Back from the front: Stratford journalist documents war in Syria

Aleppo, Syria: Free Syrian Army members take cover after a tank attack in the streets of Bustan Al Basha. (Photo by Steve Boitano)

Steve Boitano didn’t know where he’d be spending the holidays this year. Boitano, a native of Stratford and a 1984 graduate of Bunnell High School, is a freelance photojournalist who just returned from a trip to the Middle East.

He recently spent over a month embedded with Free Syrian Army members and other resistance groups in that country.

And while Boitano has traveled the world extensively these last 20 years, covering everything from the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and Thailand to working for AmeriCares in Kosovo in 1999, Syria marks a new frontier for the photographer.

“I’ve never been under fire before,” said Boitano. “The closest I’ve come before was Kosovo, but by the time I was there the worst was over and the biggest problem was the rampant looting.”

In Syria, Boitano said, he witnessed relentless violence. Arriving in Amman, Jordan, in September 2012 and traveling into Syria through Turkey in October, he thought he was prepared.

Children respond to questions during class in a newly opened school in Aleppo, Syria.

“I packed a Kevlar vest, helmet and gas mask,” Boitano said. “But I spent a good portion of one day sitting in a house getting shelled by mortars. When it was over, we were surprised to be alive.”

He tells the story of how members of the Free Syrian Army came to his rescue when he feared he was close to being captured by President Assad’s regime forces. “We were pinned down under heavy machine gun fire and heavy sustained tank fire that shook the ground and walls,” Boitano said.

Life on the front line is dangerous, more dangerous than he might have thought, he admits, but Boitano has his reasons for being there.

“I was here in 1995 and I wanted to see what the Syrian people were going through now,” Boitano said. “They are some of the nicest, warmest, most hospitable people I have encountered in my travels. I’m here to tell their story.”

 

Kilis, Turkey

Boitano did not spend all of his time in Syria. That level of stress, he said, was unsustainable.

When he needed a break, he sat out the action in Kilis, Turkey, a southern province of that country that is a short distance from the border with Syria.

Kilis is a small town. The hotel he stayed in, for $8 a day, gave him the use of Wi-Fi so he could transmit images and post dispatches to his online blog, Fotosteve.com.

Steve Boitano

His room had heat and Boitano could shower in a shared bathroom that was located on the floor beneath his room. Syria was 15 minutes away and should he need to go back, a cab would take him there.

Boitano occasionally met up with other journalists at the one bar in town. They drank beer and ate at a nearby shop. Food was limited to kabobs and instant soup.

Mostly he spent time in his room, craving solitude. “Alone time is not something Syrians understand too well,” Boitano said.

“When I get out of Syria after being in for a while, I sleep, sleep and sleep. You get exhausted since you’re moving nonstop while you’re in there,” Boitano said. “The last time I came out I was sick for days.”

Most of his waking hours, Boitano communicated with the outside world, with family and friends in Stratford and elsewhere. He waited to hear from the magazines and wire services in the States and in Europe, hoping some would publish his work.

He often wondered how long he could continue to self-finance the project.

“I’m not here to make money,” Boitano said, but he concedes the necessity of getting paid something.

The professional SLR cameras of today are expensive. They are high-tech behemoths that require a lot more care than the cameras of the past.

There are tricks to shooting in combat that Boitano quickly came to terms with. “It’s important to keep your cameras apart since you are running so much across sniper alleys. They tend to smack into each other, as I found out the hard way when breaking the protective screen for the LCD on one of my cameras,” said Boitano. “And climbing through holes in concrete walls between houses is tough on gear.”

Free Syrian Army fighters in a safe house

 

Gary Condit

When in the States, Boitano has worked mostly up and down the Eastern Seaboard, shooting for the Associated Press, Getty Images and other clients. His images have been seen in countless newspapers and magazines throughout the world.

Most of his media contacts are in the Washington, D.C., area, and Boitano has often found himself on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington capturing the news.

He made national news, himself, once.

In the summer of 2001 while working for the Associated Press, Boitano literally had a run-in with then U.S. Congressman Gary Condit.

Condit had been under media scrutiny after police had questioned him on the disappearance of Chandra Levy, the Washington, D.C., intern with whom Condit later admitted to having an affair.

While eventually cleared of any wrongdoing, Condit was at the center of a media storm that Boitano himself became embroiled in.

“A bunch of media were staked outside of Condit’s apartment building all day. We had been having no luck,” Boitano said. “Then a car pulled up and Condit came running out of the building and down the steps. I grabbed my camera, positioned myself ahead of him, and then we bumped arms.”

At this point, according to Boitano, the congressman turned to him and shoved him out of the way. “I remember him angrily telling me to ‘get out of his face,’” Boitano said.

Boitano said he captured a number of images during the encounter. In some of them Condit is seen laughing with his driver as he enters his vehicle to leave.

Boitano believes that Condit intentionally confronted him to help divert media attention away from himself and his involvement with Chandra Levy.

Moments after Condit’s car drove off, police arrived and Boitano was questioned. It became national news in an instant.

“I ran into him a few months later in a bathroom at the U.S. Capitol,” Boitano said. “I felt so bad for him. His life was horrible by then.”

Boitano would eventually win a press award for an image of Gary Condit shoving him.

 

Aleppo, Syria: A Free Syrian Army member takes aim at a regime position in Izaz.

Back home

As recently as mid-December, Boitano was intent on staying in the Middle East. He had planned a trip to Iran, hoping to sort out the necessary travel visas.

As fate would have it, though, Boitano could not secure quick passage into Iran, so instead he booked a flight home from Istanbul and arrived in Stratford in time for Christmas.

For fear of alarming his family while he was abroad, Boitano said, he waited until he arrived safely home before explaining the fresh scar on his face to his family.

Boitano said that during his second week on the front while photographing sniper activity in Aleppo, he sustained a minor wound when he caught a piece of a sniper’s bullet casing on the cheek.

“I quickly wiped it off as the hot metal burned into my face. Two inches higher it would have hit me in the eye,” said Boitano.

A good friend glibly told him moments later that Boitano had “got a kiss on the cheek from President Assad.”

Boitano will spend the first few weeks of January in Stratford, he said. Then it is off to Washington, D.C., where he will photograph President Obama’s inauguration ceremony on Jan. 20 before heading overseas again.

Boitano said he doesn’t know where he’ll go next in the Middle East, but expects that he’ll be heading back nonetheless. Agence France-Presse (AFP) has shown interest in his recent work and he’s hopeful he can continue documenting the region.

Considering the rapid pace of his life recently and the devastation he witnessed in Syria, Boitano considers himself lucky — lucky that he is able to come home at a moment’s notice and leave the ravages of war behind.

“It’s good to get a break for a while,” Boitano said.

 

You can learn more about Steve Boitano and view more of his work by going to Fotosteve.com. A word of caution: Many of the images of war Boitano has captured are graphic in nature.

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