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The Bosnian capital Sarejevo spent three years under siege during the Bosnian War; photographer and lecturer Paul Lowe was there to cover much of it, and the result is "Bosnians". A collection of black and white photographs focusing on the ordinary people of an encircled city, the result is frightening, harrowing, but ultimately life-affirming.
I was lucky enough to pick up my copy in Sarajevo, and had the pleasure of lugging this handsome, hard-bound monograph around the Balkans and Eastern Europe with me. The subject might sound a bit weighty for a casual coffee table book, but Lowe's approach is summed up by the cover image. A young bride is congratulated on her wedding by a friend, while her new husband gazes out over the battered city below.
Like a lot of photographs in "Bosnians", there is an ambivalence to the photo, and Lowe as a photographer seems happy to take the shot, then stand back and let the viewer read their own meanings into it. Is the groom looking out over Sarajevo, caught in a reverie about how on earth they managed to survive a siege where 10,000 of their fellow citizens died? Or is he simply peeved by how friendly his beautiful bride is with the old friend?
Another feature of Lowe's collection is he focuses on life, and the possibility of returning to a normal life after the war. Sure, he spends time looking at the victims of war and genocide, particularly in the aftermath, but it's not the main focus of the work - there are, unfortunately, a lot of books out there which are almost pornographic in their detail of death and bloodshed during the conflict, and are quite gratuitous in the levels of gore on display.
I was in my teens when the Bosnian War raged; I remember the grainy images from the news, but didn't really understand what was going on, and if I'm honest, didn't really care. Between 1992 and 1996, Serb troops occupied the hills and mountains surrounding Sarajevo and laid siege to the city. It was the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, and the Serbs didn't confine their shelling and sniper fire to military targets - in fact, they actively targeted the civilian population.
My girlfriend and I have sat on the same restaurant terrace as the happy couple on the front cover of "Bosnians", and looking down on the city spread out in the valley below, it's amazing it held out so long.
It's a picturesque place to have a city, surrounded by mountains and hills on all sides, but must suck from a defensive point of view, constantly defending the low ground. From the vantage point of that restaurant terrace, you can see along the streets and watch people crossing at intersections - no wonder sniper fire accounted for so many of the civilian casualties.
Lowe's photos of the siege are in contrast to many of the others in the book, which are still, calm and contemplative. His shots of people running across streets to avoid sniper fire are real, raw and immediate - you can feel the panic in these photos, perhaps because Lowe himself was in the firing line while taking them.
These images of the violence and panic of war had the interesting effect of linking in with my memories of the TV coverage as a teen, while the later images of the surviving Bosnians getting on with their day-to-day lives blended in with my real experiences in Sarajevo and Mostar, and of the people themselves.
The violence is more harshly felt in Lowe's pictures displaying the effects - the painted toenails of a corpse in a morgue; an old woman grieving by a graveside, while sunlight through the trees creates a strange, spectral effect over the grave; a recovered skull being compared to a photo, as forensic scientists try to match corpses to missing people.
Although Lowe's sympathies lie with the Bosnians, his photographs remain remarkably detached and impartial to their subjects. The selected text throughout the book, which is provided mainly in thought-provoking, bite-sized chunks, makes it clear Lowe isn't on the fence at all. One of the most telling is a snippet of a speech from US President Bill Clinton, opening a Holocaust museum, warning people of the dangers of forgetting genocide - while it was actually happening in Bosnia.
The last section of the book covers the survivors returning to their homes and rebuilding their lives. These are some of the most moving photos in the book, portraying people who have suffered and grieved and survived, and now must move on and find a way of living a normal life. These range from refugees of the Srebrenica massacre in newly built shacks, poor virtually homeless but alive and relieved, to a family returning to the home they were kicked out of, an old lady weeping in one room while the others fetch things from the car.
As I said before, this is not a casual coffee table book of photography, but an immersive experience that rewards time spent studying and contemplating the images. In his non-obtrusive style, Lowe allows you to investigate the people and characters he has captured in these glorious black and white images and discover their story for yourself. A moving and and heartfelt portrayal of a people beset by the horrors of war, emerging the other side, and somehow carrying on.
(This review was first posted on Ciao! as Midwinter)