This year on the 5th of April, Bosnia reflected on 20 years since the start of the siege of Sarajevo by the Serb forces which lasted over three and a half hideous years and claimed well over ten thousand lives. There were endless articles and commemorations on the event but it was a photo series by Jim Marshall that struck us as the most reflective of the spirit of Sarajevo that we came to love last year while putting together the first issue of Boat. Devastated Sarajevo post-siege sits side-by-side with its rebuilt version in a fresh and more optimistic before and after.
Here Jim Marshall, the ‘accidental’ photographer, talks us through his experience in Bosnia during the war, what led him to take the photos, and how the locals have responded to them.
I came to Bosnia & Herzegovina from Edinburgh in the autumn of 1994 after having done some voluntary activities for Edinburgh Direct Aid (raising money, packing boxes and loading them onto trucks, etc). I had never been outside of the UK in my entire life. Just days after arriving in BiH, I started working as a volunteer for a German NGO, Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste, and it was my responsibility to develop the project in the destroyed eastern half of the city. So my first real impressions of the country were gained in the half of the city of Mostar which was completely devastated: not only was it impossible to drive along many of the streets, it was difficult to walk along many of them due to piles of rubble between the buildings. The Old Town around Stari Most (the Old Bridge) was like a vision of hell, a living nightmare. I would stand on the edge of the cliff where the Stari Most once stood and stare at the pieces of the bridge in the beautiful deep green Neretva when the water was low. I’d pass the war graves almost every day and be more not less shocked every time.
Despite the fact that I had only intended to be in Mostar for three weeks, I stayed for half a year because I developed a strong sense of solidarity with its remarkable people on both sides of the divided city. I decided to leave Mostar in early 1995, at short notice, because the work I was involved with began to draw the attentions of ultranationalists and/or war criminals in West Mostar. The safety of everyone in the project (which was then known as ‘Mladi Most’ –the Young Bridge) was being severely threatened and, after almost half a year of taking personal risks, I was exhausted and of no more use to my colleagues or the beneficiaries of our project. So I went to Split for a couple of weeks and immediately got an opportunity to come to Sarajevo in February of 1995 so I took it. And on a bitterly cold morning on the top of Mount Igman I saw besieged Sarajevo for the first time, spread out in the distance amongst breathtaking mountains. Even in that very moment something inside me said that I would be in Sarajevo for a long time and 17 years after moving to Sarajevo I still live in the city.
The first set of photos were the first I ever took anywhere in the country after having lived in it for more than a year and a half. I was not comfortable with the idea of photographing the country in war; it seemed to me that that was the job of others just as working on child and youth projects was my job. I had become more not less fascinated by the architecture of war during peacetime. The normality that was returning to the streets of Sarajevo was in stark contrast to the damaged buildings. They were a constant and monstrous reminder of what had ended only weeks and months before. Indeed the photographs of the Grbavica area (close to the centre of the city) were taken just a month after it was reintegrated into Sarajevo after four years of occupation by the Bosnian Serb Army. I took them because I knew the city wouldn’t look like that for much longer as reconstruction efforts were already fully underway, and I wanted in the future to be able to remind myself of how surreal and disturbing it had once looked.
I started to take photography more seriously in recent years and I blame mid-life crisis for this. I also walk rather than drive a lot in Sarajevo so I was tracing the same route on a daily basis as that which I took in 1996 when I photographed the buildings the first time. So, again, to satisfy my personal curiosity and fascination, I took the original photo prints out with me and began photographing the same buildings from as close to precisely the same locations as possible.
There was a no-fly zone enforced during the war, which was a qualified success amidst many dreadful failings by the international community. The result was that the buildings in Sarajevo were not aerially bombed, such as in London during the Blitz, so that although the buildings were considerably damaged they remained structurally sound. However, the reconstruction of some of these buildings was often painstaking as the interiors were filled with rubble, which was dangerous enough in itself but made even more of a threat when it could easily contain unexploded ordnance.
I chose to post the results on my Facebook profile and then people first from the city and then from all over the world started to take an interest in them. I received hundreds of messages from people I have never met telling me how much they loved seeing the contrast and how it filled them with a sense of hope when so much else about Sarajevo and Bosnia and Herzegovina in recent years has filled them only with a sense of pessimism. It was never my intention to spark hope in countless others through this photo series but I was naturally delighted that this is exactly what it did. It has already accomplished more than I could ever have hoped for: it has filled people with a sense of hope during a very turbulent period in Sarajevo and the country’s development as it in some way symbolises how far we have actually come.
Aside from the hundreds of messages I have received, every single one positive, it has now been exhibited twice in Sarajevo over the last year and it is interesting to watch the reaction of people when they see the photography presented before them. People mostly stop in front of certain images and remember things from that location from their childhood and/or the siege. It’s always moving to talk to people about certain streets or buildings and hear their stories of fear, love, loss, first dates and childhood games. A single print of 15 of the images hangs permanently behind the bar at my favourite haunt in Sarajevo, Galerija Boris Smoje, and I often watch from just a few feet away people’s reactions when they look at the images. You see all these different emotions going on at the same time, which in turn fills me with different emotions.