In the past year in Syria, a number of photographers — Robert King, Alessio Romenzi, Manu Brabo, Rodrigo Abd, Nicole Tung and others — have produced powerful work, tenaciously drawing the world’s wandering attention back to the horrors of Aleppo, Homs and other Syrian cities and towns.
But over and over again, one photographer in particular, a Mexican-born freelancer named Narciso Contreras, has managed to illuminate and distill the horrors of the signature battle of our time — the intractable Syrian civil war — more consistently than any of his often more-experienced peers.
Contreras’s pictures from Syria have proven to be not only significant and, in some cases, unforgettable. His sequences invariably capture the anguish of a conflict that has trapped countless civilians in their own land and made refugees of tens of thousands more, while more than a few of his individual photos already feel iconic. Like all photographers doing great work in impossible circumstances, Contreras has again and again been at the right place at the right time, making indelible pictures of the fighting and, often more movingly, the effects of the fighting: the wounded, the hospitals, the morgues, the gruesome, necessary task of cleaning up after the carnage.
“Narciso has a diverse viewpoint in the sense that, when you look at his take, you see he’s making use of different perspectives, different framing,” says Santiago Lyon, the Director of Photography at the Associated Press. “He’s got it straight up, but he’s also got some more creative work. He’s showing us the reality of the situation in Aleppo, which is surely a difficult place to work. So in addition to his talent, he’s clearly got an awful lot of courage and determination to be able to get himself in and out of the situations that he’s been in.”
What makes Contreras’s work in Syria even more astonishing is the fact that he has, in a sense, come out of nowhere to emerge as the one photographer whose work will likely be seen as the photographic record of the conflict.
Contreras, 37, studied photography and philosophy in Mexico City. He began his career working as a freelancer for newspapers like El Centro and Excelsior before traveling to India. There he documented the major religious communities in the north and the influence of Maoism on the religious society of Nepal. Contreras lived in a monastery Vrindavan, in northern India, while working in the country — a choice that makes perfect sense when one learns that he views the craft of photography as a “spiritual encounter” with the world, and that he has viewed every moment of his career as, in his words, “a new step to educate myself.”
He worked in Burma where, over a two-year period, he documented the civil war along the tribal areas in the country’s Karen and Kachin states. Newly represented by Polaris, he spent more than a month in the north of Burma covering conflict there, as well as strife in the Kashmir region controlled by India.
After monitoring the situation in the Middle East and reading about events there in the wake of the Arab Spring, Contreras turned his attention to Syria in 2012. The massacres in Homs and Houla had already taken place, and the rebels were mobilizing, claiming that the battle for Aleppo would be remembered as “the mother of all battles.”
Contreras entered Idlib province, sneaking across the Turkish border on his way to Aleppo as fighting broke out. The rebels took Contreras from their base in Masake Hananu to the Hullok district, where Syrian aircraft were bombing rebel positions. Contreras described the situation as a nightmare — an omen of what he could expect in the coming months of work in Aleppo.
With Turkey as his home base, Contreras has returned to Syria repeatedly, covering the northern provinces of Aleppo and Idlib, where opposition to the government is strong (and, unsurprisingly, fiercely targeted by Bashar Assad’s military).
“I’ve found among the smiles and the extreme kindness of the Syrian Muslims some of the most horrifying scenes in my life. Shattered bodies being carried out of the rubble of homes hit by bombs, or the despair of the people caught in a raging fight that never ends,” he says.
Contreras relates harrowing stories from Aleppo in the manner of a great essayist. While his quieter images set the scene, his powerful sequences amplify the monstrous absurdity of war. His images are simultaneously beautiful and searing, with their occasionally desaturated tones assuming a somber, deathly pallor.
“Aleppo is a doomed city,” Contreras says, with grim certainty. “I have been shooting there to testify to this. There are not words to describe the cost of the bombardments and the crossfire — the number of people killed at the bakeries in Aleppo City during the war, many of them children. Others have been lucky to survive, like one child in Aleppo that I photographed at a hospital after he was injured by shrapnel in his foot. He got hit when an airplane shelled the bakery [where his mother had sent him to queue for bread].”
From the front line of battle in the Old City to the working class neighborhood in Sakhour, Contrera’s images show, in his own words, “the despair of the current crisis from this side of the conflict — the side that we, as foreign correspondents in Syria, are allowed to cover; the side of the poorest, the most vulnerable, and all those trapped by geography or by circumstances in the areas controlled by the rebel fighters.”
Contreras says it has not been easy to keep working as a stringer in the field with just a few assignments. (Publications for which he’s shot include Le Journal Dimanche and Der Spiegel.) But at the same time, his dedication lends him resolve: “The most important thing is to be sure about what I’m doing here, and to keep going and never give up.”
In October, Contreras came to an agreement with the Associated Press to distribute his work more widely through the wire, where his exceptional photographs stand out alongside the work of more seasoned photographers. While the broader relationship with the AP is obviously welcome, he is still represented by Polaris.
“My editors at both Polaris and at the Associated Press are doing their part,” Contreras says, “and I appreciate the strong support they give me. Without them, it would not have been possible to bring these images to a larger audience.”
“Narciso’s work floored me the minute I opened his first email inquiring if he could join Polaris,” assignment editor James McGrath wrote in an email to TIME. “Among all the many talented photojournalists working today, only a handful [have achieved] a uniquely personal style. I don’t need to see Narciso’s byline to know I’m looking at one of his pictures. He has quickly defined himself as one of the greats.”
Asked about his own future, Contreras notes how intrinsically he is now tied to the Syrian civil war: “My heart starts to beat a bit faster … but I have to breathe deeply, for there is not an end to this conflict yet.”
View more of Contrera’s work on his website.