Documents of conflict and suffering -Gilles Peress – Farewell to Bosnia

Gilles Peress was born December 29, 1946 in France and grew up in Paris with his mother, an orthodox Christian from the Middle East, and his father, who was of Jewish and Georgian descent. Starting out, it is possible that his background sparked his interest in photographing the consequences of conflict, political or otherwise, with one of his first projects being on Turkish immigrant workers in West Germany, and the documentation of the European policy to import cheap labour from the third world.

Further research revealed that it was his educational background in politics and philosophy that drove his initial motivation, both to take up photography and the subject matter he captured, not due to it inspiring him, but more to do with the gap between political words and political reality. Peress has also documented events in Northern Ireland, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, the Balkans, Rwanda, the U.S., Afghanistan and Iraq. One of his projects, Hate Thy Brother, ‘looks at intolerance and the re-emergence of nationalism throughout the world and its consequences.’ Now a Magnum photographer I love the quote on his profile page:


I don’t care so much anymore about ‘good photography’; I am gathering evidence for history

In Farewell to Bosnia, a body of work that we are directed to in the course work, Peress is said to bear ‘testimony to the brutality and devastation of the 1990’s Balkan conflict.’

Here starts the curse of history, an illness that may not be so personal anymore. It may be a very European disease, after all, with a double-edged nature: you are damned if you remember – condemned to re-live, re-enact the images of your fathers; you are damned if you don’t – condemned to repeat their hypocrisy.

We are asked to look at his work and comment on our reaction, on scouting about on the net I came across a few things on YouTube.


In Conversations with History, Peress quite eloquently discusses his work, influences and what drives him. He made some valid points with regards to the passivity of the world being almost as horrific as the events he was recording. Peress has no political agenda, does not wish to be put into a niche category, he just wants to show the raw, stark reality of what is happening. He acknowledges that a photograph can have several authors, the photographer, the camera, the reader and reality, Peress describes an image as being an ‘open text.’ One thing I found very interesting was the fact he deliberately chose not to edit the book, not to sequence a narrative. The images are published so that the reader has to fill in the gaps and make up their own reality.

I also liked his idea of ‘simultaneity’ how the minutiae of life continues amongst bigger events. This was a conversation I was having the other day about Brexit. When we look back in history this will be a momentous event, it has the potential to make or break us as a nation yet everyday we get up, clean our teeth go to work, weed the garden and nothing as yet has changed…

Although recorded a long time ago he was forward thinking even then, willing to embrace multimedia and different ways to display his work: in an installation, a book, on a billboard, on the Web…looking at images in different settings opens new meanings and opportunities to explore different presentational ideas which can be applied to the same project or the next.

His final message… ‘go out and do…figure out a new form [to confront these dilemmas]…the moral choices of good and evil…figure out a way to deal with these issues…can the world be changed…the choice has to be presented…’

Just under an hour long but well worth watching.


War is about dislocation, fragmentation — dislocation of communities, of families — fragmentation of bodies, which means that somebody next to you one minute is gone the next.

So onto his images…

Sadly, human destruction and death has always been the currency of conflict photography. Unbelievably, Roger Fenton was sent to the Crimea to ‘take photographs that would reassure the public,’ and ever since then (1855) documentary photography has been a booming industry (Price 1963). Historic and contemporary photojournalism, have striven to ‘reassure’, provide first hand knowledge and in some instances simply to provide the visually spectacular, to an audience who are a mix of both curious and voyeuristic.

In Farewell to Bosnia, which has been described as ‘a visual travel-log of war’, Peress charts the early years of the Bosnian conflict. I think his mix of images, the struggle of normal life between ceasefires, the broken buildings, emotionally broken people, endless lines of displaced people,  and broken bodies bring home the brutal violence meted out.

In the book, there are only photographs, no explanations, no titles, no words aside from a few extracts from letters that he wrote to friends on one of the last pages. In one of these texts Peress writes: ‘I remembered my father, his amputated arm and his pain, his descriptions of addiction to morphine, of World War II, the German occupation and the concentration camps.’

His pictures do speak for themselves. Having listened to the interview he gave and on looking at the images I can empathise with his feelings of moral outrage, and anger that people were turning a blind eye. The frozen moments in time allow the viewer to construct their own narrative from the emotionally harrowing, or seemingly banal images.

I am not interested in propaganda and didacticism. I am interested in trying through the process of photography to understand and make sense at least for myself of what is out there.

There have been several high profile war photographers capturing battle scenes or depicting blood and gore. Although Peress presents us with images of visions of individuals in distress or of death and destruction he never seems to cross the line of ‘bloodiness.’ I find I respond to these images as I can empathise more if they don’t turn my stomach, if I can find something in common with the people, if they are innocent victims in a situation not of their making. The photographs that hit home for me are the hands pressed against the car windows, the elderly woman with her face in her hands and the elderly woman sitting huddled in a wheelbarrow.

I remember the conflict as it occurred, it was hard to believe in today’s society such awful genocide and a rout of a section of society was allowed to happen, that it continues now in Syria and the attitude towards innocent refugees appalls me.

Too often we read about the death of  photographers such as Robert Capa, Paul Schutzer, Larry Burrows, and more recently Hilda Clayton and Tim Hetherington, but without these intrepid people such atrocities, no matter how they are presented or how unpalatable they appear, would be hidden. The stories need to be told, whether explicitly, or allowing us to tell our own narrative.

Sadly I agree with Peress that in some respects humans are doomed to continue making the same mistakes and think Siegfried Sassoon summed it up in his poem ‘At the Cenotaph’.

At The Cenotaph

I saw the Prince of Darkness, with his Staff,
Standing bare-headed by the Cenotaph:
Unostentatious and respectful, there
He stood, and offered up the following prayer.
‘Make them forget, O Lord, what this Memorial
Means; their discredited ideas revive;
Breed new belief that War is purgatorial
Proof of the pride and power of being alive;
Men’s biologic urge to readjust
The Map of Europe, Lord of Hosts, increase;
Lift up their hearts in large destructive lust;
And crown their heads with blind vindictive Peace.’
The Prince of Darkness to the Cenotaph
Bowed. As he walked away I heard him laugh.

Research   [Accessed 12/05/2017]  [Accessed 12/05/2017] [Accessed 14/05/2017]

Price, Derrick. “Surveyors and Surveyed: Photography out and about.” Photography: A Critical Introduction. Ed. Liz Wells, New York: Routledge, 1997. 57-102.

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