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When War Reporters Document Peace

When War Reporters Document Peace

The VII Foundation presents a new book by photographer Gary Knight. Imagine: Reflections on Peace (also published in French as Imagine: Penser la paix), created in collaboration with several photo reporters and journalists, is a collection of 200 images accompanied by reflections on the imperfect construction of peace.
Palestinians flee attack ,Beirut, Lebanon 1976. Up to 1,500 Palestinians died in the Karantina massacre by Christian Falangist gunmen. © Don McCullin

“For thirty years, war was my life.” Haunted by conflict, Gary Knight has spent years covering the war. It consumed some of his friends. As it did him. “In April 2003, a few days after returning home after the invasion of Iraq, I and a close friend were looking at the photographs I had taken there. The invasion of Iraq was a personal turning point and the last chapter in my career as a journalist devoted to photographing violence. I felt burned out,” he admits. Several years of reflection and questioning followed. How can peace be sustained in territories where war has made itself at home? Gary Knight dedicates this book to those who have endured war in hope of peace and to those who have the courage to build peace. This is a work of hope without being a praise of peacetime. This is the fruit of three years’ work with some of the great names in photojournalism. 

Balaclavas in alleyway. Derry, North of Ireland, 1996 © Gilles Peress

How to depict peace?

No mortar fire, no shell casings scattered on the ground alongside lifeless bodies, no caravans of civilians fleeing burning cities: Peace is not spectacular. Peace does not explode. It is discreet and invisible. “War is not complicated to imagine or photograph. Peace is the absence of war, it’s a void much harder to represent,” notes Gary Knight. War makes the headlines, it has people talking, it sells. “I don’t think the media industry celebrates or rewards the representation of normality or peace in the same way that it rewards war reporting. Just like society doesn’t celebrate peacemakers as much as it does generals and soldiers.” Images thus aren’t enough. You have to explain, write, testify: “As we developed the idea of the project, we realized that we needed more texts and more diverse voices than just journalists.”

Beit Beirut recently opened as an exhibition space and memorial to the civil war. During renovations, Mona El-Hallak, an architect and heritage preservation activist, discovered 11,000 photographic negatives—most of them portraits dating from the 1950s to the 1970s—in a photography studio on the ground floor. Visitors are invited to take away a photo print and try to trace the person in the portrait. © Nichole Sobecki

Over some 400 pages, the reader travels back in time to better understand the current state of affairs. We get flashbacks of late-twentieth-century conflict zones: a dozen journalists, seven photographers, and six writers went back to the field to turn back time. They traveled to the countries they had covered for months, sometimes years: Northern Ireland, Cambodia, Colombia, Rwanda, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Lebanon. We now walk along the bullet-riddled walls of Sarajevo with Ron Haviv; follow Gilles Peress through the misty alleys of Derry; dodge bullets in Beirut alongside Don McCullin; or mingle with Mosul schoolgirls photographed by Nicole Tung… For each country, the images of yesterday confront and dialogue with those of today.

Graffitti on a wall outside Sarajevo. © Ron Haviv

Cambodia beyond the postcard

Cambodia: Gary Knight’s first test of fire. Forty-five years ago, the young photographer discovered a country brought to its knees by the savagery of the Khmer Rouge during the conflicts of 1980–90. He returned to this country to meet the inhabitants and share their hopes for peace in a territory where the Khmer past is still alive. He carried out deep investigative work with the French photojournalist Roland Neveu, another great witness to Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Gary Knight summarizes the current situation as follows: “Cambodia has gotten better since the Khmer Rouge era, but not much. The current regime — a criminal collective of former Khmer officers — is totally corrupt. They have plundered the country, murdered the opposition, and run Cambodia like a private fiefdom without any regard for human dignity or human rights.” Yet, at first glance, the country seems at peace, free of conflict, sustained by tourism. “Cambodia is no longer at war and on the face of it, everything appears harmonious. A picture-perfect postcard. But if you scratch the surface, you will quickly see that there are huge political and social problems.” 

Western Mosul, Iraq, November 2018. Schoolgirls arrive at a recently reopened school. For many students, this is the first time they have been able to attend school in years. © Nicole Tung
A FARC fighter washes her clothes on an overnight stop in the town of Rio Mina, in the Upper Naya region. Rio Mina was the epicenter of a massacre by paramilitaries in 2001 in which up to 110 civilians were killed © Stephen Ferry

Gary Knight has met with families, elders, and war children, who are fighting today to keep the peace. Roeung Heng is a former Khmer soldier. Gary Knight photographed him from the front, shirtless, his body scarred, tattoos covering his arms and torso. Roeung Heng was forced to enlist because the regime controlled his village. “Things are very different now. Mass tourism in Siem Reap has improved the economy, but the level of morality is low. There is a big drug problem among the young, amphetamines are everywhere in town, and respect for the elders has diminished,” Roeung Heng says. And then there’s Sophary Sophin: her head barely comes up above the thick, broad breastplate. She is wearing a helmet with a visor. Sophary Sophin is a demining expert. Gary Knight recounts his memorable encounter with the girl: “We met her at the headquarters of the demining organization she works for. Despite being young and a woman, she was clearly the leader in the room and everyone looked up to her, which is very unusual in Cambodia. She is incredibly courageous and politically articulate, which is also rare and very high risk in the country.” Each face photographed brings a testimony. Gary Knight’s portraits are black and white to “give a sense of continuity” with his work done in the 1980s. “In 1989–92 I chose black and white because it was cheaper (I was extremely poor) and I wasn’t a very accomplished color photographer because I couldn’t afford to develop my skills.” 

Aleppo, Syria, November 2012. Fighters with the Free Syrian Army on the front line. With limited access to arms, FSA rebels resorted to making their own weapons. © Nicole Tung

“Peace is complicated and messy”

While this large-scale project is more than a naïve portrait of peace, it does carry a message of hope and resilience. Peace is won, much more so than war. “Peace is complicated and messy, and requires incredible amounts of courage, hard work, and compromise. It’s important to understand that; and it’s even more important to understand that once the ink has dried on the peace treaty, the real work begins and peace remains fragile for generations,” Knight insists. All this work has also been a reflection on his own job, on his role in society as an image purveyor: “By covering the war, I hoped to contribute to a dialogue that could allow our societies to look at conflict less as a means of satisfying our greed and ambition. I think that anyone who has ever been immersed in the experience of war hopes for peace; but to be perfectly honest, I never gave much consideration to what that peace would look like, I just imagined it as the end of violence.” With these portraits, testimonies, and critical analyses, the book offers us key insights into the global situation and reminds us that peace is a fierce battle, fought with every breath.

Sophary Sophin, bomb disposal engineer, and her sister Boran Sophin. Among the young women who are stepping away from traditional female roles in the patriarchal society are sisters Sophary Sophin and Boran Sophin. Sophary tells her story to Gary Knight and Jon Swain in the following essay. “I give classes about mine education, the danger of the land mine. I try my best,” said Sophary. “I think some parents understand what I have done, because sometimes in my village, they come to me and say, ‘I really want my daughter to be like you.’ I say, ‘Send her to school.’” © Gary Knight
An RPF soldier (Rwandan Patriotic Front) advancing in Gikoro district. Rwanda. 1994 © Jack Picone

By Michaël Naulin

Michaël Naulin is a journalist. Having worked for regional and national press, he is above all passionate about photography and, more specifically, about photo reporting.

Imagine: Reflections on Peace
408 Pp, 200 photos, $49.95 / €45.00
The book is on sale here.
The book is part of a larger project that includes a series of exhibitions, among others an exhibition at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum in Geneva, on view until January 10, 2021.

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