-by Sara Terry. NY: Channel Photographics, 2005.
In a foreword, photographer Sara Terry tells how she first went to Bosnia five years after the 1992-95 war, with the conviction that what happens after a war can be just as newsworthy as war itself. This book is made up of reports from the aftermath, in photographs whose color and compositional elegance sometimes seem almost ironic, given the human and material devastation that is often their subject. Aftermath brings us intimately close to the lives of people learning to be human again amid the lacerations of war. And, as Terry says, the book is a way of testifying “that war is not the final word on who we are as human beings, nor the final image of our spirit.”
Terry spent four years of repeated visits shooting pictures for the project, giving herself enough time to allow not only her eye but also her heart to sink into what she was looking at, especially where such sinking was hardest to do. Nearly seven years after the war ended, corpses and bit of clothing and personal objects were being exhumed from mass graves. While Terry’s pictures are striking throughout, the section that dwells on the exhumation is the book’s energy center.
On her first visit in 2001, Terry befriended two Polish forensic anthropologists, Piotr and Ewa, who were in Bosnia to help sort what was exhumed, for possible visual identification by relatives or for subsequent DNA testing. In one of several photos in this group shows Ewa holding up in her own white-gloved hand the “decaying hand of a long-dead boy.” The viewer’s first response is shock. At one level, the image is macabre. But Terry’s note helps us see that in this photo there is also a living hand, Ewa’s, which, as it draws parts of the dead from the anonymous pit, draws them back into identity and life. In Ewa’s words, “These people have been stripped of their identity. . . .We are trying to return their identities to them.” The acts of these anthropologists witness “an unyielding faith in the human spirit.” So do Terry’s photos. They are the opposite of “snapshots.” They linger, as if the camera too lingered, presenting in the end not a picture of a surface but of something deeply meditated. They present themselves to us in this same way, surfaces opening to contextual depth.
An instance is the opening photo, Terry’s only black and white shot. It presents what, as the viewer first enters the book, is a kind of puzzle. In it, a middle-aged woman is peering down at what might be a collapsed tent of damask, in whose folds we see dark scraps of something. The lighting is exquisite. The woman’s white babushka is sharply lit, as are the parts of the damask we can see, before, at about the same height as the bent woman’s head, they vanish into darkness. The woman is clumsy as she bends, and she is obviously intent. The light is somber, except for the two highlighted areas.
But our purely aesthetic response is short-lived. We are looking at the book’s first depiction of a scene that shatters the decorum of conventional funerary scenes. The simple dress of the grieving peasant woman, her face invisible, has a Tolstoyan quality. We can only imagine what her face says: does she think she recognizes something?
Then, whatever was our first aesthetic response, is wiped away in the flash when we see that the fabric is body bags, unzipped so that part of their contents is visible. When we look closely, we can make out a hand, a thighbone – remains of the ethnic cleansing of 1992, exhumed much later. Ultimately, the picture expresses love, the woman’s love for her dead husband, brother or son, but also the photographer’s love for the woman and for the emotions she is feeling, whether or not she finds what she’s looking for.
In another photo, Terry depicts the anthropologists at work, in what looks like a ruined auditorium. In the foreground, Ewa, walking with umbrella and briefcase, appears to be through for the day. The others, one seated and another crouched on the floor, are examining and perhaps making some kind of record of what they are looking at. The floor is nearly covered with objects laid out on separate sheets or towels. There’s a piece of paper pinned to each towel, presumably to describe the circumstances of the death and exhumation. Sometimes a scrap of cloth was the only way for loved ones to identify the dead. In witnessing this work, Terry pays her homage.
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In a very different picture a golfer is putting on a small green in a scene nearly pastoral, where peace reigns and this man, dressed in natty golfing garb, can return to a pleasure lost to him during the fighting. Until Terry’s note tells us that the putting green has only recently been cleared of mines. In the background, there is higher grass, equally green, that has not yet been cleared. The tranquil image we began with becomes something more precarious.
The photo of the golfer illustrates an interesting feature of Terry’s book. At least until we’ve accustomized ourselves to it, we can’t always be sure what we are looking at until she tells us in a note. The trick is to take in the photo as it first presents itself, then read the note and return to the photo. There’s a debate among photographers over whether an image dependent on a caption has full authenticity. Thqat debate seems irrelevant here.
The photo en face with the golfer might also seem nearly Edenic. Boys are running and tubing in a river. On the far bank a farmer is watering his ox. But two of the boys, in the foreground, stand against a guardrail facing the viewer. One of these boys is quite close. He’s wearing a kind of Mao-blue shirt, and he is looking at you in a certain way, as if maybe you’re the one come to save him, though there’s also skepticism in his look. Sticking out from a bag behind him, we see the feet and one hand of a doll. His companion holds a smaller doll. The boys, we learn from the note, are among those returned to their villages years after they were forced to flee. Even though they couldn’t be over nine, they have seen what they have seen. And we know that it won’t go away soon, perhaps never. Yet they play in the Garden of Eden.
A still more complex Eden emerges from Terry’s photos of the Mostar Bridge over the Neretva River. There had been a bridge here almost always. The old Ottoman bridge was destroyed during the war, and the new one was completed in the summer of 2004. In the first of this series, we see a boy’s bare legs from behind. He is standing outside the bridge railing, probably looking down at the river, one of whose banks is rock, the other, what looks like industrial reconstruction. In an instant the boy will jump into the blue river, so framed. Boys had always jumped from the Ottoman bridge over the Neretva river.
The one about to jump is practicing for the annual jumping and diving contest for which the bridge is famous. In a few days the custom will resume with the 448th of these contests. In another photo in this series, a boy is poised in air, having leapt. Of course he is motionless, as is the crowd strung across the bridge to watch. In his figure, life is brilliantly renewed.
I know that I’ll keep on thinking about and revisiting the images that Terry gives us – images in which disaster and hope are only precariously in balance. You can see this in the last photo in the book, an especially lovely one. It’s echoes the picture of the golfer in that the frame is perfect morning light, with floating cumulus above the green-ridge opposite shore. In the foreground on the near bank, a woman looks down at the river. She faces away from us, her head and shoulders wrapped in a big scarf, black with white oak leaf patterns making the design. The scarf, along with the bunch of carnations in her right hand, lends her a kind of tranquility appropriate to the scene. Then you learn from Terry that the woman has come to the place where 2,000 Muslim men and boys were executed. She’s about to throw her carnations down into the river, making a ceremony for her own dead.
If a coffee table book is something you leaf through, this is the furthest thing from that. Aftermath is a book that wants to be taken in slowly. The reward is that you find yourself very close to scarred lives and a scarred land that are making their hard recoveries with resilience equal to the forces that crushed them.
A version of that theme also appears in Terry’s photo of a man on crutches, dressed in black and wearing a warm cap. He’ s walking just to the right of a white dividing line down the middle of a street that looks as if it has been rained on, just next to the white line. His head’s turned to the right, so he seems to be gazing at bright red nylon café chairs tipped against tables. Fifteen yards ahead of him walk a man and a woman. Their backs are turned toward us, but from behind they look comfortably dressed and free. They give intensity by crisis to the drooped and twisted figure of the injured man. On the back of his coat, two blonds, in red, sit back to back, over the caption, “Pretty.” The nudes provide, though their red is less intense.
The left lane is empty – just wet, cracked asphalt, with a row of granite blocks marking the edge, some of them covered with graffiti. But in the foreground, in the direction opposite from where the man’s looking, and balanced against the café chairs leaning against tables, there’s a vivid splash of blood red on the asphalt, with big red drops appearing to fly from it. Terry tells us that the splotch is a “rose” of Sarajevo, marking one of the many mortar blasts and the people who died in them. The mortar blast leaves a pattern that looks like a flower, and these flowers were filled in with red as commemoration to the war dead. There are white café chairs in the returning sun at the end of the street. That’s where the couple is going. Maybe it’s where the crippled man is going too, carrying his own rose of Sarajevo on the back of his jacket in two red nudes, seated back to back over the word “Pretty.” Their color offers a kind of a bridge between the café chairs and the splash of paint.
A university student said to Terry: “Everyone thinks it’s great that the war is over. But we Bosnians often say we have yet to survive the peace. This peace.” Aftermath offer images of this peace, often bright and regenerative, yet still studded with vestiges of war. There are memories that can never heal: they can only be sealed off as a tree seals off wounds and infections so that it can go on living.