“All the cameras have gone to other wars.” That line from Wisława Szymborska’s poem “The End and the Beginning” accompanies the first section of War Is Only Half the Story: Ten Years of the Aftermath Project (Dewi Lewis Publishing, 2018). The volume features a 10-year retrospective of the project that was established by documentary photographer Sara Terry to extend the coverage of war to include its consequences. “If you don’t know the aftermath, if you don’t understand that peace doesn’t happen just because the guns have stopped, that peace is hard work, then you don’t really know the whole story, you don’t really know the news, you don’t really know the world,” said Terry, who is a Guggenheim Fellow and a photographer with VII Photo Agency, Los Angeles.
The project includes an annual grant competition to support post-conflict storytelling by many of the best photographers. Terry conceived it during work on Aftermath: Bosnia’s Long Road to Peace (Channel Photographics), a five-year portfolio that she completed in 2005. “That was my first long-term project as a photographer covering the aftermath of the conflict in Bosnia and that led me to start the Aftermath Project because I wanted other people to also be telling post-conflict stories. I call myself a storyteller. I come from a print journalism background, but I’ve worked in every medium and it is storytelling, but it’s factual storytelling, not made-up storytelling. It’s not news — we’re not supporting breaking news stories, we’re supporting storytelling that’s long-term: long-term documentary work, long-term reportage.”
Among the examples of this post-conflict storytelling in the new book are Natela Grigalashvili’s Refugees of Georgian Villages; Jessica Hines’ My Brother’s War, about her sibling, a Vietnam War veteran who committed suicide; and Nina Berman’s project Acknowledgment of Danger, which includes a photo of a cemetery in the New Mexico town of Luis Lopez, where dozens of cancer deaths are thought by residents to have been caused by the 1945 Trinity atomic test. Rodrigo Abd captured two people looking at a photo of a skull, one of the victims of the Guatemalan Army; his project was Reclaiming the Dead: Mass Graves in Guatemala, a Story Only Partially Told. Justyna Mielnikiewicz photographed a Ukraine billboard where a Hitler mustache was added to an image of Vladimir Putin. Elizabeth Herman offers a collage of portraits of nine women who were raped by the West Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War.
“A good portrait reveals so much about the person,” Terry said. “You can’t help but be close to people and have a sense of what they went through and try to capture and portray that. Elizabeth did that so well with those photos. I love that work.” She said viewers need such post-conflict images to remind us of our humanity. “We definitely do. We have a tendency to become what we uphold. We become the stories we tell ourselves, the images we show ourselves. And when that’s all you see, in the news or in mainstream culture, when all you hear about is war, we have a tendency to become that or to accept that that is our narrative.”
And that’s all there is to it? “Or that it’s a natural state of affairs,” she responded. “Oh yeah, there’s a war in Kosovo, there’s a war in Southeast Asia, there’s a war in Africa. But with post-conflict imagery, where you have to really consider the incredible human struggle of starting life again, I think that’s about being human,” Terry said. “And I think we have to constantly remind ourselves, especially in a media-saturated age and an age of consumerism and excessive capitalism, we have to remind ourselves of the goodness of our humanity, of what it means to be human.” And to care. “Yes, and to dream, to rebuild lives, to deal with sorrow. Those things are universal, but we don’t spend much time with them because it’s not about celebrity.”
The Aftermath Project (theaftermathproject.org) published a book for the annual grant winner and finalists each year for eight years. Terry didn’t do a book in the ninth year because of the financial challenge of the larger 10th-anniversary book, War Is Only Half the Story. Part of her editing job involved selecting 121 photos from an archive of about a thousand images by more than 50 photographers.
“The previous books included a photo essay of each of their projects and an introduction usually written by me. For years we sent it for free to museum curators, photo editors, publishers, educators, and some senators. We did that as part of our outreach and trying to build the conversation. This time, I felt it was important to gather the work as a 10-year retrospective in a much more lyrical way. And Wisława Szymborska’s poetry is part of what helped me to see the story in Bosnia. Poetry and photography are both often about seeing what can’t be seen. And I was thrilled that her estate allowed me to use five excerpts from two of her poems.”
The other excerpts of poetry by Szymborska, who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, are presented periodically throughout the book. In sequence with their appearances in the book, they are:
“After every war, someone’s got to tidy up. Things won’t pick themselves up, after all.”
“Perhaps all fields are battlefields, those that we remember and those that are forgotten.”
“This terrifying world is not devoid of charms, of the mornings that make waking up worthwhile.”
“Reality demands that we also mention this: life goes on.”
The book’s final image, presented under the umbrella of that last Szymborska line, is by Lara Ciarabellini and shows people simply out enjoying a lake. The title of the project by Ciarabellini and Massimo Mastrorillo is Bosnia y Herzegovina: If Chaos Awakens the Madness, but this photo was taken in Tuzla, a city where residents make an effort to coexist, as they also did during the 1992-1995 war.
A problem with news coverage is that we may see images of inflamed protesters in the streets, but that is not what everyone is like in whatever nation is depicted. Most of them are probably at home, shaking their heads and watching the same thing on their televisions. We only get the highlights. “And the distortions,” Terry agreed. “I did a TedX talk a while back and I talked about the fact that social media and just our contemporary culture have turned us into a really horizontally based way of gathering information. We run across a broad spectrum of things at a very shallow depth. We don’t spend time reflecting. We don’t spend time with those dinner-table conversations. And I see the work of the Aftermath Project as going vertically, as going deep into ideas and stories. It’s sort of inviting you to a conceptual dinner-table conversation where you have to think and spend time and reason. The Aftermath Project tries to create a space for you to think deeply and reason carefully on the true costs of war and the real price of peace.” ◀
War Is Only Half the Story: Ten Years of the Aftermath Project by Sara Terry is published by Dewi Lewis Publishing, 268 pages, $35.45.