Last summer we made our way to Bosnia and Serbia, ostensibly to, as I then described, explore:
…how people create history through memory, myths, bedtime tales, family stories, personal anecdotes, official commemorations and collective rumors. The idea is to understand how histories are created, memories perpetuated, myths passed on, and animosities maintained. About how if you refuse to speak and confront modern history, you leave an entire world open to mythology, rumor, fabrication, and perhaps most dangerously, personal injustices, and visions of revenge. That where there is no reconciliation, confrontation, accommodation, and acknowledgment, there will always remain a sense of being wronged, and denied.
It wasn’t the most successful of trips, despite the fact that we found most of what we were looking for. What we did not find was a clear and precise narrative structure that would allow us to pull this together into a coherent piece of work. What we did find were layers and layers of overlapping, and often contradictory histories, each vying for authenticity, and each backed by ‘hard’ facts. As I had pointed out in an earlier post:
The Serb villages in Bosnia’s Drina Valley – Srebenica, Kravica, Bratunac, Potocari, Skelenyi, and others provide the backdrop of an exploration of how communities create histories where there are no official versions for them to learn from. An official amnesia – a hangover from the days of Tito, pervades the region, but into this void have been poured thousands of myths, legends, anecdotes, hearsay, rumors and perhaps most ominously, personal memories of suffering, injustice, atrocities and murder. Official text books refuse to speak past 1945, and after that there is really nothing. Twenty years after the end of the wars in the Balkans, the battles continue, but quietly over hushed conversations in cafes, behind the closed doors of family homes, and in the hearts of the tens of thousands of scattered and shattered lives that still struggle to survive here. But all the stories negates, reject, question, contradict, mock, deny and dismiss each and every one of the other stories I hear. There isn’t a fact that is questioned, an incident that is denied, an event that is acknowledged, an anecdote that is affirmed. There are no nuances, no complexities, no overlaps, no compromises, no accommodations. There are no subtleties.
The images we made, of the people we met, around stories we heard, are below – Serbs, Serbian memories, commemorations, museums, memorials, politicians, war victims, and the elderly carrying stories and myths, memories and narratives of retribution that can only go from mouth to mouth, from heart to heart, carried secretly like a precious treasure until such time that it can be unearthed and its full worth fought for. In this part of Bosnia, they remember what the nation refuses to acknowledge, and a convenient, simplified, exclusive history of ethnically exclusive injustices prevails. Some are condemned, other are commemorated, and yet, each holds on until the roles can be reversed.
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The trip left me feeling that I had failed to achieve what I had set out to achieve. We had a lot of material, and found many of the right contacts, but there was something missing – an overarching framework for the project. Something that would provide a structure, a form, and perhaps most importantly, an intellectual skeleton around which I could build a larger body of work. Everything that we had heard, and almost all the people we had met, offered possibilities, but it was not anything unique, nor anything that seemed informative, and insightful. Many of these stories, and many of these histories, have been seen and heard before, and they certainly have been recorded quite often. So what was it that I had come to discover?
For indeed, we had gone there to discover something, and though we had found a lot of material, we just didn’t quite know how to pull it all together. But this shouldn’t surprise anyone – fascinating photo projects are complex undertakings and require time and patience to materialize. After returning from Srebrenica I set this work aside. The images say in my drawer for many weeks. It was with hope that I had ignored my disappointment and convinced myself that:
I am seeing new things. I am hearing new stories. And placing myself in new situations. I am learning. I will often encourage my students to always begin to shoot an idea even if it is half baked. My intention is to get them out into the field, and get them thinking about the idea. Many of my students have struggled with this, afraid as they are to try something they are not sure will be sellable, appealing, or a possible candidate for a grant application. Many have reduced their photography to being only about the act of taking a photograph, and not as an act of genuine human curiosity and engagement. I offer them this suggestion from personal experience – there were moments in my short career when I would over-evaluate and plan an idea, and not take the risk to pursue it if I was not sure it was something real, doable, and sellable. But I have found that by letting go of this need for known outcomes I have gained a lot as an individual and as a photographer.
It has taken some months, but a trip that appeared to have been mostly a failure, can now be seen in an entirely new way. The images I made in Srebrenica have taken on a new meaning and a new relevance. In fact, a framework for the Srebenica work has finally emerged and will require me to return there and photograph an entirely new set of things. And all this isn’t because of chance – it is because of a group of people I met in Srebrenica – the lovely Rachel Cyr, a PhD student from Canada being one, whose insights and conversations helped clarify questions over the weeks. Erin Mosely, another researcher whom I met in Kigali pointed me to works and her own research, and also introduced me to others who have been crucial in my working out the project.
What I am embarking on then is a project about how nations manufacture national history and collective memory. How national history is not just about facts, but is informed by specific political priorities, and instituted through planning, design, and indoctrination – from commemorations, museums, history text books, and much more. What we believe is fact, is quite often simply ideology. But the project will not be a polemic. It will be a documentation of the procedures, people, institutions, practices and policies that are put in place to create a nation memory, and to erase other memories. It will explore a question that has dogged me since 2008 when I began work on my India project – why do we associate certain things with our ‘culture’ and ‘nation’, while remaining ignorant or dismissive of others? Why do certain narratives take on a powerful and definitive ‘factual’ presence in our lives, while others completely disappear? And why does all this happen in such a short time? I will write more about this in the coming weeks. But for now, these new images, and this new work – a preface to a larger project that I have started on, and whose first chapter is being produced in Kigali, Rwanda.
The images shown above are what I was able to produce in Srebrenica. I have intentionally left out captions for the moment but they are from the time we spent among the Serb’s who still live in the Srebrenica region. The wounds of war have not been healed, and there is in fact a determined effort to not heal them. A formalized ethnocentricity has made concrete what should have been overcome but there are no venues for breaking down old divisions, for reconciliation, for negotiation or for recognition. The communities remain closed inside their own myths. There are no truths, and history cannot be a forensic exercise. It has to be constantly revisited, re-examined, and investigated from many different sides and seen as a living, breathing, changing enterprise that involves not just historical or politicians, but citizens as well. And yet I have seen communities – whether in India, Pakistan, Israel, Palestine, Serbia, Bosnia and today even Rwanda, scanning and selecting items from imagined histories as if they have found truths, and sometimes worst, absolute truths. Ironically, the glorification of one truth, a single communities truths, tends to give birth to many other truths. The latter just circulate in places unheard and unwritten until such time that history changes and gives them new life.
Bosnia was a new way of shooting – more open, simpler and cleaner way of looking. After the complexity of three years in India, I have stepped back to a more classical, cleaner visual eye – the Pakistan work has retains this. Perhaps it is a return to the subject, and to subjectivity. Perhaps it is this desire to place at center stage not artifice or aesthetics, but a singular human experience, unfettered or disturbed by the photographer’s pursuit of style, and individual voice. In the Srebrenica work I worked without pretensions to aesthetics, and but with close engagement with the subjects. Frankly, I wasn’t always happy with the result. In fact, I have not shown these images until now because there is much more that I would have wanted. But, our mistakes and our missteps are a crucial part of how we develop. There are images here, just as there are stories here, that I love and that reflect where I am going next. For the first time in months, these images have a coherence for me, once that I have applied to them in retrospect. But if this work grows, and evolves into something more, than the images made in the summer of 2013 are the crucial beginning.
Now, as I look back at the images of the places, and the people, I met during the summer of 2013, I can understand and remember them better, and I can understand the power and poignancy of what they all keep within themselves: that history that comes from memory, that act that is the last bastion of a people who have been denied a place Bosnia’s ‘new’ reading of history, and are the detritus of Bosnia’s newly manufactured nationalist narrative. I am bringing my experiences from that Bosnia trip to the new work, even though many challenges still remain. So much so that I am struggling in my first forays in Rwanda.