CNN Photos

The omnipresence of Bashar al-Assad in Syria

When he visited Syria in 2007, Nicolas Righetti kept seeing the same person everywhere he went.

In the living room of a house, in a public square and in the back of a bus, he couldn't get away from the unblinking stare of Bashar al-Assad.

From Righetti’s point of view, it felt like pictures of the president were everywhere. So the Swiss photographer from Geneva began to document them with his camera.

From a small picture pinned to the wall between shelves full of motor oil containers to a huge billboard looming over the street, Righetti's photos highlight the ubiquity of Assad's image at a time when his grip on power in Syria appeared unshakeable.

Back then, Assad received more than 97% of the vote in a referendum that gave him a second seven-year term as president. He was the only candidate.

"The government at this time was very strong," Righetti said. "People were afraid to talk about politics."

A Syrian shopkeeper would have to keep a picture of the president in a prominent place "because he has to show he's with Bashar Al-Assad," Righetti said.

That was before Syria descended into the vicious, unrelenting civil war that is estimated to have killed about 100,000 people over the past two years. It was before Assad became the subject of international condemnation for ordering attacks on his own people, and before reports that his security forces used chemical weapons raised the prospect of Western intervention.

In 2007, there was little sign that such a gruesome future awaited, Righetti said.

"People were a bit afraid of the government, but they still thought that the country would open up" over time, he said.

Still, the omnipresence of Assad's face gave an indication of his dictatorial approach.

Righetti, an independent photographer for the past 15 years, said he has seen that Soviet style of visual propaganda in other authoritarian states he has photographed.

The imagery of Assad reminds him of the cult of personalities crafted by the Kim dynasty in North Korea and Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov in Turkmenistan.

"They all have really strong images, strong power everywhere," he said.

Righetti hasn't returned to Syria since 2007. He successfully applied for a visa in 2011 as the uprising against Assad grew. But a guide he contacted inside the country warned him against visiting, saying it was already too dangerous.

"I'm not a war photographer," he said.

Righetti's focus is countries where he says the mentalities, images and stories are different from those in Western democracies.

His current project is taking him to Transnistria, a tiny separatist region sandwiched between Moldova and Ukraine.

Watching Syria from outside, seeing it sink deeper into violence, he says he feels "very sad about what's happened."

With or without Assad, he says, "we have trouble for the next 10 years now - like the trouble in Iraq."

- Jethro Mullen, CNN