Leica CL
5 frames with...

5 frames with the Leica CL in Syria – By Grant Rayner

March 20, 2021

A year ago, in February 2020, I had the opportunity to travel through parts of Syria. As it turns out, I was lucky with my timing. This was early in the COVID-19 pandemic. While there were temperature checks at the border between Lebanon and Syria, there was no way of knowing that within months the situation would unfold to be a global pandemic.

My journey took me from Mar Mikhael in Beirut, through Damascus to Homs. From Homs through Al-Husn and then up to Aleppo (I had to take a major detour to the east, as it wasn’t safe to travel north along the M5 from Homs to Aleppo). From Aleppo, back to Damascus via Maaloula.

My primary camera was a Leica M10-P with a 35mm Summilux lens. This was the perfect camera for this type of adventure. The camera was ideal for wide open / high shutter speed shots out the side window while driving, as well as for discreet waist level street photography in the streets of Homs and Aleppo and in the alleys and laneways of Old Damascus. I also used an iPhone 11 Pro, which has a fantastic camera that all but guarantees a decent photo.

In addition to the M10-P, I carried a Leica CL with a 40mm Summicron lens. Atop the CL sat a Voigtländer VC Speed Meter II. Most of the time this camera was tucked away in a satchel. Fiddling with two cameras is more complicated when you need to maintain awareness of what’s happening around you. Nonetheless, I was able to shoot a roll of Kodak Tri-X 400 along the way.

Driving north from Damascus, passing the townships of Harasta and Duma, you can already get a sense of the level of destruction that has been wrought on towns across Syria. Even so, that doesn’t prepare you for Homs.

The level of destruction in Homs is simply heartbreaking. Sections of the city have been completely destroyed. It’s a confronting experience to stand amidst the ruins, knowing that these broken buildings once housed families and businesses.

There are still active threats in Homs, so it’s not advisable to spend too much time wandering the streets. I only managed to get a few shots with the Leica CL in Homs. The shot below shows a commercial area that’s slowly coming back to life with small stalls and markets.

Commercial centre in Homs

Commercial centre in Homs

From Homs, we headed west towards Krak des Chevaliers, a crusader castle. The town of al-Husn, below the crusader castle, has been ravaged by fighting. Barely a dwelling is untouched from the pockmarks of small arms fire and shrapnel, or the cavernous holes left by anti-tank rounds.

The town of al-Husn

The town of al-Husn, looking down from Krak des Chevaliers

The drive to Aleppo took me west to avoid the M5 highway, which wasn’t secure at the time. It was a longer route, but significantly more interesting.

Arriving in Aleppo brought home once again the horrors of war in dense urban cities. Entire sections of the city have been destroyed. The Al-Madina Souq—previously the beating heart of the city—was burnt out with parts in ruins. The adjacent Umayyad Mosque, was also destroyed in the fighting and is slowly being restored. From Aleppo it was possible to hear the sound of explosions from the direction of Idlib, where fighting was continuing at the time.

The shot below is taken from the Citadel, looking over the city of Aleppo.

Aleppo

Aleppo, taken from the Citadel

After departing Aleppo, we again took our long detour out east and then south. We encountered driving snow most of the way down. A break in the weather gave us the opportunity to visit the town of Maaloula.

Maaloula is a beautiful town not far from Damascus. The town has a rich history, bloodied by the arrival of the jihadist Al-Nusra Front in 2013. The town is slowly rebuilding, but the damage goes beyond broken buildings. The stories of atrocities in Maaloula are deeply disturbing and will scar a generation. The photo below shows homes built into the mountainside in Maaloula.

Township of Maaloula

The township of Maaloula

Finally, my journey took me back to Damascus. The Old City is one of the most interesting places I’ve travelled to. The winding back streets are highly photogenic, full of endless curiosities. I took dozens of photos with the Leica M10-P in these alleys, but regrettably only a handful with the Leica CL.

Backstreets of Old Damascus

Backstreets of Old Damascus

Syria is like no place you will see. It’s equal parts horror and beauty. As stunning as it is saddening and maddening. The experience won’t be easy to forget.

Although the urban landscape has been damaged almost beyond imagination, the resilience of the people shone through everywhere I went. While the battered buildings made obvious photography subjects, there’s also the opportunity witness and document people rebuilding their lives.

The Leica CL is a brilliant little camera. It doesn’t feel as solid in the hand as an M, but it’s the perfect size. The only downside was not having a sufficiently convenient exposure meter. In these types of environments, it’s useful to be able to shoot quick and keep moving.

If you’d like to learn more about Syria, and see additional photos, I wrote a Medium article on my experiences.

I’ve also added the occasional photo to my Instagram accounts – @grantrayner and @grantraynerphotography

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12 Comments

  • Reply
    Bob Janes
    March 20, 2021 at 10:36 am

    You are a brave soul to have taken up such an opportunity.

    Did the internal meter of the CL not work?

    • Reply
      Grant Rayner
      March 20, 2021 at 11:22 am

      The places I travelled to were fairly safe, so long as you kept on the move. The internal meter on the CL works on and off, but I haven’t found it to be reliable. I prefer using the Voightlander meter because I can get the settings right with the camera held low before I bring it up to compose and take the shot.

  • Reply
    john andrews
    March 20, 2021 at 5:33 pm

    Brave soul carries in excess of $15k personal/handheld camera gear (Leica M10-P plus at least 1 lens, and CL?) through streets of recently/actively bombed communities in Syria, taking pictures of locals trying to survive. Reader comments about his bravery.

    Oh, wait… tourist is founder of a global security and high-risk environments consulting group… helping large corporate clients “navigate crisis environments”. Not a stretch to suggest the author is part of the military industrial complex, and quite privileged.

    I’m respectful of photography, photojournalism, hustling…including blogging. But… a wee bit of awareness is important. Or should we next publish “5 frames testing my Hasselblad using expired film, scenes from an abortion clinic” or maybe “Proving the Leica documents pain & suffering better than any other camera…5 gorgeous b&w frames of starving children in the slums of Somalia”

    I know this won’t get published, and you’ve been offended by my criticism before… but WTH dude, hosting privileged globalist dude showing off his M10-P and his access to actual victim communities of globalist violence (without the cover of Journalism privilege), and especially NOW, while we’re all suffering the oppression of global pandemic shutdowns?

    We can do so much better than selling out for ad clicks.

    • Reply
      Grant Rayner
      March 21, 2021 at 5:34 am

      Hi John. Yes, I was nervous about carrying my camera gear (and laptop etc) there, but to be honest–from the perspective of crime and personal safety–Syria is far safer than many other places I’ve travelled to. Of course, you can’t get travel insurance for Syria, so that’s another concern.

      None of the photos posted here focused on people suffering. The areas I travelled to hadn’t seen active fighting for some time and are considered ‘secure’. I certainly met people who had been wounded in previous attacks, and almost everyone I met had lost family members (some in horrific circumstances). The walls along some streets are covered in posters of dead fighters. Beyond physical suffering, what was apparent is that the psychological impact of the fighting has been profound and affects multiple generations.

      None of the places I visited were ‘recently/actively bombed’. While areas of Homs and Aleppo (and other cities) have had to be abandoned due to the extent of the damage to infrastructure, people are slowly rebuilding, with small shops and markets emerging in some areas. There’s even some rebuilding in the Al-Madina Souq in Aleppo, which was all but destroyed by the fighting. It was uplifting to see people rebuilding their lives and businesses in the face of such extraordinary challenges.

      I was in Syria in February 2020, before the ‘oppression of global pandemic shutdowns’. I’m hoping to travel back to the region once it’s safe to do so and once the oppression is over.

      This wasn’t a work trip. I travel to places like this in my personal time because it expands my knowledge and awareness. I’m not sure how to respond to your accusations that I’m part of the ‘military industrial complex’. I don’t think I am, but would they tell me if I was? (I’m not American, so I’ll have to apologise and say that not all of your accusations make sense to me).

      It’s impossible to travel to a place like Syria and not feel privileged to have been born in a different place in different circumstances. Given my experiences, there isn’t a day that goes past when I don’t feel privileged to be able to live and work in a peaceful environment where there’s electricity, food on the table, and clean water coming from the taps. Certainly, the fact that I’m able to travel is an enormous privilege. The world would be a better place if more people could travel and have the opportunity to witness first-hand the consequences of conflict and neglect.

      As for the cost of camera equipment (or clothes, or the laptop I carried etc), trying to rationalise the levels of disparity in such contexts is a complex challenge. The reality is that no one cared about the camera I was carrying, where I bought my jacket from, or how much my shoes cost. What they did care about was that a foreigner was willing to engage with them and listen to their stories. In a country where the people feel forgotten and ignored by the international community, I believe that counted for something.

      I actually do have some photos from Somalia that I’d love to share here. These photos were with an old Minolta 35mm camera with a huge crack down the front of the lens protector! I did see acute suffering there, but at the same time also had the privilege of witnessing astonishing resilience. Somalia was a life-changing experience.

      • Reply
        Hamish Gill
        March 22, 2021 at 10:39 am

        I shall look forward to reading about and seeing the images – happy to publish them. Thanks for taking the time to respond rationally to John’s comment. I don’t like to censor this sort of thing, but realise reading it might not have been particularly pleasant.

        • Reply
          Grant Rayner
          March 22, 2021 at 10:45 am

          Thanks Hamish. I’ll admit it wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Better to focus on the photography.

    • Reply
      Kodachromeguy
      March 21, 2021 at 11:28 pm

      Wow, what got your underpants twisted into a knot? How about commenting on the photography?

    • Reply
      Bob Janes
      March 22, 2021 at 9:28 am

      John, I’m not surprised if your comments have offended before if this is a representative sample; you appear to be inviting that response.
      The problem with this style of combative posting is that by over-egging your statements (which leap rather than stretch), you torpedo your own points. It is perfectly possible to go into a dangerous area without serving your own interests. When my friend Greg went to Sierra Leone, he went to help stop the Ebola epidemic not to serve the military industrial complex. By all means question motives, but you should refrain from assigning them without knowledge.

      • Reply
        Hamish Gill
        March 22, 2021 at 10:35 am

        Well said. I couldn’t find the energy to respond, but had I, this is what I would have said!

  • Reply
    John
    March 20, 2021 at 5:59 pm

    A country we (the US) continue to screw over, thanks for going there and humanizing their situation.

    • Reply
      Grant Rayner
      March 21, 2021 at 3:50 am

      Thanks John. It’s a complex political situation, and there’s certainly a strong argument that other countries could and should have done more to alleviate the suffering (not just the US). Let’s hope we see some positive changes going forward.

  • Reply
    john andrews
    March 21, 2021 at 2:13 pm

    Good to see this discussion, especially that the editor apparently encouraged or at least is supporting it. Of course there is much to debate (somewhere else) about political assertions & assumptions, such as whether 20xx bombings were “recent” and whether the American interventions “alleviate suffering”…assertions that photos of people setting up their local market tables in bombed out squares don’t focus “on people suffering”, and the asymmetrical dynamics that *might* cause a victim to present as grateful, when visited by an obvious member of the bombing elite class.

    My point is that an essay proclaiming the novelty/beauty/interesting nature of photographs taken of a bombed society, whether for technical gear or image sharpness or compositional reasons, is by definition “glorifying violence”, unless it serves a justifiable journalistic purpose.

    The author should be free to express himself… whether morally blind or intentionally evil, or anything in between….but the publisher carries responsibility for granting the essay an audience in context, as well as exposing the existing audience / influencing the public (such as may happen when remote bombing of cities is normalized as a form of political expression).

    A comment citing this essay as “humanizing their situation” suggests documentary journalism, although it’s context (noting that America “screwing over” the victims) contrasts with the author’s comments.

    Thanks to the editor for allowing the discussion. Thanks to the author for commenting with more of his own perspective, and at least listening to the ideas. And thanks to the reader, who is likely a photographer/photography advocate, for considering that you are an important part of the world, not simply a remote observer or ancillary creator. What happens “out there’’ is empowered by the collective will (with your consent, expressed or implied).

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