City native's photos show incongruous calm in Syria

New Hampshire Union Leader
January 13. 2013 9:06PM
Emma LeBlanc, alumna of The Derryfield School, pictured above, wanted to capture a "sense of normalcy" in Syria. (COURTESY)

In the flurry of images that document the Syrian civil war and the government crackdown come photos captured by Manchester native Emma LeBlanc of Syrians trying to hold onto some sense of normalcy.

LeBlanc's photos, feature Syrian girls from middle-class families in Sahnaya, a suburb of Damascus, taking part in ballet classes just as the revolution was beginning.

"For me, it really captured this sense of trying to cling to normal, everyday life," the alumna of The Derryfield School said during a telephone interview from Oxford, England.

LeBlanc, who is a Rhodes scholar looking to obtain master's and doctorate degrees in anthropology, said she wasn't attempting to ignore the fighting - the United Nations has estimated that more than 60,000 people have died in the war - by focusing on the ballet classes. She said she wasn't interested in being yet another photographer taking the same pictures of the uprising, saying the photos themselves are similar whether they are taken in Egypt, Libya or Syria.

"I never really learned much about the place from those photographs," she said. "You lose any sense of individuality."

LeBlanc, who went to Syria about five years ago because she wanted to learn how to speak Arabic, said people in Sahnaya tried to distance themselves from the revolution when it began in 2011. She said people in the "lovely, middle-class community" aren't the ones rebelling because jobs are going to the cousins of powerful people. Rather, the people in Sahnaya, for the most part, are those cousins getting those jobs, she said.

"At first, it almost offended me," she said. "But then I learned that it's less about callousness and more about self-preservation."

The exhibit, titled "The Ballet Girls: a portrait of life in Damascus during the revolution," is on display at her high school alma mater until Friday. She was briefly back in Manchester to give a presentation about the exhibit.

She said she is used to the reactions she gets from adults. They want to ask about the country, the uprising or about the art of photography - think lots of questions about juxtaposition and color contrast. But she said she was struck by the more intimate reactions the photos generated in children.

"The kids ask things like 'Is she happy?'" LeBlanc said. "They approach them from such a different direction."

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