Sunday, 28 December 2008

Havoc in its wake

December 10, 2006

Havoc in its wake

By Ann Tornkvist

The Aftermath Project, which recently awarded Magnum photographer Jim Goldberg a grant for his project ‘The New Europeans,’ is a young organization whose two co-founders are as dedicated to story telling as to the artistry of photojournalism. They spoke to Ann Tornkvist about why war is only half the story.

Treaties are signed, armies retreat and borders are redrawn. Weapons, if not abandoned, are indefinitely put aside. For many spectators of war, an end is reached. Yet the ramifications of conflict are not easy to erase. Limbs do not regrow, nor do buildings spontaneously rebuild themselves. Traces of distrust and fear linger. For curator Kirsten Rian and photographer Sara Terry, dissatisfaction with the short attention span of mainstream media inspired their organization The Aftermath Project which awards grants to support post-conflict photography.

When the initial high-tension phase of conflict peters out, the media often move on silently. Front-page images portray new wars - or wars closer to home. But what of the identification of exhumed remains? Of the rebuilding of houses and bridges as steps in rebuilding lives? Of bitterness or forgiveness? Inspired by such questions, and by the untold stories from Bosnia after the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995, Terry, one of ten journalists featured in the 1991 book "Women on Deadline," spent years in the Balkan country. "No matter what kind of conflict or evil or destruction occurs in the world," Terry wrote in an email, "I want to be part of witnessing the humanity that always reasserts itself in the face of evil."

In 2003, she witnessed widows returning to the town of Visegrad. Their husbands lost their lives when Serbs turned on Muslims. At least 2,000 died. So many corpses were carried away by the waters of the river Drina, a centuries-old geopolitical fault line between Islam and Christianity, that the manager of a hydroelectric plant down stream complained that the bodies were clogging the culverts of his dam, as reported by the Guardian. The survivors fled the city. The Muslims, formerly a majority, abandoned their homes to the Serbs that remain there to this day.

In one of Terry’s photographs, a floral headscarf drapes the silhouette of a Visegrad widow as she searches the distant, corrugated horizon of the Bosnian hills. The photo was taken in 2003, eight years after the conflict in Bosnia was nominally finished, but this woman could not conjure her husband from the dead.

A 20 by 16 inch print of the photograph was sold at an auction in the summer of 2006 to benefit The Aftermath Project, which Terry founded with Kirsten Rian, a published poet working with refugees and at-risk populations using poetry as a tool for literacy and healing, and former executive director of the Blue Sky Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The project's slogan is "War is only half the story," and it began supporting post-conflict photographers in 2005 with a contribution of $14,500 to Belgian photographer Gael Turine for his work in Eritrea, which featured in the documentary D’un monde a l’autre. In Turine’s many trips to the capital Asmara, a sleepy, former Italian colonial town, he explored the surrounding areas and photographed, among other subjects, mutilated war veterans from the 1961-1993 war of independence, as they slept in a former military compound, ten in one room. Determined to return, Turine suffered difficulty in finding funds. "When you ask for a grant for such a long term project in an area like Eritrea where there is no oil or diamonds," he said, "there is no chance."

Finding money has also been a challenge for The Aftermath Project, with its co-founders working full-time jobs to pour "sweat equity," as Rian described it, into the organization. "We believe intrinsically and essentially," she said, "in its potential to honestly shift the conversation about war."

The desire to refocus attention to the many ways in which conflict leaves havoc in its wake has struck a chord with supporters. The project's advisory board includes Jan Eliasson, the former chairman of the United Nations General Assembly; Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas; and Alison Nordstrom, the curator of photographs at the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y.

To raise the project's profile and generate revenue, Rian and Terry organized photography auctions in Los Angeles and New York in June 2006. A startling number of respected photographers donated prints. "With just one email," Rian said, "we were flooded with images for the auction pouring in from around the world." John Stanmeyer, Alex Webb and Paolo Pellegrin were among the participants, to name only a few. Richard Misrach donated a photograph from his Oakland Fire series which was presented at auction with a reserve of $15,000. Rian referred to the contributors as “the best of the best, all integral threads in the building of an organization that we are hoping will in some way affect what the world sees of the world, give voice to the photographers, as well as to the countless stories needing to be told.”

Rian drew upon years of experience as a curator to select prints for the auctions, but acknowledges that not all photojournalism is marketable in that context. "My path has crossed with many of the world's best war and reportage photographers trying to cross over into the fine art realm," said Rian, adding that that transition is not necessarily straightforward. Of some of the successful attempts she says, “Simon Norfolk, Wolf Böwig, Jonathan Moller, Bruce Haley immediately come to mind… they are individuals who have established themselves with a global presence as reporters/photojournalists, whose images are simply so very good that they transcend the traditional lines of either genre.”

Rian worked in tandem with Terry in producing the final selection. Terry herself contributed several prints to the auction. In addition to the Bosnian widow, there was a photo of Afghan kite flyers; of Los Angeles palm trees sticking up like distorted poppy skeletons ready to pierce the sky; and of Marc Riboud’s hand poised over his 1952 image of a man painting the Eiffel Tower. Terry took the photograph as Riboud prepared to sign his book for her. Although Riboud is not involved with the project, Terry considered it a natural image to include in an auction benefiting photojournalists' work.

The auctions, both hosted by local galleries supporting the project, were crowded, informal affairs. The general mood was "one of sincere and heartfelt interest and a desire to be involved," said Rian. The revenue went directly to the grants awarded in 2007. It was the first time the organizations held an open competition for entries. Jim Goldberg received $20,000 for the project ‘The New Europeans,” which The Aftermath Project described as “part of an ongoing body of work reflecting the seemingly insurmountable difficulties faced by refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and trafficked people, as well as their dreams for freedom and their indomitable will to survive post-conflict situations.”

Wolf Böwig received $15,000 for his work from Sierra Leone.

Original text available here.

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