Simon Norfolk is more than a gifted photographer: Simon Norfolk is a chronicler of those thing the human mind may elect to forget but should always be reminded. This impressive limited edition book of twenty four color plates describe Norfolk's response to the history of the Bosnian war of the 1990s.
`The war in Bosnia in the 1990s raised to common currency the terms `ethnic cleansing,' and `humanitarian intervention'. It brought back to Europe a barbarism not seen since the Second World War; and was the first war fought very much under the eyes of the media. It was also the first conflict fought by killers who knew, even before the war had finished, that a war crimes tribunal awaited them. Norfolk's photographs initially appear almost abstract. Yet through these still and beautiful images of ice, water, snow and the land, we can sense the arrogance of killers who believed they could conceal the brutal evidence of their crimes by reburying their victims in `secondary' graves. But over time secrets escape, and the truth bleeds out.'
When asked why he should choose to capture these images Norfolk replied, `I had a good friend who was married to a Bosnian girl and I went to Bosnia during the war, but I didn't really take any good pictures. I think I was a bit confused by it all, and it was difficult to really work out what was going on, apart from seeing what was happening in the surrounding 100 meters.I specifically didn't want to do something where I would return ten years after the war and say, "I feel the following people are to blame." I'm not a specialist; but what did interest me was this idea of secondary mass graves; there has never been a war that had secondary mass graves like this. Before the war ended, people knew that there would be criminal proceedings. That's never happened in a war before: the Nuremberg war trials were a surprise to the Nazis. So where people were killed in villages and buried in a soccer pitch or something, [the killers] went back to these places before the war ended and, using machinery, dug up the bodies and reburied them in difficult-to-find locations, to hide what they'd done. And what's happened since the end of the war is that, little by little, the conspiracy is unraveling. A gangster dies in a village and someone makes a phone call to the investigators and says, "I think you should have a look at Slobodan's forest." On the Bosnian side, people are being repatriated and going back to their villages; they are going back to plowing the fields that [their families] have been plowing for hundreds of years and, suddenly, they're pulling up bones and rags. So the idea was to [comment on] this house of cards, this conspiracy that was built on hiding these bodies...and what it must feel like, over ten years, to see this conspiracy collapsing around you. Every day the truth unravels, and investigators take a step nearer, and you know that, sooner or later, they are going to find the 300 bodies you buried in the woods or that you threw down a mine shaft or that you tried to dissolve in an aluminum factory.'
When asked how he found the sites he chose to photograph, he replied, `A lot of it was from plowing through news reports in the Bosnian media. A few of the bigger mass graves, the more famous ones, I found that way. Then I spoke to the people who were doing the investigating and they gave me maps and some ideas about where to find others. And then some of them I found by going back to reports that were written in 1994 and 1995. Just after the Srebrenica massacre, certain journalists managed to sneak into various places and they found certain mass graves. If you read the texts very carefully, you can kind of follow where they went. They're not very explicit, but they say, "Go to the village, there's a barn on the left. Go around that, to the top of the hill. On the right-hand side there's some trees." A lot of it was just detective work, really. I'm very interested in the density of the way a place is covered and understood. Bosnia is somewhere that has been incredibly densely covered by TV and in photojournalism. It's almost like Auschwitz: you almost don't need to describe anything there; you can just use the word. Bosnia is also a place that is very dense. It allows me to make pictures that are slightly more abstract, because I don't need to educate the reader or explain where I am. I can take a few more risks.'
Simon Norfolk is able to put into words the same response he draws form us with these images. It is a book of wonder that one man could so carefully capture what our minds have difficulty in dissecting. Grady Harp, April 12