On Oct 22nd, Syria’s Ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, wrote a letter to Chris Johns, editor-in-chief of National Geographic Magazine in response to the November 2009 article entitled “Shadowland” written by Don Belt. I had originally proposed this idea with Don Belt and the photographs in this article are mine. Ambassador Moustapha begins his letter, “It is with a heavy heart and a great deal of indignation that I write this letter to you.” I, too, am writing this with a ‘heavy heart’, but by no means any ‘indignation.’
Photojournalism’s main intent is to capture the significance of a moment, and with access to large audiences through publications such as National Geographic, the statements made with a photograph can become very powerful: something that comes with a large amount of responsibility. Responsibility on this scale is not to be taken lightly, especially when making a statement on an international stage. The statement becomes even more precarious when the medium is vastly open to interpretation, as photography is. Actually, journalism itself is open to wide interpretations. The Ambassador rightly states that he and the Syrian government opened their doors to give us unprecedented access to some subjects, including President Bashar Al Assad. We never intended to do a negative piece about Syria and in fact were propelled by the heartfelt notion that our countries MUST become closer. We have far more in common than that which separates us. Syria is a staunch defender of secular societies and in many ways battles Al Qaeda and Islamic extremism has heartily as the United States does. But in the US we come from a tradition, protected by our constitution, of free speech and the right to ask tough questions and draw conclusions that might not agree with the powers that be. That is the point of the media, as a protector and safeguard against the abuses of power by political authority, corporations, the military, etc.
I don’t feel the need to apologize for my work, because I know that I have acted responsibly, professionally and respectfully to Syria and its very special people. I feel my trips to Syria, while at times frustrating and difficult due to the protective nature of the government, were ultimately fruitful, meaningful and frankly enjoyable. I can say though, I feel disheartened that our work was misinterpreted by Ambassador Moustapha, because with communication in international relations, clarity is paramount. I sincerely think that my associate Don Belt’s article was a well rounded evaluation, with both points of criticism and points of praise. The ending was uplifting: the point being that change is on its way, and that this change is for the good and being pushed by Syria’s bright, young and forward thinking leader. Furthermore, as stated in the very beginning of the article, Syria has a pivotal role in Middle Eastern politics, so it’s development for the better is all the more exciting and critically imporant.
For those interested in seeing the Ambassador’s letter and comments, here is the link as posted on joshualandis.com