Landscape photographer Simon Norfolk's latest book uses visual metaphor to depict the unearthing and forensic exploration of the hidden crimes and atrocities of Bosnia's war and its mass graves. Limited edition and luxurious in scale, this publication retains the epic quality of much of Norfolk's wide-angle images using both close up and landscape pictures. Taken at specific sites of crimes and conceptually grouped within the book, these oblique images are contextualised with paragraphs on the awful histories of these mundane places.
Beginning Bleed with three definitions grounded in a material, factual and spiritual change of state – solution, dissolve, absolution – is a clever premise. Given the often unremarkable appearance of the locations in which the horrific events of the Bosnian war took place, Norfolk focuses on the material processes in the landscape as a metaphor for their significance.
Abstracted studies of frozen water open the book: its crackles, bubbles, colours and half hidden textures hint at the intimate and the visceral. The marbled surface of excretions and sediment is recorded so close and reproduced so large as to obscure its true meaning – suggesting fossilised remains or Petri dishes of organic matter. However, these we then learn are of the snowmelt and ice covering the bottom of the 40 x 12 metre ditch at Crni Vrh, the largest mass grave discovered to date in Bosnia.
At first glance, Norfolk's gentle studies of light and the hidden forms under blankets of snow don't have enough in them as isolated images. But perhaps their lack of information is the point. The text emphasises the lengths to which the Serb perpetrators went to cover up their crimes. Secondary graves, like Crni Vrh, are unique to Bosnia. They are the remote locations to where bodies, dug up from old graves where the victims fell, were moved by the Serbs in an attempt to remove any evidence, like the snow obscures the ground beneath it.
Norfolk seems happiest with his landscape images. The brackish warmth of willow bark and reeds against snow, the rich orange of naked tree branches, perhaps a visual metaphor for human remains coming to light. The structure of a rusting red basketball hoop, at Bratunac soccer stadium where men and boys from Srebrenica were held overnight and shot, stands out like a scaffold against a white field.
Marking the site of mines, red paint on trees near Crni Vrh appears like wounds in the frozen scene, and in this book's most powerful image, an aluminium waste pond bleeds red into a snow covered landscape.
As we reach a decade after the war in Bosnia, a war that Norfolk himself points out was conducted under the full glare of the media, how best should we record and memorialise humanitarian outrages through photography? Bleed offers an unusual approach to a familiar topic and a novel way to construct images of these significant, yet not necessarily particularly visually interesting sites of slaughter and mass burial.
The concept behind this meditative selection is a strong and fitting one of solution and absolution. Despite its inconsistent structure, there are some outstanding images here, the indisputable facts about these sites forming the backbone.