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

21

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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Inspiration, Photography and current affaires

The power of the familiar

Familiarity with the natural world, particularly that which is close to home, does not necessarily engender an intense sense of engagement.  Unlike the sublime – mountain tops, canyons, vast oceans, where a feeling in the moment is all consuming – the ‘familiar’ occupies a space within the subconscious mind where memory resides.  Here, a sense of belonging may replace the exhilaration experienced when encountering environments which thrill us with their scale and splendour.  Photography can act as a medium for remembering –  family portraits for instance – collected over decades, which reveal in (sometimes) uncompromising detail, the passage of time.

In nature these shifts happen with the rhythm of the seasons.  Often, one has to look closely at the subtlety of the changes to realize their significance.  The work of the photographer Jem Southam deals with these changes which one may casually dismiss as insignificant, but which imply a sense of the effects of time, both on the landscape in front of the lens, but also that which is stored in personal and collective memory.

River Creedy at Sweetham, 22 January 2011

River Creedy at Sweetham, 22 January 2011

By making repeated visits to places he knows intimately, Southam becomes attuned to hundreds of ‘small traumas’, which build like whisperings among the leaves, creating a sense of movement through time.  Altered notes – in a musical sense – become fractures and fissions, which then become significant when compared to the next rendition and so on.  It is this familiarity and love of place which could be seen as a metaphor for the universality of memory and the frailties and struggle implicit in human experience.

In this case, that tension is created by Winter – or the retreat in sorrow (trauma) of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest.  It would perhaps have been an obvious starting point for Southam to time his wanderings with forecasts of torrential downpours and the river in spate.  However, this approach would have removed space for rewarding contemplation.  Instead, an intense engagement with a quality of light which occurs around dawn, suggests the forming of a new relationship with place, binding the series together in a stream of consciousness.

When considering Joel Meyerowitz’s Aftermath project on the attack on the World Trade Centre, the writer David Campany coined the term ‘Late Photography’ – the idea of photographing the traces of an event, rather than the event itself.  These pictures are ‘of’ a river and ‘of’ winter, but also allude to thaw and flood, which link them to this overarching concept, and by association, to traces of natural process and the cycles of trauma.

In his book Spectral Evidence, Ulrich Baer discusses his views on the connection between the arrested moment explicit in photography and the act of remembering.  He connects pictures of historical sites of trauma – concentration camps – with memories, by arguing that it is precisely the nothingness – or familiarity – within a photograph, which removes it from historical reference points and draws it back into the unconscious mind.  It is this disconnect with history and current affairs, which acts to steer Southam’s pictures towards associations with memory.

The river, Winter pictures are above all moments of discovery and communion.  It is this sharing of the familiar, which draws our attention to that which we have not before cared to register.  The effect is to re-calibrate one’s notions of significance.  The ravages of water, rendered in exquisite detail, remind us of the complex relationship between beauty, death and re-generation. A relationship which is exploited by Southam through the  descriptive properties of his 10x8in plate camera.

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