Reflections on My Work With the Ali Mustafa Memorial Collective

IMG_20170330_223327_925Image above by Chris Webb.

March 28, 2017

This Friday from 7 to 10 PM The Ali Mustafa Memorial Collective will be hosting a photo exhibit entitled, Towards the Unknown: Refugee Journeysat the Second Floor Gallery of the Gladstone Hotel. We will showing the work of photographer Tanya Bindra who is also our first ever recipient of the Ali Mustafa Memorial Award for People’s Journalism.

For the past year since receiving the award, Tanya has been working to document the stories of refugees across Europe, but mainly in Germany and Greece. We will also be announcing and introducing this year’s award winner, Allen Agostino who is using photojournalism to tell the stories of indigenous fire fighters.

Finally, we will also be showing a small selection of Ali’s work from his two trips to Syria before he was killed in Aleppo on March 9th, 2014 by a Syrian Regime barrel bomb along with seven other civilians. Ali was documenting the work of the White Helmets at the time.

In a conversation with Stephan Christoff for Upping the Anti in July 2013 following his return from his first trip to Syria, Ali despaired the lack of political understanding displayed by the progressive groups and media in the West towards Syria. He said, “Syrian people feel abandoned by the world. They are asking for our solidarity”. These words are even more haunting today as Homs is forcibly cleared of all civilian populations opposing the regime and the suburban areas around Aleppo face near constant shelling not only from the Syrian regime, but also from Russian, Iranian, and American intervention.

As I write my dissertation in part on the subject of “collective memory” as a political force, I am constantly reflecting on the “memory work” that we do in continuing to preserve Ali’s work, legacy, and vision. Every photo exhibit we host, every award that we grant to an up-and-coming photojournalist, every article we write, we add little pieces to the always crumbling tower that is memory. We do this because Ali’s work was important in documenting the struggles of everyday people in Brazil, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and even here in Canada.

Ali’s collective work is a powerful testament to the resilience of everyday people in facing monstrous capitalism or the fascism of state violence, from the Landless Movement in Brazil to the Egyptian Revolution to the G20 protests here in Toronto. Ali’s work and his death are also emblematic of the violent repression meted out by state and military forces in order to to brutally crush the people opposing them.

One of the most haunting of all of his collections of work, for me, is his documentation of the Rabaa Massacre in Egypt on August 13, 2013. It is difficult to imagine Ali the person behind the camera witnessing such bloody repression in what was one of many massacres he witnessed. While harrowing to look at, his images are taken with such care and respect for those he is documenting. They are images that are vitally important to remember and reassert every time that the official regime narrative attempts to erase what happened and deny responsibility.

One of my favourite features of Ali’s photographic work was his relationship to the people he worked to document. In so many of his photos the subject is staring directly into the lens of the camera in a way that challenges the typical voyeuristic gaze of the photojournalist. Rather than ignoring the camera and the photographer, the subjects of Ali’s work can be seen interacting with him in several of the photos where they hold up objects they wish to show him or point towards something they want him to document. You can tell by looking through his work how much he endeavored to work with the people he was documenting, rather than maintaining a farce of objectivity and distance. Ali embedded himself in these movements for justice.

Che Guevara once said, “I don’t care if I fall as long as someone else picks up my gun and keeps on shooting.” In the years since Ali’s death at the hands of murderous Syrian Regime the one hope I feel is that no matter where in the world massacres take place, whenever a people rise to their feet and demand change, whenever a government or military or private company respond with horrific violence and repression, whenever injustice persists on a mass scale, there will be young dedicated people who pick up the camera and “keep shooting”.

After Ali’s body was returned to his mother with the few belongings that were on his person at the time of his death, we managed to repair one of his cameras, broken and covered in blood and the dust of pulverized buildings, and send it back to Syria to be used by Syrian civilian-journalists. It is my hope that Ali’s camera is still being used to document the injustices of the Syrian Regime and its allies. It is my hope that this camera is still testifying to the resilience of the Syrian people in the face of this injustice.