Photographs and Essays by Steve Horn ’72. Stockport, England: Dewi Lewis Publishing in association with The Bosnian Institute, 2005. 144 pp. $30 hardcover.
Reviewed by Frank Ward
Two trips to Bosnia, 30 years apart, provide the scaffolding for Steve Horn’s evocative book, Pictures Without Borders. In 1970, Horn, then an Amherst College student and photographer, traveled to the Balkans and made a visual record of the region. This was during the Communist era, two decades before Yugoslavia was blown apart by the hatred and terror of Serbian nationalism. Horn retraced his 1970 journey in 2003, relocating several of the subjects of his earlier pictures. Pictures Without Borders is Horn’s gift to the Bosnians. Even as the photographs and essays pay witness to the aftermath of war’s misery, they also provide a testament to cultural tenacity and individual survival.
Horn’s two portfolios offer us a glimpse into the Bosnian condition. We are introduced to what could be called visual success stories. For example, Muharem’s house in the village of Jajce, in a photograph from 1970, is a simple home with a yard where a saddled horse grazes quietly. In 2003, from the same spot, Horn’s camera records Muharem’s new, bigger house and the six modern cars in front. On the next page, cabbage is piled high at the Jajce weekly market in 1970. Three men in skull caps are loading a horse with newly purchased goods. On the opposite page, in the 2003 version of the weekly market, cabbage is being sold from the backs of several large trucks— although, inexplicably, nobody seems to be buying.
In the text, Horn’s Bosnian friends talk about their economic insecurities, but Horn prefers to stress the positive. The ravages of war are not his primary photographic interest, although the viewer can often see bullet holes in the walls in the background. Horn’s role in Bosnia seems to be that of a healer. In the last paragraph of his introduction, he says, “My photographs had reached their true destination. Not as art, but as stories of life—as testaments to people and places whose identity was threatened.” This attitude allows Horn to travel with a spirit of openness and generosity, bringing his old acquaintances documentation of their own lives. The villagers meet him with the same openness in response. Even though many of the houses in his earlier photographs have been destroyed, the overall appeal of the book lies in those places and people that have survived.
This reviewer made several trips to the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s and saw the devastation caused by the siege of Sarajevo and the Serb-Croatian-Bosnian conflict in Mostar. Horn’s photographs from 2003 eloquently illustrate the rebirth of this region. His side-by-side series is particularly apropos. In two views of the old city in Sarajevo, a watch repair shop in 1970 remains a watch repair shop 33 years later. Two photographs of Mostar show the ancient Ottoman bridge before it was destroyed and the recently rebuilt bridge, an exact replica of the original. Sadly, the Mostar images also illustrate what has been lost since the war. The Orthodox cathedral and the mosques no longer stand. Their absence is a silent reminder of the price of ethnic hatred. Yet Horn’s photographs continually illustrate that life trumps war. His art is in letting the people and the land speak to the camera.
These are not just quiet portraits and contemplative vistas. Many of Horn’s photos are full of the energy of daily life. Night views and images of market days, street scenes and cityscapes are interspersed with candid portraits of people recalling both the grimness of war and the more joyous memories of 30 years past. This volume combines the personal response of survivors with the broad perspective of history. The juxtaposition of the two illustrates that despite the ethnic cleansing, the minefields, the snipers and the United Nations’ horrendous inability to curb the genocide, despite Bosnia’s many losses, the traditional culture of Bosnia’s prewar past remains connected to the restructuring of its still cloudy future.
The longtime college photographer at Amherst, the reviewer now is an assistant professor of photography at Holyoke Community College