Why Do War Photographers Lose Interest When People Stop Dying?

After seeing the international press largely turn its back on Bosnia shortly after the war there ended, in favor of headline-grabbing conflicts elsewhere, journalist Sara Terry decided that post-conflict reporting deserved more support.

She set up the Aftermath Project, which aimed to give annual grants to photographers covering the effects of war on people, rather than war itself.

Sara’s new book, War Is Only Half the Story, brings together over ten years of post-conflict work and aims to remind readers that the end of war is not the end of trauma, danger or difficulty.

VICE: Your work in Bosnia was what led you toward starting the Aftermath Project. Can you tell me what you were doing there and how it informed the work that followed?
Sara Terry:

I began my project in Bosnia because I was really angry about a report I had read, stating that just as more Bosnians than ever before were finally feeling ready to try to go home again, the international community was getting “Bosnia fatigue” and moving onto the next crisis spot, which was East Timor at the time.

I just thought that was so short-sighted, and such a reflection of the culture that we were becoming. Even 18 years ago, we were becoming this social media-driven culture, thinking in such shallow terms.

People thought five years was enough time for people to get over a war that saw the worst genocide in Europe since WWII.

Over the course of my time in Bosnia, the big stories were going to conflict photographers and conflict stories in the wake of 9/11. I think it’s really important to know what’s being done in our names around the world in terms of wars, but I had this compelling sense that what was more important than war was the story about aftermath.

Aftermath is where we insist on redefining our humanity. I was amazed by Muslim Bosnians I had met, who had been “ethnically cleansed” from their homes and wanted to go back to the very places where their neighbors had driven them out.

I thought it showed an astonishing quality of the human spirit. That’s what I wanted to know more about.

How did the actual Aftermath Project come out of that time and that work?

In the midst of my work in Bosnia I took part in a workshop with the photographer Sam Abell, and he asked us what impact we wanted our work to have.

I had gotten awards as a journalist and had seen the impact my work had, but I didn’t think that way yet as a photographer.

I remember saying, “It would be so great if other photographers wanted to be aftermath photographers – my work might help inspire that.” A day later, I was like, “Seriously? No one knows who you are as a photographer, most people didn’t care about Bosnia to start with, and you think your work is enough to start a discussion?”

Anyway, I decided to start a grant program for photographers covering the aftermath of conflict. I have no idea why on earth I thought I could do it – I didn’t have money, or foundation support – but I just decided I could. That was in 2003. It took four years or so to build it up. We gave our first grants in 2007.

After over ten years working in this area, do you feel that aftermath work naturally attracts journalists and artists who are inclined to delve deeper than those who cover war?
I came from newspaper journalism, so I understand the news cycle. But I also wanted to challenge it. I wanted to say, “Why is it that death, destruction, disease, famine are the only things that are newsworthy?”

I think aftermath is just as newsworthy as conflict, if not more so. It’s an incredibly powerful story about the human condition. Aftermath absolutely invites work that goes deeper, yes. My Bosnia work took me four years.

War itself is obviously physically dangerous, and I have great respect for my colleagues who cover conflict and who see it as something more than a way to make a name for themselves – but it’s obvious what you should be shooting in a war, isn’t it? There goes the bomb, there’s the tank, those people just got killed…

I mean, apart from the physical dangers, war is an easy thing to shoot. But to shoot aftermath, how do you shoot what you can’t necessarily see? That’s why I love poetry so much, and why poetry is the narrative thread in the book. Poetry is in so many ways about what you can’t see.

One of the nicest things anybody ever said to me about my Bosnia work was, “Wow, you spent a long time waiting around, didn’t you?”

That stuff doesn’t happen in front of your face; it takes time to see what happens on the way to reestablishing civil society, what it looks like to deal with sorrow, and what it looks like to ignore warning signs that could lead to a future conflict…

How do you see the Aftermath Project fitting into the wider news and reporting world?
Part of the original mission statement was to change the way the media covers conflict. To broaden the dialogue, to understand post-conflict issues and their importance.

I do think there’s a lowest common denominator factor in daily journalism – how do you grab somebody? Now, historically, we think the best way to grab people is by shocking them, but I am interested in long-term conversations; I am not interested in that. Repeated shock leads to fatigue.

As a journalist and photographer, my view has always been that you can get someone to care about something [if] you reach them. And you start there. Some of those people you reach will think about it more deeply, caring will lead to intelligent thought on the issues, and from that group there’s an even smaller number who do something, who will act.

I think the media buys into clicks. I don’t mean all media – there’s great journalism going on these days – but generally the approach is shortsighted. I’ve found that people do respond to these more involved, long-term stories.

The Aftermath Project is an outlier in the media world for sure, but I think it’s having an impact. I’ve seen far more aftermath reporting around now, and not always tied to ten year anniversaries and so on, so I do feel that the compass needle has moved a bit.

In a world of news saturation, and social media, it’s important to remind people what it means to be human – and I think that’s what post-conflict work does.

I wouldn’t want to ask you to put the conflicts the project has covered in any sort of “order” – but that said, do any in particular stand out to you as having great capacity to engage an audience in terms of post-conflict reporting?
I think we always reference what’s happening in the world as we are growing up. For me, it was Vietnam, but I think – in general – wars that last a long time have an immediate impact on us; they grab our attention because of sustained media interest, which gives you a bit of a window to engage people.

For Americans today, that might be Afghanistan, or the Iraq war, which feels likes it’s been going on forever.

When Monika Bulaj won a grant to cover the impact of war in Afghanistan, another photographer wrote to her and said something like, “Oh, that’s aftermath? Are you kidding? That war’s still going on!” I wrote back and pointed out that aftermath happens constantly over the course of conflict.

Which aftermath in Afghanistan is it you want to talk about, the aftermath of the Soviets being there, the aftermath of the tribal warlords tearing apart Kabul, or the aftermath of the allied invasion?

So what is “aftermath” in terms of the project’s parameters?
We take a nuanced position on aftermath – we see aftermath in places where conflict is still going on. We have also extended it to work like Danny Wilcox Frazier’s project on Pine Ridge Indian reservation, Surviving Wounded Knee. That’s the aftermath of the US army’s massacre at Pine Ridge, over 150 years ago.

All wars draw attention to their aftermath for a moment in time, but I don’t think there’s any one war that’s happened while we have been running the Aftermath Project that I would say, “Bam! There’s a slam dunk answer, that one made people aware of aftermath…”

I wanted to ask about your work in Rwanda, which is often held up as a sort of shining light in terms of post-conflict resolution. How does that conflict illuminate what the Aftermath Project is all about?
I knew Rwanda needed to be in the project, because often people are all, “Oh my god! Look at the Rwandans! Look at how they have pulled the country back together, look at their forgiving of the past.” But I was like, ‘Wait a minute, is that all there is to this?’

In the West we really liked Rwanda, because Rwanda got back to business right away. They were a known business haven – Paul Kagame came in wanting to restore the economy, parallel with trying to resolve a million court cases which had to use the international tribunals and then Gacaca courts.

Rwanda looks like what the West wanted Rwanda to look like. We poured in money, there were no checks on Kagame’s power, and now he’s laughing.

I had friends, Rwandan expats, who told me things were very weird there… there are a lot of warning signs under the surface. Kagame has become a dictator. He’s made it so that people can’t talk about being Hutu or Tutsi – you are all Rwandan. The press is essentially a mouthpiece for the government, and people are terrified. We supported all the wrong ideas.

Rwanda is a warning place, in terms of the aftermath. Tito kept Yugoslavia together after World War Two with the slogan of “unity and brotherhood” – you could no longer talk about your ethnic background – then he died, and it fell apart. It’s like that in Rwanda now: it’s literally against the law to talk about someone being Hutu or Tutsi. Underneath the day-to-day normality there, everyone knows who did what, and it’s dangerous.

We need to figure out how to understand a non-western narrative, we need to learn how to listen, and to realize we do not have all the answers. That’s what aftermath reporting should do.

source : vice uk

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