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ONE PHOTO – ONE STORY

31.07.2020

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"The photo was taken in the city of Raqqa, in the town’s main public space, Naim (Paradise) Square. Raqqa, located in north-central Syria on the banks of the Euphrates River, was the capital of ISIS’s so-called caliphate, between 2014-2017.

On the day this photo was taken, there was a dust storm coming, and there were few people in the streets. But this café had just reopened in the square, in the middle of the ruined city. In Raqqa, during the offensive to oust ISIS, over 80% of the infrastructure was damaged or destroyed. The scale of the destruction was staggering, and the human toll even more so.

After all that civilians endured living under ISIS, and then the ensuing campaign to drive the extremist group from the city, the trauma was evident. However, this was also peoples’ homes – so they started trickling back in after having fled the city temporarily. They had to restart their lives, to rebuild their houses, reopen their shops, and try to live with the memories haunted by the ghosts of the dead and the horrors they had experienced.

I was in Raqqa several times in 2018 looking into the aftermath of the conflict there. The main backstory to why this image is so significant for me, is because of the colours and what they represent: the contrast between the bright pink paint on the bricks, orange and green chairs, grey rubble, and brown-yellow hues brought on by the dust. Lightbulbs were strung up over the tables.

Standing there as the winds picked up, there was this sense of loss, melancholy, and hope. Just behind where this photo was taken, cinema seats remained where people were forced to watch a screen showing punishments meted out by ISIS. Nearby in the roundabout of the square, ISIS held public executions. And yet, this café existed to encourage life once again."

Image: © Nicole Tung
Equipment: Leica M (Typ 240) with Summicron-M 35 f/2 Asph
© C. McGrath

Nicole Tung

Nicole Tung is a freelance photojournalist born in Hong Kong. She graduated from New York University in 2009, and contributes to international publications and NGOs, mainly covering the Middle East as well as stories from Africa and Asia. She has covered the conflicts in Libya, Syria and Iraq, focusing on the plight of civilians and the aftermath of war, while exploring the rising violence against women in Turkey, and documenting protests in her native Hong Kong. She is based in Istanbul.

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