Walking through the old neighborhoods of any city with decent weather, you suspect the sheets hung out to dry might be the unofficial national flags. Actually, the weather doesn’t even need to be half-decent. Nothing is so depressingly expressive of my native land (England) as the sight of laundry hanging out wetly for days on end, going from soaking to soggy to damp—and back to soaking without having achieved the mythical goal of dryness. And then there are cities where the air pollution is so bad that drying quickly turns into its near-anagram, dirtying. Escape from the samsara wash-cycle of cleaning and drying into the bliss of wearing is, in such circumstances, almost inconceivable.
In Franco Pagetti’s series of photographs from Syria, Veiled Aleppo, the sheets are no longer laundry at all—if they ever were. The city’s residents once hung them for privacy; now, the Free Syrian Army uses them to create cover from sniper fire (the ever-present danger of which is suggested in one image by an advertisement featuring a row of painted eyes). The flimsiness of the protection is in striking contrast to the sturdiness of buildings and metal shutters—except that, in the face of the sustained onslaught of modern weaponry, concrete and steel are scarcely more resilient than cloth. The opposite of screens around a site where construction is in progress, these demarcate areas of almost completed destruction. In Aleppo, the sheets sway and blow as textile proof of the resilience of everyday life in the face of near-total ruination.
There was a time when Pagetti’s use of the word “veiled” might have hinted at the lithe appeal of orientalist erotic fantasy—as in the dance of the seven veils. Now it suggests the subordination of women, which is an intractable feature of Islamic fundamentalism—which in turn highlights part of the difficulty posed by Syria for the United States: how to intervene and militarily support attempts to oust a dictator (and establish democracy) while not abetting that which is inimical to the continued progress of the species (militant Islam). But the alternative—to do nothing—is to leave the rebels, as the saying goes, hanging out to dry. Amazingly, Pagetti’s pictures seem to illustrate this difficulty: At first glance, the viewer could be forgiven for thinking that the red and blue patterned sheets in the above photograph constitute an improvised version of the Stars and Stripes. But they’re not, of course: They’re the stripes and stripes, a banner headline proclaiming that we are stuck between a rock and a hard place.
There’s no shortage of rocks, obviously, but the hardness of this hard place remains largely hidden from view. That is partly what the photographs are about. The veils, in other words, might best be regarded as symbols of the pictures themselves, of the death throes not of a city but of film, of the days when prints and contacts—contact sheets—hung in the studio so that the photographer could see what had been captured or missed: evidence of things seen and unseen.