A guide to the New East

From the continous shelling that rained on his hometown of Sarajevo to the unrecognisable coverage of the Bosnian war on TV, the memories of growing up under siege have stayed with Ziyah Gafić. Gafić turned to photography working for a local magazine in the months before the war ended in 1995. Since then he has been documenting similar conflicts across the world but has always returned home, shooting the story of Sarajevo's survival in Bosnia: Paradise Lost, that has gone unseen by western eyes. 

Just like Proust’s madeleine certain things trigger and transport me to the early Nineties. Whenever I board a plane I remember the last civilian flight my family caught to leave the city; whenever I enter a tunnel I remember the hand-dug tunnel packed with fatigued soldiers returning from the frontline, the same tunnel we used to get back to the besieged city. 

I remember when my father came from the frontline in the mountains after 45 days of constant fighting. He was a shadow of his former self with his hair and clothes full of fleas. I remember when NATO started the air raids. By that time we had got used to artillery shells of all sorts but air bombs were a whole new thing. This time, bombs were falling on the other side, and we could just hear the air blasts fading into the distance as the nylon we used to cover the smashed windows would shake, though much less than before. For the first time, detonations meant peace.

I started taking photos in my teens while interning for a local magazine during the last months of war. Most of the other photographers were working for foreign press. I didn’t have any prior experience or formal education in photography, but the magazine was a good place to learn the basics of journalism. Then, during the Kosovo crisis in 1999, which was my first work abroad, I decided to go freelance and start exploring. To this day, I’ve covered stories in over 40 countries: from Chechnya to Rwanda, from Palestine to Pakistan…

Whenever I board the plane I remember the last civilian flight my family caught to leave the city

For a very long period I was interested in conflict; it was central to my first long term project Troubled Islam which took me to most of the contemporary conflicts around the globe. I was mainly interested in the human condition and how everyday people go on with their lives after losing it all. Now I believe that scarcity of resources, overpopulation, human-caused destruction of the environment and religion will quickly become the main sources of conflict and misery. If I would have to summarise it, I am interested in that which is orphaned by news stories, stories that are covered once and then abandoned by mainstream publications.

Bosnia: Paradise Lost was my first ever project. It started it in 2000 for a very simple reason: I had no funds or contacts with any publications to cover any other story except my own. I think that was the best thing that could have happened to me. One's homeland is the only place where you are not a tourist. 

Quest for Identity on the other hand is an entirely different approach to a subject matter covered by almost every professional photographer. The topic of missing people in Bosnia in general, and in particular genocide in Srebrenica, have been covered ad nauseam by hordes of photographers, both professionals and amateur. The annual commemoration and mass funeral in Srebrenica has become a photo safari. I wanted to cover it in an entirely different manner and style with the very clear idea of making something that would benefit other people and not only the photographer, because in most cases the we are the only people who really benefit from our work. In the case of Quest for Identity, the idea was to create a visual online archive of personal belonging exhumed from mass graves that someone might perhaps recognise and that could lead to identification. The series is also a permanent reminder that these people ever existed. It was done in a very clinical, forensic way, whereas Bosnia: Paradise Lost is more of a melancholic conversation between a man and his heartland.

War is hell, war doesn’t bring the best out of people. Au contraire mon frere, it poisons the soul. It’s all about property. All wars are the same; unfortunately it took me almost a decade of working in hostile environments to realise that if you've seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Text and image: Zayih Gafic
Interview: Liza Premiyak

Ziyah Gafić’s Bosnia: Paradise Lost will be on display during the New East Photo Prize exhibition at Calvert 22 until 18 December. You can find more information on the show here

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