This week on Photojournalism Now: Friday Round Up – VII Foundation’s epic volume Imagine: Reflections on Peace.
Imagine: Reflections on Peace
When photojournalist Ron Haviv, co-founder of VII Photo Agency, reached out to me earlier this year to see if I was interested in writing about a new book, Imagine: Reflections on Peace, I responded immediately with a resounding “yes!”
I eagerly awaited receipt of this book, but its arrival in February collided with the beginning of the university teaching semester which turned out to be one of the busiest to date. With more than 250 students across two units, and teaching via Zoom and on-campus, when Covid-19 restrictions permitted, Imagine sat unopened on my desk. It is only now that I have found uninterrupted moments to spend with this much anticipated volume from the VII Foundation.
Imagine: Reflections on Peace is an extraordinary book that in pictures and words attempts to answer one of the most complex questions in the history of humanity: “why is it so difficult to make a good peace when it is so easy to imagine?”
Six journalists and seven photographers were invited “to revisit countries with which they had become achingly familiar during the months and often years of seemingly intractable conflict,” as VII Photo Agency co-founder Gary Knight writes in the book’s preface.
Personal narratives, visual and textual, present the reader with perspectives from those professionals who were on the ground during and post-conflict. Recollections from citizens caught up in these conflicts illuminate experiences and ordeals that rarely make it into the headlines. There is also analysis of various peace deals, “some more imperfect than others,” as Samantha Power, a former UN Ambassador to the United Nations, and journalist, observes in the book’s afterword.
Imagine is not an easy book, and that’s why time is needed because you can’t rush through the essays and recollections, nor flick past the photographs and walk away with a true understanding of what this book is attempting to do. The obvious is that Imagine is designed to make us think, to learn, perhaps to remember, to feel shocked, dismayed, to question and even feel hopeful. But Imagine reaches far beyond these axiomatic readings, providing the opportunity for a much deeper engagement with history, philosophy, politics, journalism and the personal experience of conflict and its aftermath.
What I find the most fascinating about the narratives in this 400 page tome, is the fact that these chroniclers, despite all they have witnessed and lived through, still recognise, and can envisage, a world where peace can exist. That in itself is reason for optimism, but Imagine is not a passive dissertation about wishing for change. This book demands your full attention.
Imagine begins in Lebanon with an excerpt from Don McCullin’s memoir, Unreasonable Behaviour and his images from 1976 and 1982. Other chapters feature conflict and post-conflict narratives on Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cambodia, Colombia, Northern Ireland, and Rwanda, some of the most brutal conflicts of the past century. Each chapter begins with a personal recollection from photographers and/or journalists.
Many of these narratives are riveting accounts of seminal moments that shaped the second half of the 20th century. They are also personal reflections on what were, for some, defining moments. For instance, Haviv writes: “When I arrived in Yugoslavia in March 1992, I did not anticipate that the moment would mark the beginning of a journey that would last for more than 25 years…”
On more than one occasion I put this book down and walk outside to free my mind from the images and stories of unconscionable cruelty, pain and suffering. One of the most harrowing accounts is that of Elvis Garibovic who in 1992 at the age of 19 was captured, beaten and incarcerated by the Serbian militia. Haviv was one of a handful of journalists who later that year was granted limited access. It was at that time Haviv photographed an emaciated Garibovic in the Trnopolje POW camp. Photographs once again played a crucial role in alerting the world.
I also find myself revisiting certain passages that give me hope, like the incredibly moving, and ultimately uplifting, essay from Mira Sidawi, who grew up in the refugee camp of Burj al-Barajneh in Lebanon. She is a Palestinian filmmaker, actor, writer and dreamer and her story is at once desperate and inspiring. Sidawi shares that “questioning peace, or writing about peace, is itself a kind of peace.” The notion of catharsis is pervasive as is the strength of the human spirit, the will to survive and overcome unimaginable odds. Of course, this is not everyone’s experience.
In my work as a journalist and academic I think a lot about the role of visual evidence, about how seeing is believing and the way that photographs can leave an indelible mark on memory. As a writer I also appreciate that pictures can tell us only so much. When combined with words, photographs can take on even greater meaning. In reporting on human rights abuses there is no room for ambiguity. If the intention of a photograph is to expose injustices and challenge assumptions, then words are needed to provide more than context and this is one of the most satisfying aspects of this book.
Imagine may invite us to think about how peace might be better envisaged through its critique of imperfect, or uneasy, peace agreements. Yet through its deeply personal accounts, it leaves no doubt about what the scars of conflict look like. History repeats. Imagine asks, does it need to?
Imagine includes writing from: Gary Knight (photographer), Jonathan Powell, Don McCullin (photographer), Robin Wright, Nichole Sobecki, Mira Sidawi, Roland Neveu, Jon Swain, Sophary Sophin, Marie O”Reilly, Philip Gourevitch, Jack Picone (photographer), Dydine Umunyana, Elizabeth D. Herman, Ron Haviv (photographer), Anthony Lloyd, Elvis Garibovic, Pedrag Peda Kojovic, Justice Richard Goldstone, Martin Fletcher, Gilles Peress (photographer), Monica McWiliams. Avila Kilmurray, Padraig O’Malley, Jon Lee Anderson, Stephen Ferry (photographer), Margarita Martinez, Nicole Tung (photographer) and Samantha Power. Find out more here.