Aftermath, Behind the scenes, Forensic Photography, Photojournalism, Stories

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Potocari War Graves, Srebrenica, March 2019

5 minute read.

Having been surrounded by death in my working life, I found myself habitually immune to the historic tragedy of the Srebrenica Genocide. I was about to embark on a memorial walk with thousands of others, towards the place where this tragedy happened, but realised that all those years had made me emotionally detached, immune to the feelings that loss and tragedy had on the ‘other’.

It was a strange experience, then, to be so far removed from this place of trauma – sat one rainy winter evening, scratching away at the surface of a print – to find a deep sense of sorrow welling up from somewhere unfamiliar. I was using scissors and a scalpel working methodically over each identifiable face, re-creating the image I’d seen in a hotel stairwell in Srebrenica itself.

Day 1, Mars Mira, Bosnia Herzegovina 2019, (defaced Dec 2019)

The woman was disfigured for reasons unknown, by a sharp implement. Present yet partially erased, like a distorted memory. Now I was thinking about these individuals in the context of victimhood, and placed myself in the skin of the protagonist, in control of their image if not their lives. By obfuscating reality, I was somehow re-energising that sense of loss felt by so many of those who had taken part, and started to feel the effects of that onerous process.

I re-photographed the prints as objectively as possible: square on, copy lighting at 45 degrees, just like the many documents I’d photographed for court purposes, but which were almost always equally suited to a humble photocopy. A few months went by before I looked at what I had again. I felt I needed the images of some of the deceased to make this personal and specific. The web is a wonderful tool for preserving memories, and a search quickly found a site devoted specifically to the systematic cataloguing of victims together with their names and dates of birth.

Zijad Ahmetovic 02.10.74

Here, perhaps, was a way to connect past and present – with portraits that were badly reproduced, poorly lit or in some way deficient. Their lack of detail seemed to be an error of quantity as well as quality. Undeniably, if they’d lived longer, these blurry images would have morphed into pixels with more detail. There would have been no shortage of choice had this atrocity happened in the Facebook age.

At the heart of this is an emotional response to the degraded quality of these family snapshots together with the violence of the event and my appropriation of violence in realising this project. The 12 victims were born in the same year as me, 1974, and meant that they all died when they were 21 – a significant and symbolic year in anyone’s life.

From the top of the Stari Most, Mostar, July 2019

To be clear, this to be about me. My intention in this post is to add a context to my interest in the subject. My goal is to throw a little more light on a region so close to home but so vulnerable to extremist ideology and still harbouring significant sections of society in denial about this murky chapter in its not too distant past.

A copy of the work in book form can be seen here:

https://www.blurb.co.uk/books/10176238-21

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Exhibitions, Theory

A Sense of Place

Listening to an influential theorist talk about his work is the best way to grapple with intangible concepts

Today is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday

Today is the tomorrow you were promised yesterday

Seeing the recent Victor Burgin exhibition currently on at the P3 gallery in London and listening to a talk given by him, chaired by the exhibition’s curator David Campany, gave a useful insight into the mind of this highly respected artist and academic, and made sense of many of his more profound ideas.

Central to his practice – according to the literature – is an ‘on going inquiry into spaces which become ‘places’ through the mediation of image and text. The result is a hybrid form producing a virtual, psychological, image.’

In his early career Burgin used the codes of advertisers and marketers to subvert the images’ message, thereby creating a shift in perception which could be filled with the viewer’s own interpretation. It was insightful to hear him describe this process and re-affirm it by saying that he expected no two people to have the same experience while viewing the work.

His early painting career, he recounted, ended in paralysis when he realized all brush strokes had been made before by other, more ‘masterful’ artist. Photography he called the ‘painting for our time’, but without the inhibiting history in which painting was seeped. With a rye smile he conceded there might have been some pleasure in trying to continue for the sheer joy of it.

He went on to describe his passion for architecture and the visualization of new buildings through virtual reality. He saw this as a natural progression of photography, considering all photographs to be fundamentally ‘virtual’. His tromp l’oeil work comprising of photographs of wooden floorboards, printed life size, then replaced back on the boards and re-photographed gave an insight into his methodology, and seem to be a link between his past work and the moving images which have come to define his more recent pieces.

Photopath 1967-69

Photopath 1967-69

The talk ended with Burgin criticising further education institutes whom he accused of turning into marketing departments – a clear swipe at tuition fees and the need for broad international appeal in order to justify courses and departments. Yet, Burgin himself declared that he was ‘no longer trying to change the world’.

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P3 Gallery, University of Westminster

In this rarefied field he has found a way to subvert industrial design practice into something which draws attention to some of the psychological aspects of a place and opens up the possibilities of what John Berger called ‘New Ways of Seeing’. This in itself, I would argue, is as anti-establishment as anything.

Victor Burgin’s ‘A Sense of Place’ runs at P3 Gallery until the end of the month

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