Lalage ‘Lally' Snow has a few strings to her bow. An award-winning photojournalist and film-maker, she has specialised in covering war and unrest in the Middle East for over ten years, producing acclaimed documentaries for the BBC and Channel 4, and having her work displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC. But now she’s written a book: and a remarkable one at that.
War Gardens, which was released last month, is about those who curate and maintain gardens in war-zones. When I speak to Snow she tells me this ‘started as a photographic project that I was doing over a number of years’. To this end, she had been collecting the stories of the gardeners she was photographing: ‘The way I work as a photographer, with my portraits, is that I do very detailed interviews with the subject, because I think that leads to a richer context’. Over time, this produced ‘so much material that was just sitting there doing nothing’, but deserved to be read more widely. Writing a book became the obvious solution.
In the book, gardeners in conflict zones like Kabul, Gaza, and Eastern Ukraine invite Snow into their gardens. The result is a moving and personal account of a journey through sanctuaries of peace in regions scarred by conflict. Yet, despite its title and surface focus, War Gardens is – in the author’s own words – ‘not really about gardening at all’. Indeed, Snow is ‘not a gardener’ herself. Instead, the gardens, and the gardeners, are used to offer a window into the realities of life inside a war-zone.
As Snows explains: ‘the whole project started because, as a war photographer, I got a bit fed up that images of conflict have ceased to mean very much… Its civilians narrating conflict in their own words, from their point [of view]. And I’m just the person saying “Look at this”.’ Having spent five years living in Kabul, Snow is keenly aware that there is more to war zones than some may assume: ‘Cities are big places, countries are big places… And the violence that happens is in these very small pockets, and the whole place isn’t on fire… yes, there are obviously terrible people in these places who want to do bad things, but there’s also school and universities and bakeries… and garden centres!’
Snow has sought to draw back the curtain on life inside a war-zone, and produce a work that can ‘create empathy’. In this she succeeds, with a book that makes the experience of living in a war zone, and the importance of finding purpose and peace within it, relatable and comprehensible.
Unsurprisingly, for a book drawing on the testimony of people living in war-zones, there are stories of death and destruction and horror. These stories, which may seem all too familiar to us, take on a newly acquired poignancy when told from within the tranquillity of the garden. But, perhaps even more affectingly, there are stories of the mundane and practical; of people who are just trying to do their best and get on with their lives in ways we can all relate to. After all, as Snow says, ‘there are gardeners everywhere in the world’, and they are ‘ordinary people… just like you and me’.
An original, creative and intrepid storyteller, Lally will be discussing her career and warzone experiences, sharing some of her photos and explaining the story behind War Gardens. Copies will be available for purchase and signing at the event.