Execution Squares: Photographer re-imagines public hangings in Syria

by Alex Whiting and Shanshan Chen | @AlexWhi | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 15 January 2014 12:04 GMT

Syrian photographer Hrair Sarkissian sits in front of the Tate Modern gallery, London, 7 January 2014. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Shanshan Chen

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LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – As a young teenager on his way to school, Syrian photographer Hrair Sarkissian witnessed a public execution in Damascus. It was a common sight before civil war broke out.

Three bodies were hanging there, their eyes open, a piece of paper pinned to each body with the person's name, date of birth and crime committed written on it.

The memory of what he saw drove him as an adult to photograph squares where executions had taken place.

He took the photos in 2008, the year he left Syria to study in Holland. They are now on display in London’s Tate Modern gallery.

Here he shares his thoughts about public executions in Syria, and why he believes it’s still important to show the photos today.

Why did the sight of a public hanging lead you to take photos of Syria’s execution squares?

I wanted to … convince myself it’s something that doesn’t exist anymore.   

But for me they do, because every time I pass by this particular square I see the (bodies) again, even after so many years. It’s something that hasn’t been erased from my memory.

What did you seek to portray through your photos?

My main interest was in the question: How do you see this? Why don’t you react to it?

Showing these empty squares on the wall with just simple titles indicating what these spaces are, raises the question immediately: where are the bodies?

They are there. And suddenly these invisible bodies become very physical, and you forget the surrounding of the square.

Do you think such executions brutalise society? 

For me, yes.

Are public executions still taking place today in Syria?

They were doing this kind of execution until the civil war broke out. Today, it’s a different kind of public execution.

Why is it still important for people to see your photographs?

They might help – probably not now, but later on – to wake up people who are witnessing these kind of acts. It’s a futuristic ambition, maybe.

Did you encounter any difficulties when making this series?

They were all photographed at 4.30 in the morning. This is the actual time they executed people, when the sun comes up. They hanged them and left them there until 10 in the morning, so everybody could see it.

I had this big camera, and at 4.30 in the morning there’s no one in the street. Wherever there was a square that I wanted to photograph there was either a police station or a security station, or ministry. So every time I went and took pictures, somebody came and asked me: “What are you doing and why?”

I never gave them the (real) reason, because they would have … arrested me.  

Why were public executions carried out?

They started under the Ottomans, about 500 years ago. They used to execute people in the main public squares. 

When the crime rate rose in Damascus in the late 1980s and 1990s, they changed the strategy and started to hang criminals in the square closest to where the crime had taken place.

It was never political prisoners. It was crimes like rape, murder – and traitors.

In the late 1990s and 2000, the practice became less frequent in Damascus because the capital had become more internationally visible. But they kept doing it in other cities such as Aleppo, where at least one person was hanged every month.

The government tried to show the public that if you commit a crime, this is what will happen to you.

Punishment by execution is in the mentality of the population too, that this is what criminals deserve. This is how we grew up, this is how they taught us.  

Watch video interview with Hrair Sarkissian on "Execution Squares" here.

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