Last May, photographer Lorenzo Tugnoli, on assignment for The Washington Post, visited Yemen, reporting on the humanitarian crisis resulting from the ongoing political conflict and the Saudi-led airstrikes that have rocked the country over the last few months and years. His work forms part of this year’s Visa pour l’Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France. In the following text, Tugnoli reflects on the contrasting aspects of Yemen’s two major cities, Aden and Sanaa, which have found themselves at the center of the current political and humanitarian crises.
At first, Aden and Sanaa feel like opposite cities. One surrounded by the sea, the other by mountains. The blues and the whites of the Gulf of Aden color the first, while the greens and browns of the mountains and of the old city mark the other.
At a closer look, these differences start to fade. They both feature billboards of bearded heroes and martyrs. Both are dotted by checkpoints and buildings gutted by the war. Teenagers carrying Kalashnikovs and wearing flip-flops roam the two cities, crowd restaurants, man checkpoints. They only wear different uniforms.
Capitals of two halves of a nation at war, both lie on fragile foundations; the two warring parties are both fractured among allies with diverging interests. So a sense of insecurity is always present, and sometimes it explodes into outright violence.
For a photographer, Sanaa is a difficult city to navigate. The Houthi rebels impose an Iranian-style control over journalists: government minder always at your side, hotel staff more concerned about checking your movements than hospitality. And, of course, the psychosis of photography and spies is everywhere. As is the case in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, people are so suspicious that my government minder actually becomes handy: He would spend all his time giving explanations to anybody who caught a glimpse of my camera.
As soon as I step out of the car, every soldier in sight needs to see official authorizations, ask what I am doing or just have a chat to make sure I am acknowledging their authority. Unfortunately, the authenticity of a place is sometimes gone before I am allowed to raise my camera.
Aden, at first glance, appears more relaxed. Markets are stocked up, even if the good are often too expensive for many. There are no Saudi airstrikes, yet the war doesn’t feel that far away. Hospitals are understaffed and overwhelmed by malnourished refugees, and just outside the city, refugee camps are growing by the day.
Even the city center is unstable. One evening, we walked in a crowded area of town where young people gather in stylish cafes or around pool tables placed on the side of the road; a few days later, we found out that one of the latest targeted assassinations was carried out on the same street.
As often happens in an unstable country, its people are far more welcoming and gentle than its politicians.
Curious residents of the old city of Sanaa were welcoming to the Western-looking photographer even if the “Death to America” graffiti were sprayed on every shop and house. One young man who approached me wanted to practice his English, boasting about his Facebook friends in the United States.
The Yemenis are particularly sweet and welcoming people.
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