Picture Book of the Week: Yes to a Rosy Future

Bashar al-Assad's last campaign.

“His portraits are everywhere: gas stations, bus stops, supermarkets, restaurants. On top of posters that are faded, sometimes torn, new portraits are added. Whatever their size, whether a publicity handout or a tarp covering the side of a building, they are omnipresent and picture a calm, imposing leader.”

These words, written by Christian Brändle – director of the Zurich Design Museum – in his afterward to Yes to a Rosy Future, (Trolley, £12.99) encapsulate the eerie magnetism of Nicolas Righetti’s latest photo book: a series taken during the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s last presidential campaign. Righetti left Beruit during the 2007 Lebanese conflict, taking shelter in Syria in time for the controversial May elections that saw al-Assad re-elected Head of State with a reported 97 percent of the vote. “These enormous and ubiquitous portraits were a tradition started by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, who ran Syria from 1970 to 2000”; states the book’s introduction. “The son’s ascendancy was initially marked by a notable decline of the personality cult as well as hope for a more open, democratic society.” 

Righetti’s pictures of pre-election personality propaganda, each accompanied by statements from the President’s official speeches (“I will remain the Syrian people’s benevolent son”) are a poignant lament for the “sad turnaround” of Assad’s leadership and a return to the “coercive traditions of the old Ba’ath party”. Righetti is no stranger to dictatorship, having completed previous project in North Korea and Turkmenistan.

“Such portraits allow a sovereign to be everywhere on his territory,” concludes Brändle: “A portrait makes one see and feel a set of intentions.... background, text and clothes are part of a calculated construction.”

Political iconography is inherently a facade, and after two years of brutal civil war such cheery, paternal warmth rings ever more false against a backdrop of suffering. These “photographic sculptures” are being torn down. 

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All photographs courtesy and property of Nicolas Righetti/Trolley Books

Words: Charlotte Simmonds 

"Yes to a rosy future" was the government slogan behind al-Assad's 2007 campaign. (Photo: Nicholas Righetti/Trolley Books)
JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses