By Zoe Christodoulides
SOME PEOPLE get a kick out of taking risks, with the bout of nervousness quickly followed by a feeling of excitement or euphoria. But for Achilleas Zavallis, risk-taking has little to do with an adrenaline rush and far more to do with forcing himself to face a brutal reality: war.
Thirty-seven-year-old Achilleas is a photographer who has dedicated himself to taking pictures in the heat of conflict.
“I don’t like to take things for granted,” he says. “Too many people in the world see what’s happening around them but don’t ask any questions. I like to ask questions.”
Having just returned from a long stint in Syria – about a year and a half with a few breaks in between – his haunting pictures attempt to look into the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of warfare.
“It’s not so much about ‘war’ per se, but what happens to that country’s society because of war. You see humanity at its best and worst. That’s why I go to take the pictures I do,” he says.
Achilleas didn’t go to some fancy media school, nor did he really spend much time studying the art of photography (barring a two year course that he pulled out of by the end of the first year).
Looking at his poignant images, you’d be mistaken for thinking that photography was in his blood, but Achilleas confesses to never being particularly into photography in his younger years. He only really developed a penchant for cameras at the age of 24.
But perhaps it was his studies in psychology that ignited an insatiable desire to document the experience of a given society in troubled times.
His first real ‘adventure’ came in 2005 when he packed his bags to go to Sri Lanka to photograph the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, then going on to work with an NGO for a year.
As the years went by, he dabbled in professional photography for publications here in Cyprus, before finally deciding that the time had come to do what he had always wanted: take pictures in a war zone. And Syria seemed like an obvious choice.
How Achilleas got into Syria in June 2012 is just as interesting as the stay itself. “The research took me a month and half but getting into Syria took 30 seconds.” How so? “I crossed the Turkish border, ran through a flat field and there I was.”
Turns out that Achilleas didn’t tell a soul where he was going. His friends and family all thought he was on ‘holiday’. But there was one person who knew about his adventure and was expecting his arrival, a man from the small town of Marea – located halfway between Aleppo and the Turkish border – who runs a media centre accommodating foreign journalists.
And how did he prepare for it all? “Prepare?” he reiterates. “You can’t prepare for something like that. Not psychologically at least.”
What he did, however, was research, hitting social media sites and locating various activist groups. That’s when he stumbled across the person he refers to as the “village man” from Marea.
His stay in Marea saw Achilleas engage in further networking as he was put in touch with a rebel unit in the Free Syrian Army, an opposition force operating in the country since the start of the civil war.
Soon enough, he was off to stay in a house with the rebel unit in Aleppo. And the stay ended up being a year long, with a few short intervals in-between where he would unwind a little in Turkey.
In the mean time, some of the pictures taken were outsourced to a variety of international magazines and newswires- including Agence France Presse (AFP). But how differently does Achilleas feel about the turmoil now he has lived through it?
“The way I see it is a bit of black, a bit of white, and huge amounts of grey. You can’t just simplify it and say ‘these are the good guys and these are the bad guys’,” he says. “Whatever side you’re on, what do you say to a mother that has just lost her kid? At the end of the day, it’s the civilians who suffer and the rest is just boys with guns.”
The Syrians’ reaction towards him changed markedly in the months he stayed there.
“At first they saw us (I mean us foreigners) as a ray of light. They thought we could do something to help them. But as time went on, they became somewhat hostile. They kept on asking me why our governments weren’t doing something. By the end they were very angry,” he says.
Surely, there were moments when he seriously feared for his life? “Most of the time, no, I couldn’t let myself fearful,” he says almost indifferently. Although bombs fell left, right, and centre, daily life went on. “We would wake up, have breakfast, talk. Then I’d go out with them for an operation if there was one.”
But the men who he grew close to over breakfast, were not always there the next morning. And by the end of his time in Syria, about 80 per cent of the fighters he had met were dead. “I’d have to get on with my day but at 2am I’d wake up with flashes of different people that I knew that had died.”
Things became even riskier as Achilleas moved on to Damascus in February 2013, a journey of almost 600 kilometres that took two weeks, trying to avoid danger by travelling via Turkey.
Setting up camp with a yet another rebel group, it was here that the photographer admits to feeling isolated from the world.
And for the first time in the course of our conversation, Achilleas admits that he almost died leaving Damascus. Almost? “Well, I was with a group of rebels and civilians walking about 35 kilometres through the desert and had to walk past a number of army outposts,” he explains. “It was the middle of the night and they just started firing towards us. And I knew there was a big chance that could be the end.”
It goes without saying that his experience has changed his take on life, and he says he now appreciates the small things and claims to never lose his temper.
He has no plans to return to Syria anytime soon. But he will, most certainly, be contemplating his next big venture.