“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.
All photographs courtesy and property of Nicolas Righetti/Trolley Books
Words: Charlotte Simmonds