Life and work of photojournalist Ali Mustafa killed in Syria inspires friends and activists to support grassroots journalism and social justice
Toronto, CANADA – Every time Donya Ziaee looks at the photos lining the walls at the Beit Zatoun cultural centre in Toronto, she tries to imagine where the man behind the camera would have been.
“I try to imagine where Ali was standing when he took that. That, for me, every time it shocks me to imagine him in that situation… really, to this day,” Ziaee says, her voice trailing off.
“He didn’t just want to show [the people in his photos] as being passive victims to this senseless violence around them,” she continued, as images of Syrian men, women and children, often standing amidst the ruins of their homes, look on from behind the frames.
A man in Syria standing next to bombed out rubble, March - April 2013 (Ali Mustafa)
“He wanted to also show that in spite of everything, against all odds, they show this amazing resilience and find ways to survive and cope.”
Ali Mustafa, a photojournalist whose photos from two reporting trips to Syria are on display in Toronto this month, was killed on 9 March 2014, when the Syrian government dropped barrel bombs in a rebel-held area of Aleppo.
Ziaee, who met Mustafa when they were students at York University in 2007, remembers finding out that he died through Facebook. At the time, many of his friends and family did not even know he was in Syria.
“It was awful,” she said. “I just think that’s such a terrible way for anybody to find out about the death of a loved one.”
A Syrian family, March-April 2013 (Ali Mustafa)
Tributes poured in
When news of Mustafa’s death reached Toronto, some of his friends hastily organised a vigil in the city. A week later, they hosted a memorial in an effort to raise money for Mustafa’s family to bring his body back to Canada and to pay for a funeral.
“We had organised a photo exhibit then… Most of the photos weren’t even framed. They were just printed on paper. We had them stuck all over the room,” another friend, Johannah Black, told Middle East Eye.
People brought food and flowers and paid tribute to Mustafa and his work, Black remembered. Others collected some of his favourite music to play during the memorial including a haunting song by Brazilian singer/poet Chico Buarque, called Funeral de um lavrador (Funeral of a Farmer), which was one of Ali's favourites.
“So immediately when you walked into the memorial it felt like Ali because all of his music was playing, his photos are there, the people who loved him are there,” Black said.
Syrian refugee children, March-April 2013 (Ali Mustafa)
The outpouring of support also set things in motion for the creation of a long-term memorial to Mustafa’s life: the Ali Mustafa Memorial Collective, a volunteer group that seeks to preserve and honour his life, while supporting other freelance journalists. Both Black and Ziaee are members of the collective.
“He wasn’t even taking photos when he died. His camera was with him, but he was helping to rescue people. And that was the thing: he wasn’t just standing there as an observer,” Black said.
“In all of the work he did… he was there in the middle of the action, not just documenting but participating in any way he could, helping people who were injured, and not just standing with his camera at a distance documenting.”
Supporting grassroots journalism
Born in Toronto, Mustafa reported on social justice struggles in Brazil, Palestine, Egypt, Syria and Canada.
He sold some of his photographs to the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) and French agency SIPA, and posted updates on his blog, From Beyond the Margins. But the 29-year-old was also vulnerable as a freelancer without much institutional support.
Young boys scaling the separation wall in West Bank, Occupied Territories, July-September 2011 (Ali Mustafa)
Today, one of the collective’s main goals is to back other independent journalists and support better working conditions for freelancers in conflict zones.
The first Ali Mustafa Memorial Award for Peoples’ Journalism was awarded this month to Toronto photojournalist Tanya K Bindra, who plans to document the struggles of women who have survived sexual assaults in India.
“Without the support and encouragement of the collective, I would not have been able to pursue this project. I hope to approach my work with the same courage and compassion that Ali showed in his,” Bindra said about being selected as the award’s inaugural recipient.
Ziaee told Middle East Eye that the collective hopes to give out the award annually.
“We specifically wanted to capture the kind of work that Ali was doing, which was from below, with the people, embedded within struggles and in solidarity with the people that he was covering,” she said.
Cairo street graffiti, Egypt 2011 (Ali Mustafa)
‘Compassion and solidarity’
Mustafa’s photographs will be on display in Toronto until the end of April, alongside some quotes and writing excerpts. The collective also hopes to publish a book of his photos and writing – titled From Beyond the Margins – within the next year.
“Even as his photos got more aesthetically sophisticated, there was still that sense of him being embedded with the people who he was documenting and telling their stories, not portraying them as objects to be looked at,” Black said.
Battle of Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, November 2011 (Ali Mustafa)
“It’s not just because he had a camera that people went up to him to have their story heard,” Ziaee added. “They could sense that he was there out of compassion and solidarity, and that’s why I think he was able to pick up such amazing work.
“I would hope that people are inspired by not just the principle and dedication that he showed to his beliefs, but by the sacrifice that he also committed in the process.”
'He wanted to help everyone'
Maher Azem, a Syrian-Canadian activist based in Toronto, connected Mustafa to activists inside Syria during his first trip to the country in 2013. At the end of that same year, Azem and other friends pitched in to get Mustafa a new camera after his was confiscated by Egyptian security officials in Cairo.
Azem said the last time he spoke with him was the end of February 2014.
"He really wanted to immerse himself with the people, so he spent as much time as possible with everyone really. The first time that he went [to Syria], he went to so many places: schools, field hospitals, media centres, Free Syrian Army [areas]," Azem told Middle East Eye.
"Everybody would notice his interest in knowing more and also experiencing what the [people] suffered. They found him to be a very simple man, down to earth, [and] very different from foreign journalists.
"Usually the journalists just carry their camera and do their work... If he was at a field hospital, he would drop [his camera] and go and help."
Azem said Mustafa would want his death to draw attention to the perils Syrians brave on a daily basis to share information about what is happening in their war-ravaged country. At least 103 journalists and media workers have been killed in Syria since 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists estimates.
"He's one of thousands of other activists and heroes and aid workers and doctors that were killed by the same brutal dictator," Azem said. "He would definitely want to see Syrian media workers to get more support. He wanted to help everyone... It breaks your heart to see such amazing people go so soon."