Italian-native and Vice News photographer Giacomo Sini has traveled from Afghanistan to Lebanon to Syria to Iraq (and beyond) to capture both the beauty and the darkness in areas of conflict around the world.
When did you begin photography? How did you get your start?
“I started with an analog camera, driven by a close friend who was taking photographs almost every day. It was like a daily diary of the city where we lived. I still remember the first time I touched that camera. I was 16 and we were on one of our first travels alone on an island called Capraia; this island is part of the Tuscan Archipelago and is in Livorno’s province. It was winter and the weather was not so good. We arrived in Capraia in a difficult travel by boat with giant waves and strong wind. It’s a wild island and not so tourist-friendly. As we walked in the village, I was totally absorbed by its silence and beauty. I asked my friend to give me the camera for a while, and since that moment, I haven’t been able to separate myself from it. My first photo was of the calm after a storm in a winter sunrise on that very day.”
A kurdish YPG fighter walking through a road on the south western’s Kobane frontline on April 2015. Photo by Giacomo Sini.
What brought you to shooting in zones of conflict?
“I always had an interest in history, social and political problems, and conflicts. When I was a child, I had a photo book of the second World War and loved to read historical books. During the Kosovo war (1996 – 1999), Italy participated actively in the war, with the concession of its own airspace for bombing Yugoslavia. I turned on the little radio on my nightstand in the bedroom and I started to hear ‘Yugoslavia is now get bombed by NATO’s raid’. As a 10-year-old, I did not understand what NATO was or the problems in Yugoslavia; but I was afraid and sad because I knew that Yugoslavia was on the opposite shores of the Adriatic Sea, and a lot of people in that moment were being killed by bombs. Meanwhile, I was trying to sleep in my comfortable bed. From then on, I grew interested in war and conflict, and with the passing of the years, I started to travel to some places of conflict around the Balkans, the Middle East, and Central Asia. I got in touch with war and its consequences.”
Do you recall your first days witnessing / experiencing a conflict zone?
“I was in Lebanon. The situation of this wonderful country has never been too stable. I decided to visit the country during a two-month travel by land from Italy to the Middle East and back. When inside Lebanon, the situation in the north became worse, but I nevertheless decided to travel on, trying to reach the city of Tripoli. Suddenly, close to a central square of the city, while I was in a taxi, I started to hear shootings everywhere. The driver stopped the car. We suddenly got out of the car. The shootings were starting to get closer. I took shelter for almost an hour in a nearby courtyard.”
One of the central roads of Kobane city (Rojava, Northern Syria), on April 2015. The city was freed from ISIS militiamen by YPG-YPJ on January 2015. Kobane has been completely destroyed by the conflict against ISIS and by the bombings of the anti-ISIS coalition between 2014 and 2015. Photo by Giacomo Sini.
What did it feel like?
“There was a mixture of adrenaline, terror, and panic. Even though the shootings were not right front of me, it was my first experience in a war zone. You are never prepared for that.”
Which places have you traveled to? And what conflicts have you experienced?
“I’ve traveled to Europe, Central Asia, Middle East, the Near East, the Balkans, North Africa and the Caucasus, touching some areas crossed today, as in the past, by numerous conflicts. Many countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Palestine, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, Kurdistan, and Syria have all left their mark on my personality.”
“I’ve been to the boundary lines between Syria and neighboring countries, analyzing the civil conflict from the point of view of the fugitives and locals. I followed the siege of Kobane city in 2014, regarding the refugee situation in Kurdish territories inside Turkey. I’ve documented the haunted train ride of Central Asian workers from Moscow to Tashkent, the Uzbek Mahalla internal life, the situation of the Syrian refugees’ informal camps in Lebanon, and the life of the Chechen root’s “Kist” minority in the Pankisi valley in Georgia.”
One of the central roads of Some young syrian refugees in Arsal, Lebanon, on the boundary mountains between Lebanon and Syria. Today this territory is occupied by ISIS militiamen. January 2014. Photo by Giacomo Sini.
Tell me about a couple of your most memorable experiences.
“After several attempts to enter Rojava for several years, I made it in 2015. The warm welcoming hug of a Kurdish militiaman upon my arrival was very memorable. As well as the offer of a cigarette in the middle of the night in absolute darkness, after a really exhausting border crossing. That was the best cigarette I ever smoked in my life.”
What are your most important supplies?
“When I get close to a front line, my bag is packed with water, chocolate bars, and cigarettes!”
Was there something special you did for “good luck”?
“A day before departing to a war zone, I always drink a beer with some close comrades and friends. And often, before I leave my home, I look into the mirror and simply tell myself, ‘good luck.’”
What are some of the memorable people you met along the way?
“Every single person you meet along the way in a war zone is memorable. Every single glance, every single refugee, every single family, every single situation is a book that deserves to be written.”
Some clothes from refugees are drying on the fence built by Republic of Macedonia’s authorities along all the border with Greece, in order to stop the entrance of the refugees in their territories. April 2016. Photo by Giacomo Sini.
Do you recall any particularly humorous or unusual event?
“On a cold night, in the middle of a wheat field in a completely dark area, we were crawling on the ground. Since there was a big risk of being shot by snipers, we had to turn off all electronic devices and be dead silent. While we were crawling, a mobile started to ring out a famous southern Italian melody. It could have been a disaster. But we survived. We’re all alive and safe, so I can consider it now as a funny story.”
Did you keep a personal diary?
“I used to write a sort of diary where I would gather stories, day by day, from each place I traveled. Soon, I hope to publish it as a sort of travel epistolary diary, ‘Transitstan’ might be the right name for it.”
How has your experience influenced your thinking about war?
“I’m a convinced anti-militarist. The experience of being ‘on the ground’ has reinforced my belief. When you are on the ground, you can feel it. When you speak, share your time, and sleep in a tent with families that have been displaced due to a rocket being dropped on their house by a bomb, you understand better why it is important to oppose such violence.”
Some refugees from Kobane, having just returned to the city from Turkey after months of forced exile, sitting just a few meters inside the gateway of Rojava. April 2015. Photo by Giacomo Sini.
How have your experiences affected your life?
“Every single experience in a conflict zone has affected my life, in some way. This sounds cliché, but it is not. Every situation I’ve been in enforces my political activism for social rights, and a stronger feeling of solidarity with those who escape from war, oppression, poverty, or simply those who want to move freely around the world without meeting fences, militaries, and violence.”
“Some experiences have also caused me some post-traumatic stress symptoms, which have not completely passed.”
What are you capturing now?
“I’m focusing on migrant rights and their moving inside the Middle East and Europe. Soon, I’ll be back in Kurdistan, as there is a strong need of documenting their situation in countries where they live.”