Saturday, 5 September 2009

Dubrovnik in August : War Photo Limited

When we arrived in Dubrovnik we stayed one night and the next morning made our way quickly away from the heat and dust of the tourists to our quieter destination. Returning, a the end of our stay, we were more acclimatised and prepared to deal with the crowds as an inevitable part of being able to walk around the unique and magical Old Town of Dubrovnik. Walking the old Wall of the City in the heat of the day was not the easiest thing to do even so, especially as exits are few – once you are there, you continue, unless you choose to refresh yourself at a couple of crowded bars along the way, which we avoided.

Not the best time to visit, but sometimes there is no choice. And the walkways are still made of marble, in high August, the churches and museums and monasteries still cool and mysteriously quiet.

Somehow this day crystalised my feelings about visiting Croatia. Firstly, my discomfort at being primarily, inevitably, a tourist rather than a traveler on this short visit (to unwind and relax after various stresses and strains including a recent health issue in our little family group). Secondly, a feeling of not knowing how to correlate this holiday experience with the recent traumatic past suffered by the region during the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

I found the Croatian people I met (it sounds a cliché but it was real enough) calm, warm and welcoming – seemingly pleased to see us. Dignified. No problem on their side with tourism. Yet there was a tangible feeling of something healing over, of a scar that seemed on the surface hardly noticeable, yet if you probed, still rough and sore underneath. Most likely, as it would always remain. If only as you notice the large, empty and crumbling houses on the island (a small island, so only a couple), and wonder who left them, and why. Or as you look at the roofs of the Old City you see the contrast of the original tiles (which are paler) and the new ones. Many of the roofs and some of the buildings and wall were destroyed in the bombardment of Dubrovnik during the recent civil war. Although at first there was an attempt to use only original materials in reconstruction this proved impossible as many of the sources have fallen into disuse. Now, the old tiles are gradually being replaced by new ones, to avoid the patchiness you can see just now. If this wasn't enough, we found a video on you tube of the bombardment of 1991, which shows scenes in stark contrast to the ones we were experiencing.

One thing is for sure, the Croatian people, as anywhere, come from the whole range of the political spectrum. The wider area, politically and seismically (much of Dubrovnik's Renaissance art and architecture was destroyed in a great earthquake in 1667) has found itself to be a catalyst, historically, for disaster and destruction. Within this context, it is possibly easy for outsiders to forget that Dubrovnik itself was a civilised and peaceful Republic for hundreds of years, a centre for flourishing Renaissance arts. The more I tried to understand Croatia's role in the recent troubles, the more I realised I had to go back, and back, and attempt to understand the complex history. This is something for a lifetime's study, and for the moment, I have let it rest. I learned enough to know that this was, like any civil war, one where easy definitions and judgments are impossible. One thing, war is a part of the life and history of all countries and peoples, and it is felt either in the immediate bitterness, pain and suffering of it's occurrence, or it's ramifications run deeper and more distant, but no less starkly.

Why all this on a photography blog? Because all this was underlined by my visit to War Photo Limited in the Old City of Dubrovnik.

I passed on the permanent exhibition in the Sponza Palace of portraits of young people who died in the nineties in the defense of Dubrovnik, mostly due to lack of time, but partly because I found I couldn't bear it. But it seemed at the time fitting to dive out of the sunshine and away from the crowds along the Placa, down a side alley to the shadow and cool of the Photo Gallery, War Photo Limited, and, now, not fitting to describe this exhibition without considering to begin with something of the context of the place in which it is held.

War Photo Limited says of itself It is the intent of War Photo Limited to educate the public in the field of war photography, to expose the myth of war and the intoxication of war, to let people see war as it is, raw, venal, frightening, by focusing on how war inflicts injustices on innocents and combatants alike.

The photographs on display at War Photo Limited, included the current exhibition NOOR - Conflicts of Interest August 1st - 31st October 2009, which consists of work from Samantha Appleton, Phillip Blenkinsop, Pep Bonet, Jan Garup, Stanley Green Yuri Kozyrev, Jon Lowenstein, Kadir van Lohoizen, and Francesco Zizola. The aim of the exhibition is described as follows In representing something that is by definition controversial – conflict, a diversity of voices is extremely important: this exhibition is an attempt to show some of the many ways in which the Noor photographers, with their diverse backgrounds and personal stories, have documented war as they traveled battlefields and ravaged cities all across the world.

There was also an exhibition of photographs 'Child Soldier' by Jan Grarup, Yannis Kontos, Alisandra Fazzina, Noél Quidi and Dranco Pagetti, which were hard to view.

War Photo Limited represents and shows many more photographers and conflicts, however, including - naturally - Ex-Yugoslavia 1991-1999. This I found disturbing, if only because the conflict seemed so close, and yet I felt it essential to be able to acknowledge this recent history, and the images remain with me as reminder of the reality of the recent past. War photography in general, though, for me, is not always something that lingers. Maybe there can sometmes be a little too much of the depiction of the outright physical suffering of war - the tears and the wounds. It is important to see this, but it is a fine line where it tips into over-saturation. There was also work of the photographer Lana Slezic (Canadian born of Croation parents) who has documented women's lives in Afghanistan in her project and award-winning photobook 'Forsaken'. This work I found astonishing and it resonated with me the most (and War Photo Limited's edition of 'Forsaken' came away with me) perhaps because of the more subtle approach to a condition of war that is lived out daily for women. I was also struck by the documentary work, including portraits, of East Timor rebels by the Australian photographer Philip Blenkinsop.

More on War Photo Limited here

More on the work of Lana Slezic (who also engaged in a project documenting Dubrovnik). Be sure to look at this site if nothing else.

And Philip Blenkinsop