‘Close to Bab Touma, three photographers stood in front of their remarkable apparatus, large wooden boxes on adjustable tripods also made of wood. Their customers sat on folding stools in the open air, in front of a wall with a black cloth over it.
Farid and his grandfather had to wait. There were two farmers and a young man in line ahead of them. One of the farmers was cross because he didn’t want to puff out his cheeks as the photographer asked. The photographer snapped at the farmer to do as he was told or his face would look like a crumpled pair of underpants in the photo. The other farmer was afraid that the photograph might steal his soul.
“Don’t worry, it’s like painting,” the photographer assured him.
“But the Prophet forbade it,” explained the man.
The photographer was losing his temper. “The Prophet didn’t need an ID to claim a legacy. You do. Take a deep breath and hold it,” he ordered. The man fell silent and blew out his cheeks until they were smooth and round.
Farid was surprised when the photographer disappeared under a black cloth fixed behind his camera. It was some time before he came out again, and then he opened a drawer filled with some kind of liquid at the side of the apparatus and took out a small, dark picture with a few lighter patches on it, which Grandfather called a negative. Finally the man fastened the little picture to a board and briefly held it in front of the lens, only for his head to disappear inside his cloth tunnel again.
After quite a while he emerged, sweating and looking as if he’d been fighting a demon. Once again he opened the curious little drawer at the side and took out the second photograph. It was a perfect likeness of the man who hadn’t wanted to puff out his cheeks at first, and sure enough he looked much healthier in the picture than in real life.’
Photos taken in the old city of Damascus, November 2009.