The Syrian uprising is yet to be fully covered by the press. International journalists were expelled from Syria in the beginning of protests in mid-March, and they are still being denied access to the country up to date. Meanwhile, independent reporting within Syria remains nearly impossible. In the midst of a state-imposed media blackout, the only way to get information out is through "citizen journalists." A number of Syrian activists in exile have managed to smuggle cameras, laptops, modems, and mobile phones into the country to report, collect, and distribute news and images—navigating the public opinion. Mainstream media and human rights groups have hitherto had to rely upon independent groups such as Shaam News Network and Ugarit News which circulate eyewitness accounts and amateur video footage in social media. Within this media-controlled context, the question is: What do these images represent and what kind of a power hierarchy do they insert against the Syrian regime?
Footage by citizen journalists shows what has been occluded by the pro-regime media. Peaceful demonstrations and their brutal, deadly crackdown by government forces have come to light through such improvised media. Shot by mobile phones and small cameras, these images often appear out of focus and shaky, evoking a sense of immediacy. While the Syrian government repeatedly blames "armed" and "extreme religious" groups or foreign provocation for the ongoing unrest, footage that covers protests on a daily basis galvanizes international pressure on the Syrian government. Here, the primary task of an image is exposure. The image serves as testimony. It captures what has been invisible and sends it out. This image is essential, for citizen journalism and social media are the only ways to let information out from Syria. Yet, there is a shortcoming when an entire nation relies solely on the non-professional journalistic image.
Most videos by Syrian citizen journalists capture demonstrators from a distance—blurring their faces. It is clear that anonymity is essential here, as the Syrian police and military are actively searching for dissidents to halt their voices—especially since the withering crackdowns of protests following Bashar al-Assad's speech back on April 16, when the president announced reforms that preclude "a need to organize demonstrations in Syria". In Syria, lifting the ban on Facebook is not seen as a sign of tolerance, but as a strategic move to track down anti-regime citizens. Yet there remains a jarring lack of individual stories that could potentially offer a more comprehensive insight into the protests. And yet, one has to admit that Syrian authorities are not alone in obstructing individual stories that are desperately needed to inquire into the grave deterioration and serious breaches of human rights.
In June, Turkey opened its borders for Syrian refugees who have escaped brutal violence by Syrian forces. Since then, Turkish authorities have pledged to keep the borders open and have repeatedly urged Assad's regime to curb violence against civilians and make democratic reforms. Nevertheless, they still prevent human rights groups and journalists from communicating with refugees who are forced to live in isolation. Syrian refugees are currently housed in Turkish Red Crescent camps that are fenced, covered with tarps, and surrounded by the police. Refugees are not allowed to talk to journalists or human rights workers, neither are they permitted to have cameras, laptops, or voice recorders.
The only time there was access to images from within the camps was when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees goodwill ambassador Angelina Jolie, accompanied by UNHCR staff and Turkish government officials, visited the camp in Altinözü in June. Not surprisingly, the Turkish media's coverage of the visit was dominated by images of Jolie with the smiling children who surrounded her, and turned a blind eye to the stark isolation of the refugees. On television and in newspapers, there was very little mention about how Syrian refugees are deprived from any means of relaying their stories to either the international community or their families outside the camps. Although there is now relative life security for these groups, individual stories still remain hidden, if not repressed, and it is still not possible to document the full scale of atrocities committed by Syrian forces.
A journalist friend who tried to access these camps in late June reported that when she briefly talked a refugee from Jisr al-Shughour, he immediately showed her videos on his mobile phone that captured the violent acts of a group of Syrian soldiers. Although he didn't know how to upload videos on to the Internet, he aimed for sharing them with activists. "Similar to activists who flee Syria in order to expose and distribute visual and textual materials about the crackdown, everyone in the camps wants to show that the king is now naked," my friend added. "[Revealing] the absurd performance of this regime is long overdue." In these dreadful conditions, one has to consider different types of visual narratives about the protests, not only journalistic ones.
Posted on the Facebook page of "The Art of the Syrian Revolution" in late June, a music video by band Strong Heroes of Moskow offers a compelling, if incomplete, narrative. "We're going to fill all the cells, we're going to fill all the prisons. We want to empty the Russian guns, for the sake of the Assadi nation." The rap video starts with these words, after showing pro-regime newspapers that portray protestors as armed provocateurs or extreme Sunni groups, among others. The lyrics satirize the rhetoric of the loyalty-producing regime and its media, and the pretext employed for its violent crackdown on protests. Lyrics written in black letters appear against a white wall, juxtaposed with red illustrations of threatening boots, and anonymous groups of people dumped into prison cells and then shot by a pistol. Towards the end, red drops spatter on pro-government newspapers and finally on the photograph of Hamza Ali al-Khateeb—a thirteen-year old boy tortured and killed while in custody in May—who has become a rallying cry for protesters in Daraa and other cities.
Another example takes the form of shadow theater. "Once upon a time, an 'Assad' [lion in Arabic] became a tyrant and turned his people into slaves," storyteller Abou Abdo says. Adapting a popular theater tradition, the video narrates the story of the youth chanting, "People want to topple the regime." In traditional shadow theaters, the use of figures in front of an illuminated backdrop is known to create the illusion of moving image, whereas this animation, using the visual tactics of shadow theater, inquires into the urgency of the immediacy of storytelling, although the characters remain anonymous. In the middle of his story, Abou Abdo stops talking and a text appears in the video, reading that the story-teller's audience suddenly leaves the coffee shop as they all go participate in the approaching demonstration. Left behind, Abou Abdo walks back to his seat before he joins protestors, opens his notebook, and writes: "If I don't come back from the demonstration, those who remain should conclude this story."
It's necessary to recognize the essential role of social media in relaying the message of the Syrian uprising, but this is not enough. We need to consider various reasons why Syrian demonstrators remain anonymous in images. Professional photojournalists might be missing from the scene, and the priority of citizen journalists might be immediacy, but there is still need for coverage that can expose individual voices to provide deeper insight into the protests and reveal the full scale of human rights violations. Dire conditions of repression and violence in Syria are indeed at the centre of this discussion, but it's also urgent to acknowledge the complicity of other authorities, including Turkish, in suppressing the voices of Syrian citizens and refugees. It is for these reasons that visual narratives, be it a rap video or an animated shadow theater, remain as strong as journalistic images in declaring that "the king is now naked."
 Al Jazeera's translation, http://blogs.aljazeera.net/liveblog/syria-jul-2-2011-1747
Özge Ersoy is a curator and art critic. She lives and works in Istanbul.