Amid the dread of the many conflicts that have fractured Bosnia for more than a decade, there has been calm enough to talk about the land, about a homeland, a belonging. In a time marked by the mapping and re-positioning of uneasy territories, Paul Lowe’s book draws upon photographs made during and beyond the point of war. Bosnians is a broadly historical account, authored by a photographer who is rare amongst war photographers in that he remained in the area. His book is an account of the last 10 years, of the crisis the region has endured, and of reparation.
Ten years will change anyone, and time can create a rare authority. Looking through the book it seems the photographer has also made a journey with his medium. I remember in the early 1990s, Lowe wrote eloquently on the discomfort and challenges he felt, responding as a photographer to a crisis in Africa. It was a meditation on the limits, yet also the potential of the medium he had chosen. It also conveyed something of the limits of the outsider, the visitor who roams with the pack – reaching the surface but nothing more.
Bosnians then, affords us something of the temperament of the photographer. In the more oblique images, we find a photographer usefully searching for a depth of language with which to describe the unfathomable reality of contemporary slaughter. We observe the witness, reaching for strategies that describe the complexities of civil breakdown.
Formally, Lowe has great reach. His pictures enliven dramas in street scenes and at the peripheries of battle. The children are photographed well, assuming stoicism whether at play in a shadow-land, or at the heart of the keening familial tragedies that pace the book. Panoramas punctuate the flow, to evoke a sense of territory and the volume of burial. Indeed, the peopled images are supported by a diversion into the bitterly disputed landscape, which is effective. A tatty river’s edge is eventually drawn into focus as an execution site; a mortar shell leaves a ghoulish carved relief within an alley floor; a man, drawn from a Grimm’s tale (except for his clinical white overalls), surrenders to exhaustion in a glade while on an adjacent page, skeletal remains are drawn from a more awkward landscape.
Lowe also employs another strategy. He catalogues key stages by means of a stream of small images. Crossing sniper alley, the water carriers, identifying bodies, the rescue of the wounded and the dead traverse double pages sporadically to suggest something of the overbearing regularity of such situations over the time of conflict. This is a useful measure, it creates momentum and tends to work, although many of the pictures are individually intriguing and could easily be bigger or alone. There are a lot of pictures here to accommodate, and on occasion there seems a gulf between pictures that simply witness and images that appear to be more urgent and profound responses to situations as they unfold.
The book is a diverse survey, and sometimes the differing approaches seem tethered by the book’s shape. It differs greatly from the singularity of Perres’ Silence, for example, or the stormlight patina of Paolo Pellegrin’s Kosovo.
There is one further device. The book accommodates a range of texts, from political and military commentaries to the purest, simplest accounts of loss. The less successful pieces encroach upon and hinder the pictures. For me, the best of the writing, by Aleksander Hemon, articulates perfectly the hell of evading sniper fire while carrying out the essential acts of daily life. The imbalance, not being able to think, thinking too much, living through adrenaline – it is a vital, tense text, transcendent and urgent, and a somehow a great challenge to photographers living in the same world.