'A picture that encapsulated the struggle of the Free Syrian Army'

Rick Findler: “I suppose my favourite picture of the last seven years from documenting conflict would have to be the Syrian catapult picture. What that was, was a group of Free Syrian Army rebels using this homemade makeshift catapult to fire homemade grenades. Sort of homemade, homemade explosives. And so I think it was our second or third time in Aleppo. It was our first day of the trip and we got somewhere and someone said, some FSA guy said: ‘Ah, round the corner they pull and let go and they pull and let go’. And I mean, we just thought that someone's got like a little slingshot or something, you know. And, ah, and we jump in the car and go sort of 100 metres around the corner and sure enough there's this huge catapult that they've welded together with bits of metal and corrugated iron and scaffolding. And then they put it, it takes four of these guys to pull this rubber band back and slot this, this explosive in, light it and then let it go. And it would fly over this wall into an area where Assad troops were. But you know a lot of the time they, sometimes they'd light it and they'd let it go and it would fly off and just never explode. Some would go left, some would go right, others they'd, they'd hit the wall and bounce back, and we'd all have to run out the way before it exploded. And, it was just, it was a picture that that encapsulated the struggle of the Free Syrian Army back then. Your mind's too focused on trying to take a picture and safety and things like that so it was, it was afterwards where you're editing your pictures and your filing and you think, ‘Bloody hell. That was, that was quite something back then, wasn't it?’ You know, and you sort of look at your mate and you think, well, that was, that was bizarre, you're not going to see much of that you know in your lifetime.”

Rick Findler is a photojournalist who has covered conflicts in Libya, Iraq and Somalia. He visited Syria four times between 2012 and 2014. 

During a trip to Aleppo, with reporter Benjamin Hall, he took an image of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters using a catapult to fire home-made explosives into an area of the city supposedly held by Basharal-Assad’s government troops. 

'It was this huge catapult, made out of metal and rubber,' he said. 'Sometimes they'd light these explosives and fire them and they'd would go bouncing off the wall and we'd all have to run to get out of the way before they exploded.'

The picture helps to illustrate the changing nature of the conflict as Findler saw it.

‘When we first visited Syria, it seemed to be a simple conflict, with the FSA rising up against Assad. We saw anti-Assad demonstrations,’ he said.

'But subsequently, you would encounter jihadi groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and it became clear that this was a much more complicated situation.’

The number of groups involved in the Syria conflict made it difficult to cover the unfolding events in an objective fashion.

‘In Libya, there was a front line, whereas in Syria it was completely fluid,” he said.

'You’re always in danger wherever you are. And it’s very difficult to remain impartial if you’re covering a conflict and some of the sides don’t want you there. Assad’s troops wouldn’t let us follow them around, when Jabhat al-Nusra emerged they wouldn’t let us follow them around, for obvious reasons, so it was really just the Free Syrian Army who gave us access. 

‘And even then, it varies between katibas [divisions or militias making up the FSA] – one group would be happy to see you and welcoming, but then you could go 100 metres down the road and meet another group who were still part of the FSA but who genuinely disliked you being there.’

Findler had a very different experience during his time in Syria when compared with Sergey Ponomarev, the Russian photographer who was granted unprecedented access to government-held areas to produce Assad’s Syria, a record of life in the government-held regions of the country in 2013-14.

Assad’s Syria was displayed at IWM North as part of part of Syria: A Conflict Explored, a season of exhibitions and events reflecting upon the ongoing conflict in Syria.

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