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Professor Julian Stallabrass, The Courtauld Institute of Art (University of London) – British Art Historian, Photographer and Curator.
‘Many thanks for sending me your book, which I have really enjoyed looking at. It’s a crucial topic, I think, particularly because the British like to disavow the militarisation of their society. It also makes for a fascinating comparison with Nina Berman’s work on the same topic in the US, where religion plays such a huge part and the class and race configurations are so different.’
Wendy Kozol, Professor of Comparative American Studies, Oberlin College, USA.
‘The Home Front locates British militarism in the English countryside in Melanie Friend’s powerful new photographic exploration of the complicities of citizenship in contemporary warfare. This photographic project visualizes how air shows and other militarized circuits of war exploit the seductiveness of militarized masculinity and a nostalgic reverence for a heroic past. Large-scale, sharply detailed photographs of visitors admiring WWII Lancaster bombers, small boys playing war games and families on holiday watching an air show expose the interconnections between leisure industries and military cultures. Reveries of childhood innocence conjured by children playing in the water set ambivalently against contemporary bombers flying over head reminds the viewer of the ever-present war on terror that too often remains unacknowledged in the everyday lives of most Britons. Melanie Friend’s unsettling juxtapositions of meditative space and the ubiquity of militarization transforms aesthetic traditions of landscape photography and family photography into a deeper contemplation of political subjectivity.’
Blake Fitzpatrick, Professor, The School of Image Arts, Ryerson University, Toronto, Ontario.
‘…Such intelligent images! The work goes a long way to showing the everyday life of war. It’s a very good example of what Paul Virilio calls ‘Pure War.’ That is, war not as assault or the drama of the battlefield but as infinite preparation and a fact of civic culture. I value the work highly.’
Charles Hustwick, Artist and Freelance lecturer at the National Gallery, Tate, and The Wallace Collection, London, UK.
‘This is a fascinating book. It’s really beautiful, despite the overt subject matter, which lends itself well to a dignifying text, and offers critical questions on private/public, the making of militarism into a tourist attraction and so on. But the thing that impressed me most was the essentially photographic qualities of time and place. The subject matter of the passing plane itself draws attention to the accuracy of the captured moment in Time, (and reflected in images such as those taking photographs, sitting reading, shielding their ears in a protective gesture against the noise pollution). And then there is the landscape in which these events occur, the near deserted beach, the gathering storm, the broad vista. Great.’
Robert JC Young, Julius Silver Professor of English and Comparative Literature, New York University.
‘I have just come back to find your book “The Home Front” waiting for me. The photographs and the conception behind them are quite remarkable.’
More comments to follow
Melanie Friend’s photo-based multimedia essay Border Country could not be more timely. As politicos in this country debate what to do with a boatload of refugees from Sri Lanka, Friend examines, with a suite of eerie photographs and a handful of blunt recordings made by refugees in Britain, the calm, institutional brutality of asylum-seeker detention centres – or, as they are rather Dickensianally known in Britain, Immigrant Removal Centres.
Friend never cries shame at the authorities who decide the fate of displaced people, but her photographs are decidedly shame-making. The rooms where migrants are held are lifeless halls, spaces that give only lip service to the value of colour and light. There is no art on the walls, the windows are barred, and the furniture all seems to have come from the same office supply store, in 1977. And the colours Friend does find – in gangrenous-green steel barriers, spoiled-oatmeal-beige carpets, vein-blue upholstery – are at best banal, at worst life-denying.
Intriguingly, the only spaces in which a human presence can be detected (Friend photographed all the spaces empty) are the rooms designated for religious practices. Already housed like criminals, the migrants are further reduced and categorized, turned into mere ethno-cultural signifiers, by bureaucratic misapplications of the tenets of multiculturalism. All the prayer rugs are identical, as if bought in lots.
Border Country is powerful art, and powerful observational journalism. One of the refugees interviewed, “Isaac,” tells Friend that the IRC “took my picture, but I don’t know what they are going to do with it”. It’s a safe bet they won’t be putting it up in the ghastly Tang-orange dining hall.
“Immigration is what a lot of people see as being the most important issue in the country today and what many believe will decide the election in two years’ time. Since 2003, over 25,000 people per year have been held in immigration detention in the UK. In this moving and deeply topical book Melanie Friend shows us the eight centres that are holding immigrants, giving voice to the huge number of people living in detention centres while their future is decided by others.”
John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology, University of Nottingham, UK
This is a superb collection of photographs revealing the banality of the architectures of exclusion. The absence of the very people the spaces are designed to contain speaks of the inhumanity behind fences that serve also to restrict our imaginative connection with those they contain. We, the artist suggests, are contained in turn.
Wendy Kozol, Professor of Comparative American Studies, Oberlin College, Ohio, USA
Amazing work … Border Country raises powerful and urgent questions about how to make visible state-sanctioned violence that is too often kept hidden from public view… Empty rooms with functional furniture eloquently visualize the isolation and anonymity the state attempts to impose on detainees. In contrast, audiotapes of detainees telling their stories hauntingly remind us that beyond the sterile calm are violences done to people’s bodies and souls. Border Country makes urgent the need to visualize human rights abuses yet by not showing us the detainees’ faces, Friend refuses the viewer the easy space of sympathy or pity. In rejecting the conventions of media spectacle, Border Country powerfully exposes state violence without bloodshed or tears.
David Farrier, Lecturer, Department of English Literature, The University of Edinburgh
A fascinating study of the lived experience of asylum detention, and deeply evocative of the kind of necropolitics under which asylum seekers are made to exist.
Matthew Hart, Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, New York
Haunting, disturbing, and endlessly generative.
Gordon MacDonald, Editor, Photoworks
Border Country is a fascinating view into a hidden world not afforded usby the media. Friend has battled bureaucracy to make a work which isartistically accomplished as well as being politically and emotionallycharged.
Donovan Wylie, Magnum Photographers
Anna Fox, Photographer
Fantastic show, wonderful prints and very unsettling
Nic Eadie, Co-ordinator, Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group
The sterile environments of the UK’s detention centres are captured perfectly in the photographs. Perhaps not an easy read, but a powerful and thought-provoking one, showing us places where cameras are not usually allowed to go, and so are left unseen, and indeed unknown, by the majority of the public.
“[…]Friend, a photojournalist who has covered the Balkans since 1989, brings insight and perspective to this photographic chronicle of the Albanians of Kosovo. She records the calm and quiet of life for Kosovars before ethnic Albanians’ autonomy was revoked, the violence of massacres and displacement in refugee camps in Macedonia, and the return to face the destruction of homes, churches, and schools. The photos include massacre sites, bereaved survivors, and people photographed holding onto photos of lost loved ones. Friend provides context for the accompanying photos but uses interviews with Kosovars speaking in their own words to convey the fear, anger, anxiety, and uncertainty of people whose lives are disrupted by ethnic conflicts. The photos, including a classical singer posing in a camp wearing an evening gown, and the interviews give poignant testimony to the hardship of civil war and the continued strife of an area torn by social and political instability.”
On Friday, April 5, the Albanian American Women’s Organization “Motrat Qiriazi” hosted an evening with Melanie Friend, the author of a new book, “No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo.” The presentation, by the BBC photojournalist was the second among a series of workshops organized by “Motrat Qiriazi.” The presentation was held at Pace University, with the help of Dr. David Abdul, and Bekim Tajilaj, the president of the University’s Albanian American Students’ Organization.
Melanie Friend is a unique photojournalist who has been taking pictures of Kosova since 1989. Her book encompasses 75 color portraits and 60 interviews of residents in the Kosova and Macedonia region. The story begins in the earlier stages of the conflict in the 1990s, when the torture was not so evident, and often hidden by the Serbs. Her pictures are far from stereotypical bloody war photographs. Instead, they are images of pristine houses, traditional Albanian living rooms, and lush gardens in remote Balkan hillsides, villages and refugee camps. The pictures of refugees are almost studio like – the subjects pose and look confident, as though they are ready to face anything that comes to them.
“It was really to shock the audience in England, to shock people out of a certain complacency that can come out of black and white photojournalism, so that’s partly what this was about. It was to get an English audience to think ‘oh’ this could be my garden, my home, and to get people to empathize more to what happens, “said humbly the British photojournalist, who has formed an allegiance to the Balkans, since her first visit 14 years ago.
Each photograph comes with compelling statements of the people who experienced hardships in the place shown. The statement is a complete paradox to Friend’s peaceful, immaculate image, but enhances the personal, human factor in her work. Her photographs provide an extraordinary insight into Kosova’ turbulent history through the eyes of ordinary people, the people who witnessed the worst cruelties inflicted upon them. Kosova’s ethnic communities come together to tell their stories of suffering, resistance, intolerance and comradeship against the backdrop of a hostile regime. It helps one understand how communal hatred and savagery can break out of the most peaceful field, the most lovely home, and what happens after it does…
According to GRANTA magazine, “The power of her book doesn’t come from obviously shocking pictures; the shock is the realization that these suddenly -changed and cancelled lives were once so like our own.”
Friend presents a paradoxical picture, which includes the mystifying juxtaposition between the real and the remembered, the perceived and the actual. She puts photography under the microscope by stretching its role, from a witness to a historian.
Friend’s reason for being so closely drawn to a region she had no previous relationship with is that she was compelled by the injustices that were taking place.
“As a journalist, I was in a privileged place because I had access to people I would normally never meet. As a photographer I had a role to inform and let the people of the world know what happened, but not without the accompanied testimonies of the people,” said Friend.
“There’s a big difference between hearing and seeing and there was a big contrast between what I was hearing and seeing” said Melanie, while describing another slide to her attentive audience.
One of the audience, Tirana-born Emon Maci said, “After seeing this, I recall a lot of things and it’s emotional”.
On her presentation, Valdete Zalli poignantly said, “It just reminded me of what I saw there, it’s very hard, it’s very true. It’s describing our country. It reminds me of my real home.” According to Friend the reception to this distinctive book has been “fantastic”. She said, “I’m amazed at it, particularly since it’s been three years after the war – the response has been overwhelming.”
“Those who study world conflicts from afar tend to portray both the perpetrators and their victims through a series of politically correct phrases, often masking just what years of oppression, ethnic cleansing, and nationalistic intolerance (to name just a few terms often used to describe Kosovo) mean for the common people who must bear the consequences. This remarkable collection reveals how easy it is for those in power to manipulate the feeling of nationalism and systematically create an environment in which brutality becomes part of life. Friend, a British photographer who has covered Kosovo’s political turmoil since 1989, has collected some 50 interviews that she conducted with Albanian refugees in neighboring Macedonia after the conflict culminated in early 1999. The compelling and often disturbing photographs that accompany them serve not only to document the actual experiences of Kosovo’s inhabitants but to help us understand why the region must remain multiethnic for the good of all. Finally Friend acknowledges the difficulty faced by the international community in its attempt to bring peace to the region. Highly recommended for all interested in international conflicts”.
‘Death is closer than the shirt you are wearing.’
This phrase lingers in my consciousness as I close the book in which it is written. On this fragile morning marked with new threats of terrorist attacks on the Bay and Golden Gate bridges, I place that book on a small stack of others that I’ve recently read, and I choose a new one from a larger, unread pile. I am determined to read text that does not include “anthrax” in every other sentence, poems that don’t care about Cipro.
The new book, a novel, proves engaging, but text from the nonfiction I’ve just finished reading whispers in the background.
“We woke up to the sound of tanks.”
We were surrounded by snipers, and I saw a 17-year-old girl shot dead.”
“I cry constantly; I can’t find myself in myself.”
I retrieve the book I’ve just placed on the already-read pile: “No Place Like home – Echoes from Kosovo”, written and photographed by Melanie Friend (Midnight Editions, 2001). This time I just flip through its pages, revisiting the photographs it contains portraits of survivors who offer oral histories of Kosovo’s recent bloody wars:
Albanian Kosovar women who are suddenly ejected from the ordinariness of their homes and gardens into the squalor and chaos of a Macedonian refugee camp. Two Albanian children who have befriended each other in the camp and become inseparable survivors of the grisly trauma they suffered in their native Kosovo. An elderly man who proudly refuses to remove his traditional Albanian hat, despite beatings by Serbian police.
The oral histories in the book include descriptions of massacres and torture in the everyday language of the ordinary people who suffered them. They overpower the usual clinical accounts from newspaper and television reports to tell an insistently human history of war. In this book, the dead, the missing, the maimed, and the surviving are all fathers and mothers and brothers and sisters and partners and friends, and their stories are grounded in the particularities of their daily trials.
“I saw the Serbs burn one house at midnight, with the mother, father, and three children still inside.”
“I had to hide in sewers… on a narrow ledge for hours, right above the sewage, wearing medical masks to block out the terrible smell and the germs.”
“We watch every single new program… I take tranquilizers regularly, but each time a mass grave is opened, I can’t sleep and I can’t eat for a week I am so afraid we will find him.”
“We were on the move for a year… constantly moving from village to village. From the hillside, we saw Serbian soldiers and police loot our home and burn it down… all we could save was ourselves.”
In reading the testimonies in this book from Kosovo Albanians and as well as those from Kosovo’s minorities-Roma, Serbs, Turks, Goranis, Ashkalia, Bosniaks – we hear of shared longings for peace and freedom and family and home. But these common desires are undermined by common tendencies towards ethnic intolerance and hostilities that are much older than any Kosovar resident’s living memory. And in examining the stories of these ordinary people whose lives were made extraordinarily nightmarish by sudden instabilities in chronic ethnic tensions, we hear a familiar refrain as an increasingly proximate disturbance: How could this happen to me?
I am compelled to write of this extraordinary book because of its power to humanize words like “casualties” and “collateral damage” -technical terms that sterilize the bloody, fleshy facts of human lives burned, shot, tortured, butchered, starved to death in war.
In the current American war with the Taliban, it is necessary to be reminded of the fireman’s crushed body, the night janitor’s burned torso, the Afghani mother whose leg exploded over the land mine, the rape of a young Serbian girl, the names of the bodies one by one.
The author’s photographs of the Kosovar survivors haunt. Ms Friend, a British photojournalist who has covered the Balkans since 1989, explains that she was unable to photograph “nameless people crying as they streamed across the border on tractors, as in so many newspaper images I had seen… I could not bring myself to take them”. Instead, Friend took studio style portraits of individuals over time while listening to their stories. The effect is one of depth behind the plane of the photograph, of time and experience expanded beyond a heightened moment of grief or terror caught by a wartime snapshot.
In these photographs, we are made to feel how layers of individual human narratives are embedded in the universal conflicts stretched across time and place. Each profiled person stares from the page in a manner that unsettles and that implicates the viewer as a witness to what has happened.
The stories and portraits in this book break through the distance of “foreign” war correspondence. In a timely and necessary way, they remind us, one damaged and tortured life after another, how individual human histories are uniqualy lived or lost to wars. And how someone continues to live – to wash the sink, make tea, till the garden and fix the roof-when death is closer than the shirt one wears.
It was the fear that returned, the acrid sweaty memory of being a woman in a country controlled by armed men. It was the same body reflex, the clutch of breath felt every time I approached a Kosovo checkpoint where my being a foreign journalist was no protection and an immediate danger to the Albanians in the car begging me to stay silent. It was a plunge again into an arbitrary world where arrests, beatings, death waited around every unpredictable corner and menace was as constant as the military planes skimming the tops of buildings.
Melanie Friend’s remarkable book time-machined me back to the Balkans, where we both worked as journalists before the world was paying attention. Following separate paths, we arrived shortly after the autonomy of Kosovo had been revoked by the Serb-dominated Yugoslav government. A military occupation and pattern of apartheid were being imposed by Belgrade’s ethnic nationalists. Describing her 1989 trip in the book’s introduction, the British journalist writes of the widespread unease of the Muslim Albanians and her own arrest after photographing three women selling vegetables.
She returned often over the next twelve years to interview and photograph Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Turks and Roma. But she rarely took her camera out while on the street and avoided having her film taken again.
I wasn’t as lucky. Police grabbed my tapes and notebooks when I was out of my hotel room. Two days later, they snuck into my empty room and put the material back. I laughed at the strange code of courtesy, but remained angry at being treated like a bug under some unknown maniac’s microscope.
The worst part is I became corrupted. My humanity, my trust, disappeared in a distorted perception that saw everyone as an enemy. How did the receptionist know I was a journalist when I never told her? Who were these hulking men in imitation leather jackets always hanging out in the hotel lobby? Spontaneity, warmth, curiosity stopped being the way I related to strangers. I built my own wall cutting me off from the world.
There is another difficulty. It is the essential problem of trying to cover events that police don’t want covered, that take place in cordoned-off villages or in the middle of the night. There are people too terrified to have their pictures taken. As a photographer, Friend faces uniquely hard questions. How can you document the invisible? How can you visually represent fear and repression?
These external limitations shape her answer and make it more creative and original. She plays tranquil images of homes or people against their words, describing the distintegration of relationships between neighbors, the small survival gestures used to maintain human dignity, and yes, some of the horror. It is the contrast between the beauty of the Vermeer-lit color shots and the desperation of the lives that gives the photo essay a unique tension. The understatement creates the book’s power and poignancy. Instead of doing grisly photos, she rescues ordinary people from the abstraction of war and traces the particulars of their lives from the tearing down in the prewar years through the refugee camps to the rebuilding on return.
It was simpler for me, working with words, to document the invisible. As early as 1991, I was operating on time=delay, arriving at homes after the events, seeing only the scars from the beatings, purple and ugly, beneath scrunched green T-shirts. Dr. Flora Brovina took me along when seeing patients in villages, regaling me during the drive with tales of Albanian women warriors, and detouring to a meeting of traditional wives in head scarves whose first question to me was, “when is America going to send us guns?”.
Brovina helped set up an underground medical network when Albanian doctors were fired from the hospitals. It was part of a whole parallel structure that included an unofficially elected president of a phantom Kosovo Republic. There were social services that brought oil, flour, and sugar to formerly proud miners fired for striking against the takeover of Kosovo. Illegal Albanian schools began operating in restaurants and half-built houses after a Serb-centred curriculum was imposed on the public system.
Friend includes a photo of one of these empty classrooms in her book. It’s a study in light and being, from the pine yellow of the boards that serve as benches to the orange tinge of the paper protecting the windows from the eyes of the police. Beneath it are the words of a student saying “We have a lot of problems on our way to school […]. But we carry on. […] We have to study and not be assimilated.”
The Albanians’ desire to preserve their identity as much as their lives is visible again in a seven-by-seven photo of a ramrod-straight old man dressed in a white skull cap. In the accompanying page of text, he says: “The Serbian police used to say, ‘What do you need this hat for?'[…] It’s our traditional Albanian hat, and the Serbs don’t like it. […] They wanted to throw it in the fields. I was hit by the Serbian police four or five times because of my hat. They can kill me, but I won’t take my hat off”.
Explaining her method, Friend says, “I looked for people I could engage with – a spark in the eye, an intensity. This came first, then the talking, and finally the photograph”.
It’s only this intimate way of working that could produce the shot of a singer standing in front of a refugee tent wearing a slinky black dress just bought to make herself feel better. This same attention to the particular lets Friend notice that the Albanians in the camp have a “main street” where they recreate the korzo, the evening stroll and a civilized life.
Like Friend, I had little desire to depict anonymous bodies bleeding and dropping into the irrational mud of war. In this book, even during the military campaign, people aren’t turned into objects. Instead, the individual dramas are dug out of memory. A Turkish woman recalls the instant when Serb paramilitaries burst into her yard and she recognized them as neighbors. She noticed the nervous sweat on the soldiers. She grabbed the chin of one, saying, “Why are you doing this to me? Don’t you know me?” His response was that of a sulky adolescent. “Of course I know you! You were my teacher, but we’ve been ordered to do this”.
His answer is incomplete. What I often heard from Serb villagers was, “We were ordered to do this or we would be killed, too”. It was part of the pattern whenever Belgrade-based paramilitary groups like the Tigers came into a region. That isn’t to say some villagers didn’t willingly get rid of non-Serbs. The nationalist propaganda that intensified in 1989 twisted many into hatred.
The land the Serbs were taking they justified by myth. It was based on ancient ballads that say Kosovo has belonged to Serbia since the Middle Ages. But they left reality out of their oral tradition. The ballads make no mention of the Ottoman Turks who controlled Kosovo for 500 years, or of the fact that the Serbs’ sovereignty in Kosovo was not established until 1912, and was lost again to Albania during World War II.
History in this region is a shape-shifter. As Friend says, “I would sometimes feel schizophrenic after spending the morning with a Kosovo Serb and the afternoon with a Kosovo Albanian – listening to entirely different versions of history”. It happens because ancient legends and contemporary media are ethnically separate and erased of other people’s truths. Now, Friend shows, some deny, even to themselves, the wrongs done by their side. There are others like the relaxed young woman in a cafe who speaks of the postwar revenge of her own against the Serbs and says simply, “I felt ashamed to be Albanian”.
Friend doesn’t begin contacting Serbs until later. It’s a loss for the book. Earlier conversations could have revealed how ordinary people got pressured by thugs or suckered by politicians into the blood and soil insanity of ethnic nationalism.
Once she begins engaging the Serbs, she treats them with the same respect she shows the Albanians. In many ways, these longer interviews done in 2000 are a mirror image of the earlier ones. Only it’s the Serbs living in constant fear, refusing to risk being photographed, fleeing Kosovo, or living like inmates in a prison surrounded by KFOR, the U.N. peacekeeping troops. “We never go into our garden unless KFOR is here”, says a woman in her seventies. “Our three Serb neighbors have left. […] Every day we live in this terrible silence”.
To get to remote homes, Friend hitches rides with KFOR troops through the deserted countryside and is vulnerable to abuse as a woman. That possibility is part of the calculations of all female journalists working in a chaotic situation, but is usually not enough to stop us. So Friend manages to collect idiosyncratic voices of people grappling with the absence where their loved ones should be, the acceptance or avoidance of responsibility for things done to others, the decisions about their own future and Kosovo’s. She captures the confusion of people in different ethnic groups who once were friends, and who, immediately after the war, can’t figure out what their relationship should be.
One of the oddest bonds is between a leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and Serbs who fled. As the KLA man says of his former neighbors, “One rings me from Belgrade. He cries and weeps for Kosovo. He asks, ‘Do you think we can ever come back?’ And I say, ‘We’re working on it’, to make him feel better. But as long as this generation is alive, Serbs and Albanians cannot live together”. An older Albanian disagrees, recalling the eruptions of ethnic cleansing carried out by Serb nationalists since 1878. He says, “There have been many wars between us, and both before the wars and after we would sit together and eat together”.
Friend’s sensitive response to all these traumatized people is seen in the photographs she took of the guardians, the safekeepers of memory. In one haunting picture, a woman with her back to the camera plods up hill through autumn foliage to the site of a massacre. The special stillness of the composition makes clear why Friend’s work was shown at the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Hasselblad Centre in Sweden.
The book itself is a movable museum. Its fragments cohere into a complex exhibit of individuals overwhelmed by a wave of history.
“No Place Like Home: Echoes From Kosovo lends the concept of collateral damage startling specificity.”
‘I believe that until I am dead, I will never forget. This memory will never come out of my brain.’
These are the words of Shefqet Avdia, a Kosova (sic) Albanian, who witnessed the massacre at Recak. It was a pivotal event in the Kosovo crisis. When Slobodan Milosevic was indicted for war crimes, it was cited. Shefqet Avdia, however, is left to contend with his memory: the hearts and eyes of the dead cut out with a knife, and laid upon their bodies.
The subject of No Place Like Home and Tour of Duty is war: in Kosovo and East Timor, respectively. However, although Melanie Friend and Matthew Sleeth photograph war-zones, I would hesitate to call either of them war-photographers. Friend and Sleeth, it seems, are not in the business of providing immediate and potentially-iconic images that stand alone as monuments to the evils of humanity, and the corresponding efforts to overcome them. Rather, they are concerned with providing a commentary on conflict and the manner in which it is reported; a visual and textual critique which – however incomplete and deliberately unresolved – is about something other than the searing, single image. As Friend acknowledges in her introduction, ‘I wanted to try a different strategy from straightforward photojournalism.’ She does not show us corpses at Recak. She photographs a dry, stony, up-hill path.
Thus, in opposition to Robert Capa’s famous dictum that ‘if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough’, Friend and Sleeth have deliberately stepped back from the action. Rather than elbowing their way into the spotlight of war’s ‘theatre’, they prefer to work behind the scenes.
Sleeth’s target is the Australian propaganda machine that ‘carefully orchestrated and milked for every patriotic possibility’ the country’s leading role in the International Force for East Timor (InterFET), following East Timor’s ballot for Independence from Indonesia in 1999. The disparate collection of photographs acts as a metaphor for the medley of outsiders and corresponding paraphernalia that ‘invaded’ East Timor in a bid to provide humanitarian support. We are shown Kylie Minogue wielding a gun, and Santa Calsu working the crowd: crass and loud. But there are images which become extremely troubling in the noisy context of the Australian army at rest and at play. Bleached bones, barbed wire, a small boy who looks terrified by the toys and goodwill being urgently pressed upon him.
Friend’s photographs are quieter and stiller. She attempts to reveal the humanity of those trapped in inhumane circumstances as a result of conflict between the Serbs and the Albanians in Kosovo. The book comprises seven sequences of photographs made over a decade: people’s homes, people’s possessions, the pain of memory inscribed in people’s faces. Massacre sites are documented, and the testaments of those she interviewed are transcribed. In both books, then, combative action is not the focus, even though the horrors of war haunt the images.
Sleeth’s photographs are bold and arresting and, as the sub-title of his book suggest, infused with irony. Irony is cruel. It is disturbing to discover that the generic redeemer-soldier entrusted with the job of ‘winning hearts and minds’ is a young lad with a fascistic tattoo prone to scrawling crass, sexually-explicit graffiti across the cellophane packaging of a Barbie doll. But the most important, recurring element in Sleeth’s sequence of brightly coloured, strangely-seen photographs, is the omnipresence of the media, signified by microphones, cameras and sound equipment which intrude upon the scene. Real life created for television. It starts to feel like we’re all conspiring in a military version of The Truman Show.
At the back of Tour of Duty are four meditations on war, photography and the media, written by Paul James. They are engaging fragments of a larger discourse: like snapshots. Nevertheless, I found myself scouring his text for precisely that which the photographs do not (cannot) provide: a concise chronology of the political and military manoeuvring in East Timor. Thus, while the editorial tactic of presenting a series of full-page, full-colour photographs uninterrupted by text is powerful, if not original (thumbnail images with captions are provided at the back), it remains difficult for the uninitiated to grasp the circumstances which culminated in the documented events. While ‘the photographs challenge any sense that the official story about East Timor is sustainable’, Tour of Duty tends to privilege an Australian audience.
No Place Like Home is an impressive piece of work. It provides a clear explanation of the political context in which Friend’s photographs were made, as well as a glossary of terms and abbreviations. Friend is careful to state her intentions, and to elucidate the methods she used to achieve them. She asks the question: ‘How could you visually represent fear and repression in picturesque villages where roadblocks and surveillance of foreigners’ movements made it impossible to witness such events?’ Friend’s solution to the problem was to talk to people. She would arrange several meetings (often with an interpreter), and she would take a picture. As ‘the situation’ escalated, she continued to meet with Albanians, Serbs, Roma and Turks. While most of the people she engaged with were Kosova Albanians, Friend (like Sleeth) is keen to emphasise the plurality of accounts, the differing versions of history. She does not attempt to correct discrepancies. Instead, she concludes that ‘what is important is what the interviewees themselves believe.’
Friend’s photographs are thoughtful and handsome, like the people that she depicts. The domestic interiors and back gardens are beautifully composed. The portraits never deprive the subject of his or her dignity, despite the desperate conditions in which they might be taken. While a transcribed conversation or statement accompanies each portrait, the words of those who wished to remain anonymous are juxtaposed with a different kind of picture: a view from a window; a still-life with coffee cup, glass, and cigarette burning in the ash-tray.
Bombardment is a characteristic of war. In the West, we are bombarded with news bulletins, and newspaper pictures. The reports are brief, the images throw-away. The importance of books like Friend’s and Sleeth’s are that they endure as evidence, long after the majority of us has forgotten who was fighting whom.
Melanie Friend’s new book, No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo, is a uniquely intelligent view of the effect of the war in Kosovo. We often see in newspapers the bloody aftermath, or the riots that occur before and during wards, but very rarely do we see the calm that the war leaves behind.
The pictures in this book are very clever. At first sight the portraits look like people who have lost relatives in the war, but the accompanying text reveals a more sinister story to the images. The front cover (shown here) is a photograph of Lutfije Plana, aged 26, and her niece, aged 4. Both are now homeless because of the war.
As well as the people of Kosovo, the book also includes pictures of landscapes and buildings, all shown in colour. Some of its images fool the reader. There are photographs of beautiful gardens and landscapes that are undermined by the text: their beauty is ruined by the truth that the scenes either no longer exist or were the sites of atrocities. The people in the chapters have their own stories to tell; they are grandmothers, fathers, children, young and old. All have been affected. There are no discriminations. All suffer.
The book is divided in chapters, and the stories that are told are sometimes heart-breaking; stories of camps and torture, and loss of family members – some only children. The effect is to make the reader question how mankind can still make the same mistakes as were made in WWII?
In the news currently, Slobodan Milosevic is being tried for crimes against humanity, and this book reinforces the horror of what has happened. It tells the story to Western society, and forces itself in to the reader’s mind to compel the thought that what we have in the West should never be taken for granted. Is it right that here in Britain we often turn a blind eye to the agonies that are endured across Europe?
Melanie Friend’s book makes the reader think a lot about Western society, as rich as it is, and how it treats its fellow man. Is it time for change?
“At a time when Afghanistan dominates the media and our thoughts, it is easy to forget the human tragedy that still besets Kosovo. Melanie Friend is a BBC radio journalist who has used her great skill as a photographer and interviewer to tell the story of the repression and war in Kosovo through the poignant individual accounts of ordinary Albanians and Serbs. The beautifully produced photographs and text are a chilling reminder of how people in our civilised continent turned on their neighbours through ethnic prejudice, fear and greed. Indeed for me, it is fear and sorrow that emerge as the strongest sentiments from this remarkable book.”
“[…] Melanie Friend’s No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo (Cleis/Midnight Editions) brings stark and simple, bright colour portraits from the refugee camps of Macedonia, set against the testimonies of survivors – the late-night knock from the soldiers, the precious clutched family photographs, the jewellery buried in flowerbeds against the hope of return, the mourning of exiles. This moving book documents ordinary people in extraordinary times.”
“[…] Melanie Friend’s No Place like Home: Echoes from Kosovo (Cleis/Midnight) is a hauntingly evocative homage to the people the photographer lived and worked with under the Milosevic regime”
Between 1994 and 2001 photographer Melanie Friend made several visits to Kosovo, photographing and interviewing the same people. Their contexts changed of course: a refugee camp on the Macedonian border in 1999, for example, gave way to a ruined house within UN-controlled Pristina a year later. In the case of one refugee woman and her daughter, home became a British seaside town.
In a province awash with photojournalists, Friend consciously decided not to take pictures of ‘nameless people crying as they streamed across the border on tractors; – although, she acknowledges, such images were ‘necessary’. Instead she decided to ‘work slowly, taking studio-style portraits of individuals, spending time with them over several visits, and listening to their stories – if they wished to tell them’. Nor did she seek out sensationalist stories or ‘worst’ experiences but ‘people I could engage with – a spark in the eyes, an intensity’. The result – No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo (Midnight Editions, ISBN 1 57344 119 8) – is a work that conveys humanity and dignity in adversity, reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s classic portraits from the US Great Depression.
Often Friend does not picture people at all but places – and spaces – where something has happened, something has been taken away: the living room where a police raid occurred, the hillside above the village where a massacre took place.
While focusing on the spaces, Friend paradoxically also fills the gaps, both political and emotional, left by conventional news reporting. By going back to her subjects she can trace the changes in not only their lives but their thinking, creating a sense of intimacy and continuity, true to life but not hard news.
There is here, nevertheless, a journalistically wide range of viewpoints, from militant hardliners to pacifists, not to mention a broad spectrum of Kosovans: Ethnic Albanians, Serbs, Roma, Turks, Bosniaks, Ashkalis.
If this is photojournalism, Friend has taken it into a thoughtful, slower, deeper place, with text that is as moving and relevant as image.
…] No Place like Home: Echoes from Kosovo is a journey into the lives of people who have been the unwilling witnesses of war, caught up in a complex political situation, forced to flee their homes – and who dream, someday, of returning to normal life. The reality, however, is bleak as this book reveals through the stories, testimonies and portraits of the individuals who contributed to it.
But No Place Like Home is not about hopelessness; it is a portrait of human resilience, of people looking to re-build their lives in conditions many of us could never imagine finding ourselves. It is a testament not only to the survivors, but also to the integrity of the photojournalist and author, Melanie Friend, who has been travelling to the Balkans for over a decade, to record the events leading up to the war and the tensions which still pervade in the region.
The photographs record the obvious atrocities of war, displacement and loss, but they also focus on the stillness, emptiness and silence which precede and follow unthinkable violence.
In the first section: ‘Homes and Gardens, Documenting the Invisible’, we are shown rooms and gardens where police raids had taken place. An integral part of the process involved the photographer taping interviews with the inhabitants of those rooms and gardens. In the chapters that follow studio-style portraits of refugees temporarily accommodated in camps in neighbouring Macedonia show the harsh conditions they endure, and their strength and spirit. The objects or photographs that they took with them serve as a reminder of former lives or the cultural symbols many refused to relinquish to the perpetrators: ‘I kept my hat from Kosovo[…] It’s our traditional Albanian hat[…] I was hit four or five times [by Serbian police] because of my hat. They can kill me, but I won’t take my hat off’.
Melanie Friend returned to Kosovo/a seeking out the refugees she had photographed in the camps after their return, re-interviewing and photographing, visiting massacre sites and recording new interviews with Roma, Serbs, Turks and other minorities.
No Place Like Home is a remarkable book, often painful to read. The photographs are shocking, thought-provoking and tender; the text provides an understanding of the political situation in Kosovo/a, but also acts as a cultural interpreter for the voices of the people who found their lives unequivocally changed by war.
‘No Place Like Home: Echoes from Kosovo’ is a powerful book of photos and personal accounts of the war in Kosovo, as seen through the eyes of ordinary Albanians, Serbs, Roma and Turks affected by the conflict. Photojournalist Melanie Friend has taken time to meet the people behind the news stories (pictured below), and to stick around after the rest of the press pack have moved on.
British free-lance photographer and sometime BBC radio reporter Melanie Friend has been visiting the Balkans since 1989. The region that gripped her at once, well before it began to make headlines, was Kosovo, whose autonomy was revoked by the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic that same year. Friend became familiar first-hand with the tactics of the Serbian police, who rapidly spread fear through the predominantly non-Serbian, Albanian Muslim population. As a result, her visits were generally brief and a bit clandestine, always subject to film confiscations and surveillance that put anyone who helped her potentially at risk (yet she won the confidence of many who went out of their way to help her).[…] She faced a dilemma that photography, dependent as it is on that which can be seen, is poorly suited to address: How do you photograph something that, within the bounds of reasonable safety, you cannot witness? Abductions took place quickly and at night over a geographically diffuse area, and there was no possibility of photographing in Serbian jails. Beatings and searches were random, and although certain areas would be closed off by the police -strong evidence that violence of some kind was being perpetrated- these events were carefully orchestrated to take place out of sight of anyone who might document it. Deprived at every turn of what journalists call “access”, she was unable to extract the kind of familiar, shock-based images of conflict, which usually depend upon the juxtaposition of signs connoting the conflicting parties, that are the daily grist of war photography. Nor was there much visual evidence that could give her material for post facto images: scars, burned homes, bodies and so on. She found a society characterized by fear, and the imminent threat that once the Serbian military forces were finished in Bosnia, they would turn to the expulsion of non-Serbs in Kosovo – a fear that was to prove justified. But for Friend, the question remained: How does one photograph such a state of affairs? And given the humanitarian urgency of the situation, how does one do so in a way that can interrupt the visual monologue of news images and generate some measure of outrage to stop an atrocity? She was certainly not the first photographer to face this question, but her response to it was one of the most imaginative and thought-provoking I have seen. […] What gives the show its subtle, ominous power is the viewer’s knowledge that these photographs are not at all what they seem: These are crime scenes. The absence of the literal representation of the violent act or anything – or anybody – relating to its immediate consequences, the depiction of which virtually defines war photography, throws all that violence back onto the viewer’s imagination. This is of course far more fertile ground.
Melanie Friend began her documentation of Kosovo in the late 1980s as a photojournalist wishing to record evidence of a terror. She quickly realised that this particular conflict, the oppression of the Albanian population of Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia, was beyond a traditional photojournalism. Over the last six years, she has developed a complex photographic strategy to defeat the inadequacies of the visual. Homes and Gardens is not simply a statement about the politics of oppression, but also a timely thesis about photography’s ever contentious and constrained role as a commentator of the social condition. By producing an artwork, calm, still and reflective, Friend has abandoned the arena and the infrastructure of photojournalism which, as she writes in the exhibition catalogue, requires ‘images of death’ which must compete with ‘other civil wars on foreign news pages’.
Small photographs of ordinary Albanian homes, a neat sofa, some family photos on the walls, potted plants in customised plastic containers and household buckets. These photographs show everything in order, domestic spaces waiting to be inhabited. A plastic bucket holds a family’s washing and a tree casts a shadow over a lawn which could be in Surrey. There are some clues about the location – seventies plastic lamp shades, posters in the heroic style, the curving pantiles and ochre walls which signify the south of Europe; but otherwise, we could be anywhere. Patiently, and in great detail, Melanie Friend ties these rooms and the gardens to the horror of ethnic cleansing. Over the neat and tidy interiors she layers revelations and testimony. In each of these peaceful places, something terrible has occurred, a beating of an old man by armed police, an unofficial and illegal school where the children fall silent at the arrival of the militia.
Homes and Gardens speaks eloquently of photography’s multiple powers and applications. It is a piece of work made for a gallery, and not simply transplanted to one. It blurs the irritating and artificial space between work which is judged to be about ‘issues’ and work which is seen to be about ‘ideas’. Successful art works have, of course, to be involved with both. Friend’s series confounds that old division between social documentary and ‘art’ photography. Homes and Gardens feels like an art exhibition, but the voices of Albanians describing their ordeals overlay the quiescent act of looking and inject a potent social commentary. Melanie Friend has constructed a series of minute monuments, testaments to memory, to the incongruity between place and event. Like other notable artists who have reworked war photography (*notably Deborah Bright in her panoramic pieces ‘Battlefields Revisited’ and Masumi Hayashi in her photomontages of the sites of abandoned World War Two Japanese American internment camps), Melanie Friend presents us with the perplexing juxtaposition between the real and the remembered, the perceived and the actual and has yet again engaged us in the continuing debate around photography’s status as witness and historian.
In her show at Camerawork last July, Melanie Friend used the ambience of the domestic living room and garden to critique the mass media’s use of ‘horror photography’ in reporting socio-political turbulence and distress in Kosovo. Photographs of Kosovar homes and gardens, almost consistently empty, were displayed whilst the audio recordings of Kosovars recounting tales of beatings and abuse at the hands of the Serbian police were played. The surface tranquillity and sanctuary of these photographs belies the shocking disclosures of the interviewees. These settings, for all their familiar signs of domesticity, are also the sites of horrific deeds committed against their inhabitants by the Serbian authorities in their struggle to purge Kosovo of its ethnically Albanian majority. The contradiction between the harmless look of these photographs and their potential, in tandum with verbal statements, to mediate malevolence introduces the notion of deception into the belly of the exhibition. But it should be noted that the settings, taken in isolation, are not entirely neutral: on closer examination of the rooms’ contents the politicised nature of the private domain is revealed. Collages conflating family portraits with the Albanian national flag reoccur across the various living room walls, hung high up amongst memorabilia of the dead, art works and calendars effecting the total fusion of domesticity and politics, comfort and violent physical abuse.
The surface normality of the images reflect the covert nature of the Serbian violation of human rights in Kosovo and respond to the tight restrictions imposed upon foreign journalists by the Serbs in their effort to shield abuses from view. But this self-same ‘invisibility’ also provided the impetus for Friend to reassess the conventions of ‘horror photography’ and its abrasive but often ineffective approach to the manufacture of sympathy and identification on the part of the viewer. As Friend explains, ‘If there is “nothing new” “happening” then the photo-journalist is sometimes made to feel there is nothing worth communicating. Particularly if there are few images of death and there is competition for space with other civil wars on the foreign news pages […] But with Kosovo, the situation simmers. There are few bodies, people are beaten up in their homes or in police stations and Albanian youth leave by bus with suitcases. The images are different.’ The absence of explicit scenes of violence and suffering forces the outside observer to rely upon victims’ spoken testaments – the media’s disinclination to rely upon such accounts without the visual back-up of the authenticating photograph led Friend to confront the media’s predilection for employing the spectacle of suffering and the public’s resultant indifference to these forms of horror.
The seeming tranquillity of the images can also be understood as a commentary on the relative silence in the international press over the potentially explosive nature of the situation in Kosova. There is a general unwillingness to confront the Dayton Agreement’s failure to provide the hugely discontented Kosovar Albanian population with political self-representation. A failure that could potentially destabilise the Serbian-Albanian border and by extension embroil the greater powers of Greece and Turkey into the conflict. The deceptive ‘normality’ of these spaces provides an analogue to the determination to regard the Balkan conflict as a closed chapter and smooth over the racial and political discontent brewing under the surface of co-operative action and political pacts.
‘Homes and Gardens’ provokes many questions but for me one of the most important is this; in subverting the devices of ‘horror photography’ is something more than the self-reflexive critique of photo-journalistic conventions advanced? In other words, by seeking an alternative means of communicating human suffering to an external audience does Friend properly deconstruct the victim/witness paradigm? The uncomfortable proximity between our consumption of these horror stories, their gratification of our fascination with the extremities of human experience and their role in inducing sympathy and activism remains intact. Friend seeks to renew the acuteness of our encounter and force us to reconsider the jaded forms of photojournalism without disrupting the inherent assumptions that lurk behind the paradigm. Does a deepening of our ability to identify with the victims through the ‘normality’ of these representations ultimately provoke an alteration in our response or rather reaffirm its premise? A heightening of sympathy is suspiciously implicated in the deepening of feelings of impotence in the face of recurrent ethnic rivalry and hatred. Nonetheless, if Friend cannot extricate us from this cycle of response through her deployment of self-reflexivity she certainly provides us with a mirror for our ingrained self-defensive apathy – the comforts of our own domestic environment emerge as equally deceptive in their provision of a retreat from the eye-sores of distant wars and human suffering.