Mortar Shells and Cigarettes

Winding through the streets of Sarajevo, I am a voyeur.  Sarajevo is a city of layers, and with the discovery of each comes a deeper understanding.  As I dug deeper into basements where it is heard that your hair turns gray overnight, I began to know the city just a bit more.  I progressively mapped which bars stayed open just a little later than the last.  Gradually going from one place to the next until the first shop opened again at 5am, I avoiding having to hail a taxi during the unoperating hours of the tram and not go home just yet.  If I were to live in Sarajevo again, I would live life between 8pm and 10am.  That is when the city is the most alive.  Maybe it is because they have gotten used to the darkness of living underground and forgot how to live in the light.  By being awake through night, maybe then I would know what it is like to live in darkness.

With each day spent, new layers uncover and they only get more complex to understand.  There aren’t just cut layers of 1, 2, and 3. Within each number lies A to Z as well.  The sorting of war is even more complex: hearing stories and then their counterparts.  The contrasting sides between Bosnians and Serbs, Serbs and Croats, Croats and Bosnians, and any other combination of the two or three and then again amongst themselves.  There are no heroes, only mass graves and eventual borders drawn as clearly as enemy lines.  Snipers retreat from their posts as refugees return and the craters in the ground are filled with red cement and called “Sarajevo Roses” (as if they should be sweet memories).  These crass reminders become overlooked like the holes from shrapnel in the buildings.  And yet, still, no one is right and no one is wrong.

I went to Bosnia to photograph what it was like 15 years after the war had ended.  I had imagined it to be heavy, but not as complex as it was.  At the time I believed in right and wrong, in a simple truth.  However, there is no black and there is no white.  There are just a million variations of gray with hardly any way to differentiate between one shade and the next until you have somehow crossed enemy lines and now side with both the defender and the aggressor.  The only conclusion that I could come to was that this war was not mine.  I did not fill my body with the stimulants of two packs of cigarettes and eight cups of coffee a day, trying to distract myself for the last fifteen years of recovery. Now eighteen years, with many more tough years to come.  The stories of running through sniper alley are not mine to tell, and neither are the stories of relearning how to live with one another whether it has been successful or not.  Life moves on as new tights are being put on display in store windows.  Life moves on and memories stand still as they turn to dust like the thousands of books in the burnt National Library.  Eventually the holes are just overlooked as everybody tries to pretend like nothing happened although it was the time when everything happened.  I went with the intention of finding a story, only to realize that the only story is my own. It is a story of the things I witnessed, in a city that I desperately tried to belong to as I looked for anything that could be seen as black and white, like how I once believed things were.

They say if you are going to take a taxi in Sarajevo, that Sarajevo Taxi is the only trustworthy company in town.  I found Samir i Emir as well as every other service to be just as good.  Sometimes you just get a bad driver.  It’s like the conflict with Serbia and Croatia.  There are good people and bad people everywhere.  You cannot hate one whole group based on a few bad people.  Taxis are less serious, however.

They say if you are going to take a taxi in Sarajevo, that Sarajevo Taxi is the only trustworthy company in town.  I found Samir i Emir as well as every other service to be just as good.  Sometimes you just get a bad driver.  It’s like the conflict with Serbia and Croatia.  There are good people and bad people everywhere.  You cannot hate one whole group based on a few bad people.  Taxis are less serious, however.

Three generations and a cigarette.

Three generations and a cigarette.

”They call me war kid.  I love war.  I love guns and war games like Ultimate Conquest.  I am war kid.  I hate _______.  I want to kill all of them.  In Bosnia here all we want is peace.” -Kenan, 14 years old.  A lover, not a fighter (but really a fighter).

”They call me war kid.  I love war.  I love guns and war games like Ultimate Conquest.  I am war kid.  I hate _______.  I want to kill all of them.  In Bosnia here all we want is peace.”

-Kenan, 14 years old.  A lover, not a fighter (but really a fighter).

Filling in holes in the cement from bombs dropped during war, the cement is red and these terrible little reminders keep your head up and brain off before you think about it too hard.

Filling in holes in the cement from bombs dropped during war, the cement is red and these terrible little reminders keep your head up and brain off before you think about it too hard.

Man once under siege, now under a bridge.  He once sat underground for years and lost his hearing due to the bombs outside.  Now he sits under a bridge just outside of town.  At least he can still see the sun.

Man once under siege, now under a bridge.  He once sat underground for years and lost his hearing due to the bombs outside.  Now he sits under a bridge just outside of town.  At least he can still see the sun.

Next door neighbors with different intentions.

Next door neighbors with different intentions.

Ameida, cafe owner.

Ameida, cafe owner.

If you find the international art school, go to the top where the film program is located, continue on up some stairs, crawl through a window and turn a corner, this is what you will see: rows of cars down narrow streets of Austro-Hungarian architecture pocked with holes.

If you find the international art school, go to the top where the film program is located, continue on up some stairs, crawl through a window and turn a corner, this is what you will see: rows of cars down narrow streets of Austro-Hungarian architecture pocked with holes.

Policajac [the policeman]

Policajac [the policeman]

Details of a city: cigarettes with the same lipstick stain and used mortar shells, polished and decorated to be sold as souvenirs.

Details of a city: cigarettes with the same lipstick stain and used mortar shells, polished and decorated to be sold as souvenirs.

"When you come to Sarajevo, be prepared and be mature.  It might prove to be the most important decision you have ever made in your life.  Bring: good shoes which make you walk long and run fast, pants with many pockets, pills for water, Deutsche Marks (small denominations), batteries, matches, jar with vitamins, canned food, drinks and cigarettes.  Everything you bring will be consumed or exchanged for useful information.  You should know when to skip a meal, when to turn trouble into a joke and be relaxed in impossible moments.  Learn not to show emotions and don't be fussy about anything.  Be ready to sleep in basements, eager to walk and work surrounded by danger.  Give up all your former habits.  Use the telephone when it works, laugh when it doesn't.  You'll laugh a lot. Despise, don't hate." --Sarajevo Survival Guide by Miroslav Prstojevic for FAMA

"When you come to Sarajevo, be prepared and be mature.  It might prove to be the most important decision you have ever made in your life.  Bring: good shoes which make you walk long and run fast, pants with many pockets, pills for water, Deutsche Marks (small denominations), batteries, matches, jar with vitamins, canned food, drinks and cigarettes.  Everything you bring will be consumed or exchanged for useful information.  You should know when to skip a meal, when to turn trouble into a joke and be relaxed in impossible moments.  Learn not to show emotions and don't be fussy about anything.  Be ready to sleep in basements, eager to walk and work surrounded by danger.  Give up all your former habits.  Use the telephone when it works, laugh when it doesn't.  You'll laugh a lot. Despise, don't hate." --Sarajevo Survival Guide by Miroslav Prstojevic for FAMA

Office with a view.

Office with a view.

Yugoslavia was not built to last.  Not even the Yugo car named after the great country lasted more than a few years. The only things that were built to last were the buildings and their residents.  Despite how many shells hit, they still stand and the people still make dinner every night.

Yugoslavia was not built to last.  Not even the Yugo car named after the great country lasted more than a few years. The only things that were built to last were the buildings and their residents.  Despite how many shells hit, they still stand and the people still make dinner every night.

”I feed the cats because if I do not, no one else will.” --Ines, 7th grade

”I feed the cats because if I do not, no one else will.” --Ines, 7th grade

Sometimes things are too uniform.  We forget that there are individuals within these identical rooms, that each similar headstone were once different people.  Sometimes things in large numbers turn into just that: a number.

Sometimes things are too uniform.  We forget that there are individuals within these identical rooms, that each similar headstone were once different people.  Sometimes things in large numbers turn into just that: a number.

Mornings, afternoons, evenings, and nights.

Mornings, afternoons, evenings, and nights.

Interior of a home, seen from the outside looking in.

Interior of a home, seen from the outside looking in.

After all, we are all just humans.

After all, we are all just humans.

 
 

Exhibitions and Publications.

’13 Dodho Magazine, Spain

’13 Fototazo, On-line Magazine

’13 D-Photo Magazine, New Zealand

’11 “Family Exhibition”, National juried show, Southwest School of Art & Craft; 

Navarro Gallery, San Antonio, TX (Purchase Award)

’11 Inscape, Bi-Annual Journal; Provo, UT, USA

’10 B.F. Larsen Main Gallery, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT

’10 Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT (Invitational)