Are you fricking kidding me? What’s happened to long-term thinking? What’s happened to foreign aid?”
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Sara Terry is angry. More than 17 years since the end of the Bosnian War, she still gets irate at the travesty left behind when the conflict ended. In the summer of 2000, nearly five years after the peace agreement was signed, Bosnian Muslims were only just starting to feel safe to return home again. But the international community had succumbed to what the documentary photographer and filmmaker Terry defines as “Bosnia fatigue”, and they had moved on to the next crisis.
Only around a quarter of the people who wanted to return home would have any help doing so. “I decided to ditch my job on a newsdesk – where I didn’t get to cover anything in any real depth – and go to Bosnia to see if there was a story to tell.” There was. And it took her five years to tell it.
“The end of war does not mean peace. It is simply the end of death and destruction,” explains Terry in the resulting Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace. “Every story of war includes a chapter that almost always goes untold – the story of the aftermath, which day by day becomes the prologue of the future.”
In Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska’s ‘The End and the Beginning’ (1992), the conflict poet explains how the hard work of rebuilding after a war only begins once the photojournalists have left: “No sound bites, no photo opportunities,/ and it takes years./ All the cameras have gone to other wars.”
Ultimately, post-conflict images should remind us of our humanity – that war is not finality.
It’s true that most photographers are magpies, following one shiny thing to the next. You’ve gotta go where the money – and the money shot – is, right? Sara Terry is not that kind of photographer.
In a 2003 workshop, the renowned National Geographic photographer Sam Abell asked Terry, a pupil on the course, “What impact do you want your work to have?” Her answer was simple: to make people aspire to be aftermath photographers not just war photographers. The plan for doing this was more difficult to realise. “I wanted to start a grant programme. It was a crazy idea – but I don’t quit.”
Making a difference
The result of her vision and tenacity was The Aftermath Project, which Terry founded in 2008 to support post-conflict storytelling. To mark its tenth anniversary this year, a special volume has been published featuring the work of more than 50 photographers from 15 countries, all of whom have been winners and finalists in the Project’s grant competitions.
This book is different to the previous collections. “We decided on a fresh approach to the conversation,” she says. “Instead of a chronological overview, designer Teun van der Heijden and I drew on two poems by Szymborska. Using her post-conflict verbal imagery, we created five themes for the book, and then edited from across our rich archives.”
The result is less of a story and more of a visual symphony, the images speaking to one another in a conversation – regardless of different photographers, times, or conflicts.
Photographs can make you care: their primary impact is emotional. Reach someone’s heart, then you reach their head
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Post-conflict photography can tell so much: the stories of what it takes to rebuild destroyed lives and homes; how difficult it is simply to learn to live normally again; and how hard it can be to restore society to civilised levels. If the Aftermath Project has one mission statement, it is to highlight the struggle of those addressing the lingering wounds of war while struggling to create new avenues for peace.
Ultimately, post-conflict images should remind us of our humanity – that war is not finality. We’ve selected some of the most impactful photographs from the Project’s ten years over these pages. What they all attest to is that as long as there’s a war, there needs to be aftermath reporting.
But can photography – any photography – actually effect positive change?
“The Aftermath Project has always been about starting a conversation – getting people to think about the implications of war,” Terry explains. “Images should spark interest and concern; they need to be free to do that. Photographs can make you care: their primary impact is emotional. Reach someone’s heart, then you reach their head – and then you can get them to act.”
There’s no doubt that imagery – and poetry for that matter – can help you think more deeply. The Aftermath Project has been about going deeper, about delving vertically, rather than just skittering along the horizontal.
“Don’t just scare the shit out of people,” says Terry. “Be moved, care, and reflect on what it means to be human.”