Photojournalists and the Balkan War

Magnum photographers are among those making the images by which this tragedy will be remembered—but which may also eventually fuel the art market


It is a distasteful reflection, but a highly plausible one, that the current photo-reportage coming out of the Balkans will sooner or late add grist to the art-market mill; some of the images that have shocked us—briefly—may end up as collectors’ items.

Magnum Photo, the cooperative famous for the quality of the reportage and commitment of its four founding members, Robert Capa, George Rodgers, David Seymour and Henri Cartier-Bresson, before, during, and after, World War II, has fielded seven volunteer photographers in the Balkans. There are also two Americans in the offing, pending developments. Magnum photographers are, of course, not the only ones in the Balkans, but their organisation enjoys unequalled prestige among photo enthusiasts.

o Gilles Peress (France) has just returned to New York from an undisclosed Balkan location, where he spent three weeks on exclusive assignment for the New Yorker. Of the seven, he is the most celebrated, with works in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the British Arts Council and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, and the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris.

o Nikos Economopoulos (Greece) is back in Athens after photographing the first wave of refugees in the sports hall at Kukes, Albania, in black and white. Working out of Paris, he has spent five years focusing on the Balkans and published a book on the subject last year.

o Kent Klitch (Sweden), has been in Skopje with a Swedish journalist, shooting black and white with a Hasselblad, as part of a long term project to observe a refugee family settled in Sweden, searching for their lost relatives.

o Alex Majoli (Italy), the youngest of the seven, has been on the Macedonian border with Kosovo since 25 March, shooting in black and white and in colour for VSD in Paris and US News, followed by an assignment on the Kosovan intellectuals who are trying to start a newspaper again in Skopje. He has just made a medium format series of portraits of soldiers (Italian Nato and KLA) in the Kosovar mountains.

o John Vink (Belgium) continues his major, long-term project on refugee camps all over the world.

o Paul Lowe (Britain) is married to a Bosnian whom he met in Sarajevo during that war. He has covered just about every conflict in recent history: the troubles in Northern Ireland; the Romanian revolution; the 1990 South African elections; the break-up of the USSR; ten years of Balkans’ bloodshed; the Gulf War; Somalia; Angola; Chechnya; Ruanda; Burundi; now Albania and Macedonia. He had just returned to London, where he spoke to The Art Newspaper about his series of panoramic colour views of refugees on the road to exile and in the camps at Skopje and Kukes. His command of Serbo-Croat, the common language of all Yugoslavs, enabled him to learn their stories. “A lot of the media footage one sees is of one street corner: it could be anywhere. I wanted to take one step back, to try and show these people in their geographical context, the dramatic mountain scenery where these events are taking place,” he said.

Lowe has also made a fascinating series of medium-format portraits, again in colour, as he maintains that, “black and white tends to distance; colour is more immediate.” These show individuals and small groups of refugees with all that they could bring with them in the five minutes they had in which to leave before their homes were looted by Serbs; young boys with their Nike trainers; the computer programmer fleeing with nothing but his hard disk; the hairdresser with the tools of her trade, electric clippers.

o Peter Marlow (Britain) is a veteran of the Lebanese Civil War and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, who flew out without any specific assignment. He went, he says, “Out of curiosity, to get a look at America at war”. Marlow has photographed Mig-29 pilots in Russia, so he approached their American counterparts. He was given facilities on board the aircraft carrier USS Roosevelt and on a smaller Marine amphibious helicopter transport.