as much as they view it.

Currently, Texting Syria is installed at the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce Cultural Centre, where it will remain until Nov. 25. After its stint in NDG, the installation will move around Montreal for six months, including stops in Parc Ex, Mile End and RDP.

“This exhibition has travelled all over the world; most recently it was up at the Nobel Peace Center [in Oslo, Norway] for seven months,” says Maloney. “Last year, a gallery that presented the work during Le Mois de la Photo asked me if I wanted to do it again and I said sure, why not, [because] it continues to be relevant.”

Maloney isn’t happy that the work is still relevant, mind you, which is why he has laboured to expose people who understand war as a statistical thing — this many dead, this many displaced — to the truth of armed conflict. What displacement looks and feels like. What inaction or indifference enables.

“One of the great things about photography — especially photography that attempts to impose itself on major historical events like war — is that the meaning of the photos that you take tends to change over time as our understanding of that event changes. Four years ago, we were three years into this devastating conflict in Syria, and it was not clear then who was going to emerge victorious. You had very strong and unified groups of militias fighting against Assad, ISIS was only starting to emerge and we didn’t really know where things were going — so there was still a certain degree of optimism in the air.

“Today that optimism is gone. And so looking at the photographs now, and seeing how people were communicating with each other, there’s an aspect to it that is bittersweet. The situation now is so hopeless and the violence being unleashed on civilians is so deplorable that we’ve lost words to describe what is happening.”

Given contemporary attitudes towards migrants, immigrants and refugees, Texting Syria is still timely, and speaks volumes about what photographic art and journalism can be and accomplish. Whereas many photojournalists try to get the shot, Maloney wants people to get the point.

“Some of my colleagues are complicit in helping to perpetuate [erroneous] ideas by continuing to represent migrants or refugees as these unwashed masses who pose a threat to us and our way of life,” he says.

“One of the roles that the media could do a better job of upholding is to provide context and give people a little bit more clarity on what it is they’re actually looking at. When you see a throng of people breaking down a security fence, you don’t know why they’re fleeing Honduras; you don’t have any sense of what the urgency is. The photograph itself encapsulates all these misinformed ideas of what refugees are and should look like.” ■