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Gary Knight, Jon Jones, Tom Stoddart and Rémy Ourdan revisit Bosnia
The Bosnian war has gone down in history as one of the cruelest conflicts of the last 20 years. It proved to be the toughest of tests for the journalists and photographers who documented the war and was a watershed moment in the coverage of conflict as technology started to make the delivery of news faster. Photojournalist, and Canon Ambassador, Gary Knight along with former colleague Jon Jones (now Director of Photography at The Sunday Times Magazine), plus a host of other photographers and journalists – including Tom Stoddart and Le Monde’s war correspondent Rémy Ourdan – have recently returned from very personal and emotional trips to the country that was torn apart by the war. CPN Editor David Corfield finds out just what life was like for them covering the Bosnian conflict and discovers the stories behind a new book – ‘Bosnia: 1992-1995’ – which they have produced, with the help of over 45 other contributors. It stands as a stark reminder to the world of man’s brutal inhumanity to man, even in late 20th century Europe.
Twenty years ago a war of unspeakable horror was being waged between illegal self-proclaimed Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat factions within Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Republika Srpska and Herzeg-Bosnia, and the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Bosnian Serbs, well-armed and supported by neighbouring Serbia, laid siege to the city of Sarajevo in April 1992, focusing mainly on the Muslim population but killing many other Bosnian Serbs and Croats with rocket, mortar, and sniper attacks.
The war lasted almost four years with an eventual death toll numbering over 100,000 people, with a further one million displaced and dispossessed. As shells fell on the Bosnian capital, nationalist Croat and Serb forces carried out horrific ‘ethnic cleansing’ attacks across the countryside and brought worldwide attention to a regime so despicable it provoked an international outcry.
Gary Knight was covering the conflict for Newsweek magazine, working alongside a group of international journalists and photographers in the most appalling of circumstances. It was an experience that was to shape the way he viewed the world, and how he worked as a photographer. Two decades on, and with the book finally complete, what has it been like returning to Bosnia?
“Like most of these projects, it means different things to different people at different times,” Knight recalls. “For the photographers like myself it was a nice way to revisit and reconnect with Bosnia, to revisit a country that many of us had very formative experiences in. My generation of photographers were there to photograph the most significant story of the early part of our lives,” he remembers. “It’s where great friendships were formed, and where many of us met wives and husbands.”
“We’d been talking about doing a book for the last 20 years, really since the war ended,” he admits. “It was a way to revisit that connection, both with the country and with friends, and to some extent with the photography of the period as well. The book is, in many ways, a sort of gift to the people of Bosnia, and in particular the people of Sarajevo where we spent most of our time. It was a way of giving something back. There’s not been a book made like this that captures that time in history and in some way it represents a collective memory of that most appalling of wars.”
Producing the book was by no means an easy task, and Rémy Ourdan, who at the time of the conflict was a 23-year old rookie journalist with no previous experience of reporting from war zones, was the gateway to the whole project. He organised the return trip to Bosnia and was an important catalyst in making the whole thing happen.
Ourdan explains: “I said to Gary and Jon that if we wanted to go back then we should have something to give to the people, so the book idea was born. I had remained in contact with all my Bosnian friends, often going back for the film festival and so on, and knew that this was the right thing to do. So we sat down and worked out how it would happen. Gary took on the production, raising the money and so on, while Jon took over the picture edit. I wrote the words.”
Back in 1992 Jon Jones was working for the Paris-based Sygma news agency as a photojournalist, but early in 2012 he found himself facing the rather daunting task of editing the many images that were provided free of charge by over 40 photographers, including such high-profile documentors of war as Chris Morris (VII) and James Nachtwey. Jones recalls that the process was not an easy one, with images arriving right up until the last minute.
He reveals: “I agreed to do it, but I made it clear that I didn’t want a lot of input. I wasn’t going to be sending out loads of spreads inviting the contributing photographers to comment. I am a picture editor, and that’s what I do, so it had to be on my terms if this was going to be done properly. And besides, I just didn’t have the time to go down that road. We wanted it done for April , for the 20-year reunion, and I didn’t get started until January that same year.” The fact that they did it in three months was quite an achievement given the huge task of sifting through mountains of images.
Jones produced several full drafts of the book before finally arriving at an edit he was happy with. “Because I know the work intimately, and I know the photographers very well, I had to remain detached and not let my thoughts and feelings get in the way,” he reveals. “The only way to do it was to take all the names off the images and look at them on just a purely visual level. I did five full versions of the book before I was happy with not only the edit, but the pacing and narrative. Also, because some photographers only sent their work in at the very last moment, the book was constantly changing.”
“There were three things that we did really well,” he states. “Getting the book actually printed in Bosnia was one, not having a picture on the cover was the other, and perhaps the most important thing we did was having the book translated into Bosnian. I am really proud of that final one.” The book was officially unveiled during the 2012 Visa pour l’Image international festival of photojournalism, in Perpignan, France, a rather fitting venue because it’s there that the idea was first discussed – some three years previously.
Tom Stoddart, one of the many photographers involved in the book, was delighted to see it finally produced. For him, as for all the media working in the country at the time, the experience brought back very personal – and sometimes painful – memories. “I was fresh out of Fleet Street,” he recalls, “and went over there under my own steam working for myself, so wasn’t tied down to reporting on the big stories. I was able to pick a theme and work with it, shooting with just a couple of rangefinder bodies and a handful of lenses. I spent a long time there – nearly losing my life there (Stoddart was seriously injured in heavy fighting around the Bosnian Parliament buildings and had to take a year off to recover) and focused on the women of Sarajevo, going about their daily lives and coping as best they could. Some of them were so beautiful,” he recalls, “and the incongruity of the glamour against the backdrop of violence was particularly striking. They were thin because they had no food. They joked about being on ‘the Karadžić diet’ and I hope my work conveyed the dignity they tried so hard to retain.”
“It’s a book that has many purposes,” Knight ponders. “Making money is the least of them. It was a crowd-funded book, with all the photographers donating work for free. We used it to kick-start a non-profit initiative in Bosnia, which we feel is our gift to a people that gave us so much. It’s a counter-intuitive book – not designed to become famous or make money – but serves instead as a catalyst for memories.”
What’s particularly sad and upsetting for the people of Bosnia, is that the problems haven’t gone away. When Jones and Knight returned in April, for the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war, they discovered that the violence had stopped, to a large degree, but the economic situation in the country was still a total disaster. “They have 35% unemployment there and the young people have no real hope of a job. It’s a very dismal economic outlook,” Knight reflects. “In terms of justice, there really is very little. The political system is very corrupt and most of the crimes that were committed 20 years ago still remain unpunished.”
Knight arrived in Bosnia directly after a four-year stint in Thailand, so didn’t really know too much about what was going on in the former Yugoslavia. “Shamefully I knew very little other than what I read in the very few English language newspapers in South-east Asia,” he tells me, “So I went to Bosnia without any prejudice. But frankly, from what I saw on the ground when I got there, I very quickly realised who the real victims were. And looking back there is no question about that now. When people ask me about trying to remain objective in a situation like that I say you’d have to be remarkably dispassionate not to allow what you saw to colour what you felt. It would be like trying to be dispassionate in World War II. It’s very hard and I make no apologies for it. As a photographer and a storyteller it’s necessary to form an opinion and to have a point of view.”
Getting that point across was perhaps one of the hardest logistical problems of the time, with battered infrastructure and equipment that, by today’s standards, was fairly archaic. “In those days I was using an EOS-1V film SLR with EF20-35mm f/2.8L, EF80-200mm f/2.8L and EF50mm f/1.4L lenses and that was it,” Knight remembers. “In Bosnia I shot pretty much exclusively with ISO100 slide film, pushed one stop to ISO200. Generally speaking, I’d get instruction on my assignment on a Sunday night and then I’d have to start thinking about shipping the films in middle of the week. So normally every Wednesday I’d drive down to Split on the Croatian coast where I’d put the films on a plane for them to be flown to London to be processed. From there they would then be flown to New York on Concorde to arrive on Friday at the Newsweek offices.”
“It was the first war that was shot with autofocus lenses,” Jon Jones recalls. “I remember I swapped all my Nikon gear for the new EOS-1 as it was the first time we’d had this type of technology that actually worked. The lenses were groundbreaking and certainly helped in some pretty extreme conditions. Of course by today’s standards they’d be pretty antiquated, but at the time they were really useful.”
The equipment wasn’t the only thing that had its limitations. “One of the key things about the war was you could only shoot with what film you took in,” Jones remembers. “In some respects that was a bonus, because it taught you patience. You couldn’t just go and shoot for no reason. You had to build your story properly. There were no communications so you weren’t really under a lot of pressure from outside parties, so you could just disappear and get the pictures you needed.”
“When I covered the siege of Dubrovnik,” he recalls, “I was trapped there for five weeks with just four rolls of film. Four rolls!” he laughs. “So I went to all the photo shops and took as much film as I could find and kept my pro slide film back for the final moments at the end when Dubrovnik was burning.”
Jones talks almost fondly about some of his more powerful pictures, but was under no illusions that what he was witnessing was beyond grim. In some cases it was downright horrific. “We didn’t know about the mass graves, and things like that,” he admits. “You could see the burning villages and knew about the indiscriminate killings and the cleansing, but to get a true reflection of the horror you really had to be on the other side. “It was extremely frightening and very difficult and something that needed to be done. Ron Haviv did it, and thank God he did.” Some of Haviv’s harrowing images were later used in evidence at The Hague War Crimes Tribunal.
When interviewed by The Guardian newspaper in 2009, Ron Haviv remembered what he saw when spending time with the Serbs.
“During the Balkans conflict, I took a photograph of the Serbian paramilitary leader Arkan holding up a baby tiger. He liked it very much, so when I met him, in March 1992, I asked if I could photograph his troops as they fought. “Sure,” he said. “Later on, I was following some of his men when I heard screaming. Across the street, they were bringing out a middle-aged couple. The soldiers were telling me not to take any photographs when, suddenly, some shots rang out and the man went down. The woman crouched down, holding his hand and trying to stop the blood. Then her sister was brought out: more shots rang out and both women were killed. As I stood there, I realised that it would be my word against the soldiers’ unless I could get a photograph of Arkan’s men in the same frame as these three people.”
So as the soldiers set off back to headquarters, I waited behind for a moment. As they moved past the bodies, I lifted my camera. I was in the middle of the street and I was shaking. When people are in the throes of killing it’s like they are on drugs: their adrenaline is so high. It would have been very easy for any of those guys to just shoot me and say the Muslims did it. Then, just as I was about to take the picture, one of the soldiers – a brash young kid in sunglasses who was smoking a cigarette – brought his foot back to kick the bodies as they lay there dead, or dying. As he did it, I took a couple of pictures, then put my camera down. All the soldiers turned and looked at me, so I smiled at them and said: ‘Great. Let’s go’.”
“I was really nervous,” he remembered. “I wanted to leave town before Arkan found out what I had photographed, but I couldn’t leave without his permission, so I hid a couple of rolls of film in my car, and a couple down my pants. Then Arkan arrived. “After he heard what had happened, he came up to me and said: “Look, I need your film.” We proceeded to have this whole conversation about whether or not I should give him the film. I made a really big push to protect the film in my camera so he wouldn’t think there was anything else. “In the end, I had to give him the film. Then he let me go and I immediately drove to the airport and sent my film to Paris. That night, I was very emotional about what I had witnessed, and how these people had died. But at least I knew I was able to document it. I truly believed that my pictures could have a real effect in preventing a Bosnian war. “When my photos were published in magazines around the world they caused a bit of an uproar, but not as much as I had hoped. Instead I think they made a difference on an individual level. One general specifically attributed his decision to fight for the Bosnian side to this photograph, and he was one of the people largely responsible for saving Sarajevo.”
“I’ve been back to Bijeljina and met people in the town who have told me how important it was. The pictures from that day were also used by the war crimes tribunal to indict Arkan, and as evidence in other indictments. “A few weeks after the pictures were published, I heard that Arkan had put me on a death list, and publicly stated that he looked forward to the day when he could drink my blood. After that, I spent the rest of the war, right through to the end of Kosovo, narrowly missing him in different places. Though during the Nato bombing of Belgrade, a friend of mine actually spent time with the soldier kid in the picture. The kid said he was very proud of it. It made him famous.”
Jon Jones admits that you pay a huge emotional price in documenting war. “It is extremely wearing and it can definitely get to you,” he says. “It becomes emotionally numbing and that’s a dangerous place to get to. Of course, everyone has their own – sometimes very different – reasons for photographing wars. But my reasons were defined. I wanted to portray this event in a purely visual way as best as I could but there were certainly people who were there for the thrill factor.”
Ron Haviv’s account of holding onto his film at whatever cost is certainly something that Gary Knight identifies with. “I once shipped film out on horseback from an enclave the civilians was trapped in. I put each film in an envelope, writing the captions on the back of each packet and then I’d put all those little envelopes into a big shipping jiffy-style bag. I remember handing it to a guy who took it on a horse over the mountains in the winter, which were collected by a friend of mine who took it to Split where it was then flown to London and then on to New York.”
Contact with the outside world was sporadic and only ever took place for the purposes of work. “We would communicate once a week by satellite phone, which cost $45 a minute,” he remembers. “You wouldn’t spend any time on the phone chatting. It would be just to get the details of the next job. It was a very different, disconnected world back then. But I have to say it was one that I enjoyed very much. But by the time the war in Kosovo came around in 1998 we had laptops and film scanners. I was shooting Black & White film for that conflict and I’d process the films out on location and then scan in the field and transmit from the laptop on an early mobile phone at an incredibly slow speed.”
In fact it was so slow, that when the NATO AWACS planes flew overhead it would interrupt the phone signal, with dire consequences. “They would fly overhead every 15 minutes so timing was key,” he states. “I would size my scans so that when the planes flew over me I knew that I’d start transmitting in that 15 minute window which would give me just enough time to send one picture at a time. But you know, in many ways it was the constraints of the time that made you more imaginative and more resourceful. We really had a lot of initiative in those days. We couldn’t carry with you the equipment you’d need to get your images back home. You had to physically take your films somewhere, and that made you go to places where you might ordinarily not want to go.”
So with the way cameras and technology have improved and changed the way we record the world, would Knight have approached the Bosnian conflict differently? He ponders before replying: “The obvious difference now is that you can photograph when it’s dark.”
“The ISO range is fundamentally different. I have to say, though, that the one thing we would have struggled with in Bosnia was that there was no electricity in a lot of those places. So relying on computers, mobile phones and digital cameras with rechargeable batteries would have been pretty tricky. It was very hard just to manage sometimes. So in that instance film was a pretty good way to go.”
Knight warns of another danger thrown up by the convenience of fast broadband and digital cameras: complacency. “It’s very easy now to get quite lazy as a photographer, purely because the equipment is so good. I’m not suggesting for a second that the young guys who are out there in Syria at the moment photographing the situation there are, but sometimes limitations and constraint are really good things, because it makes you work very hard to get something done. When things become too easy there is a danger that you might become a little complacent and you don’t push as hard as you otherwise might do. I don’t want to sound like some old guy banging on about World War I, but there was a certain logistical cunning and enterprise going on back then which you needed in order to succeed and get your films out. I think that cunning and enterprise was actually pretty essential to the journalism that was produced. Plus it was also a barrier to entry for a lot of people and I think that was maybe a good thing. If you couldn’t handle the logistics, you couldn’t survive and you couldn’t work. It focused the mind and it made you leaner and stronger.”
“This really was a seminal event in all our lives,” Tom Stoddart reflects. “The war was right in our own back yard; it was our own Vietnam if you like, and we felt we all had a duty to cover it. I used to buy old Lada Nivas from the UK, drive them over there and sell them on to fund myself while I was working there. We did everything we could to survive and get the story out.”
As Knight looks at the book and flicks through its pages remembering the stories behind the stills, he still finds it hard to let go, even now. “It was very hard to leave people behind. The longer you stay somewhere the more you invest in the people around you and the greater the relationships become. For most of the journalists who returned in April, one of the first things they did was to seek out the people they knew back then. That was a remarkable experience, very emotional,” he admits. “I learned so much in Bosnia. Before the war I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I think if you look at my work you’ll see that it was pretty evident. But afterwards I understood the process of storytelling. I had figured out what I wanted to do and I understood how to go about it. And in covering the war, dodging the shells and bullets from some of the most unforgiving of enemies, I met some of my greatest friends. The whole experience politicised us in a very interesting way.”
Rémy Ourdan, the book’s text editor, has the last word on all this, and his reflections are poignant and precise. “This book gives something back to the people of Bosnia, and the anniversary – as much as it recognises the misery and suffering and grave injustices carried out which have still gone unpunished – also acts as a historical marker to try and move on. A lot of bad things happened in Bosnia, and for sure the country is no better off, but as I know from having returned there year after year to help with the film festival and so on, there are great creative things happening and this is one of them. The war tore the country apart, but it brought us – and the people of Bosnia – together.”
Biography: Jon Jones
Jon Jones has worked across the globe as a photojournalist, and has also worked as a cameraman for BBC News, ITV, Channel 4 and Panorama. He is now Director of Photography for The Sunday Times Magazine.
Biography: Gary Knight
Gary Knight has been a photojournalist since 1987. He co-founded the VII Photo agency in 2001 and has received numerous high-profile awards for his photography.
Biography: Rémy Ourdan
Rémy Ourdan began as a reporter in 1992, at the age of 23, in Bosnia. He writes for Le Monde newspaper and has covered many of the world’s most important news events.
Biography: Tom Stoddart
Tom Stoddart began his photographic career on a local newspaper in his native North-east England. In 1978 he moved to London and now works freelance for publications such as The Sunday Times.
‘Bosnia: 1992-1995’: the contributors
The book ‘Bosnia: 1992-1995’ was produced with the help of and contributions from the following journalists and photographers: Alexandra Boulat (Sipa Press), Amel Emric, Andrew Reid (Gamma), Anja Niedringhaus, Antoine Gyori (Sygma), Anthony Loyd, Benoit Gysembergh (Paris Match), Boris Geilert (CARO Fotoagentur), Christopher Morris (VII Photo), Christophe Calais, Darko Bandic (AP), Enric Marti (AP), Enrico Dagnino, Eric Bouvet, Filip Horvat (Polaris), Gary Knight (VII Photo), Gilles Peress, James Mason, Jerome Delay (AP), James Nachtwey, Jon Jones (Sygma), Laurent Rebours (AP), Laurent Sazy, Mike Persson (AFP), Morten Hvaal, Nicolas Mingasson, Nina Berman (NOOR), Noel Quidu, Odd Andersen (AFP), Olivier Jobard (Myop), Patrick Chauvel, Patrick Robert (Corbis-Sygma), Paul Lowe (Panos), Peter Northall (AP), Rachel Cobb, Rémy Ourdan, Rikard Larma, Roger Hutchings, Ron Haviv (VII Photo), Santiago Lyon (AP), Srdjan Ilic (AP), Steve Connors, Thomas Kern, Tom Haley, Tom Stoddart (Reportage by Getty Images), Laurent Van der Stockt, Wade Goddard, and Yannis Behrakis (Reuters).
Picture: Jon Jones