Published on Monday, June 23, 2008 by The Women's International Perspective
The Aftermath Project: War Is Only Half the Story
by Sara Terry
It all goes back, I think, to the day I was standing in a mass grave, hating the fact that I was there, balanced precariously on a mound of bones, camera reluctantly in hand. I’d been asked to make a photo of a partly-preserved pair of hands, the remains of a teenage boy who along with thousands of other Bosnian Muslim men and boys had been murdered by Bosnian Serb forces seven years earlier during the Srebrenica massacre.
I’d already spent two years working on a long-term photo project about the aftermath of Bosnia’s 1992-95 conflict, documenting the return of refugees, the youth of Sarajevo, the countless quiet, sometimes heartbreaking moments that come with the rebuilding of lives and relationships long after the guns of war have stopped. I had come on this trip in September 2002, knowing that I had yet to take a picture of an exhumation that I felt was a definitive image. And I knew why I had failed: I hate exhumations. I hate the smell, the muck of the pit, the horror of decomposing bodies, the thoughts that stream through my mind about what it must have been like for these people in the final frightening moments of their life. Most of all, I hate the hatred that put them there.
Up until this time, I had kept my distance from the exhumation pit, taking pictures from the rim, or of the people who gathered to watch. And the pictures showed that detachment, that reluctance. I was prepared to be closer this time — but not as close as Ewa Klonowski wanted me to be. A forensic anthropologist who has devoted years of her life to helping exhume Bosnia ’s mass graves and to trying to identify the nameless bodies found in them, she called me into the grave one cloudy afternoon, onto a dirt patch surrounded by partially exposed skeletons. She had spent hours working to free the partially preserved arms and hands of this teenage boy, and she wanted me to take a picture for her with her small, cheap camera.
Hesitantly, I balanced myself in the grave, and looked through the lens. I nearly threw up. But I looked again and saw Ewa’s white-gloved hand and arm as it reached to lift the decaying hand of a long-dead boy. What I saw, I realized, was the image I had been waiting for. I lifted my own camera and snapped a few frames. I had found the aftermath photo I was looking for — a horrific image, to be sure, but one that for me is about love, about humanity. The dead hands in the image are unbearable, but there is also a living hand in that grave, gently drawing the dead from an anonymous pit back to the possibility of life — of identity restored. This hand tells a different story of aftermath. It speaks of an unyielding faith in the human spirit. It speaks of a living goodness that does not cower before the evidence of evil, one that refuses to give the final word to death, or to the hatred that caused it.
It was another six months before I saw the echoes of Michael angelo’s Sistine Chapel in that image — of the outstretched hand of Jehovah giving life to Adam with a touch of the fingers. And it was another year before I first had the idea of starting a non-profit called The Aftermath Project — a grant program that helps photographers cover the aftermath of conflict.
But that moment in the grave (and the image that emerged) was the turning point for me as a photographer in knowing the stories I want to tell. That day, with those living and dead hands in front of me, I discovered where I want to be when it comes to telling stories of conflict — in the aftermath, in the midst of a grave, bearing witness to the humanity that comes, that always comes, when the inhumanity of war has been brought to heel by treaties and agreements.
What I understood was that war is only half the story — and today, nearly six years after I stood in that grave, that idea has become the founding principle of The Aftermath Project. Through grants to photographers, exhibitions, educational outreach and publications, we aim to broaden the media’s coverage of conflict and the public’s understanding of it — to tell the kinds of stories that all too often go untold, the kinds of stories that must be told if we are ever to understand the true cost of war and the real price of peace.
Now in our second year of grant-making, our first book has just come out. War is Only Half the Story, Volume One, features the work of the Aftermath Project’s inaugural 2007 grant winners and finalists. Jim Goldberg won the 2007 $20,000 grant for his work in progress which depicts the daunting challenges faced by refugees, migrants, asylum seekers and trafficked people, and their indomitable will to survive and create new lives. Wolf Böwig, awarded a $15,000 grant, has covered conflicts around the world for more than fifteen years. With his Aftermath grant, he returned to Sierra Leone to tell the story of Morie — who, as a five-year-old, was the sole survivor of a massacre during that nation’s brutal war. They are joined by 2007’s three finalists: Andrew Stanbridge (postwar reconstruction and the remnants of war in Laos ), Asim Rafiqui ( Haiti ’s ongoing aftermath and continuing political violence) and Paula Luttringer (a survey of sites in Argentina where women and their children were abducted between 1976 and 1983).
Together these photographers and the stories they have witnessed and so beautifully conveyed come together to spark the opening round in a conversation that we hope will continue for years to come. With the Aftermath Project, we aim to change the way the story of conflict is told — to be part of creating a new dialogue about war, in which telling the story of aftermath is as important as telling the story of war itself. The Aftermath Project dares to imagine a world in which photographers are able to pursue the story of peace as rigorously as they have pursued the story of war for more than a century; a changed media environment in which those who tell those stories are supported and recognized through assignments and awards - an environment, in other words, which recognizes the “news” in aftermath.
I often think of what Jan Eliasson said when he agreed to be one of the first members of the advisory board, in the very early stages of creating the grant program. A former Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations who was then Sweden ’s ambassador to the United States , Eliasson said he was drawn to the project because it was about more than just the story of war. He believed that in drawing attention and resources to aftermath situations, the result could actually be conflict prevention, instead of the endless rounds of conflict resolution that consume so much of the world’s time and energy today.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Eliasson’s convictions will prove true, whether there will ever come a time when it is possible to actually prevent the violence and hatred that led to those hands in the grave in Bosnia. At the Aftermath Project, we are still only at the beginning of our work, still trying to shape conversations and build networks and support for creating long-term change in the way that the media tells the story of war — and in the way that the rest of us understand what it takes to build peace.
A former staff correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and magazine freelance writer, Sara Terry made a mid-career transition into photojournalism and documentary photography in the late 1990s. Her long-term project about the aftermath of war in Bosnia - Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace - was published in September 2005 by Channel Photographics. Her work has been widely exhibited, at such venues as the United Nations, the Museum of Photography in Antwerp , and the Moving Walls exhibition at the Open Society Institute. Her photographs are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts , Houston , and in many private collections. In 2005, she received a prestigious Alicia Patterson Fellowship for her work in Bosnia .
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs