- Tell us about your work. Why did you become a photographer? What do you do?
This is one of those questions that probably most photographers dislike on a deep, visceral level. There are people who have a pre-packaged answer ready for this question. But in reality, I believe that most of us ended up in photography by accident, as a weird unconscious evolution that led us to it step by step… something that happens due to general messiness of life. I do have a messy story myself. I picked up my first camera when I was 7 years old. It was winter and we just arrived to Slovakia as refugees from the Bosnian war. My father, in spite of having almost no money – for a reason no one in the family is able to explain to this day – bought one of those plastic disposable yellow Kodak film cameras. The first picture that I took was actually of my parents. They were standing next to town’s graveyard, dressed in clothes donated by Caritas. My vantage point was low, so I was naturally pointing the camera upwards and you can clearly see that the sky was this depressing wintery shade of grey. And even though our lives were not easy or happy at that time, my parents were holding hands and smiling—their faces lit up by the automatic flash. I don’t remember looking through the viewfinder or why my infant mind decided to frame them the way it did, but I remember the sound the camera made when I pressed the shutter. *click* It was exciting. And I remember why I took the photograph: I was happy and free, unburdened from everything, present in the moment and my parents were the ones that made this feeling possible.
After that day, I haven’t touched a camera for a long time, mostly due to our financial priorities being survival rather than photos. This lasted till my late teenage years when, all of a sudden, my chest and my mind were bursting with things I needed to say—so I started writing poems and taking photographs while we were on family holidays around Croatia. It was actually there that I developed a closer relationship with the camera, but it ultimately grew into something much more profound during my first trip to Cairo. There, my world was confronted with a reality that was unknown, vast and ultimately unexplorable. It was then and there that I realized that I did not wish to sit in an office for the rest of my life; that I wanted to explore the world, to be in contact with other people, that I wanted to understand and tell stories of others the way I understand and tell mine. That naturally evolved into taking photographs of people, places and issues I relate to closely: places like the Middle East and Egypt, people like gays and transgenders, issues like forced migrations and refugees. Right now, I’m working with an NGO called Jesuit Refugee Service and I’m on the road for more than 6 months a year. I’m taking photographs and making videos that try to highlight the reality of refugees all around the world: from their lives in camps, to their integration in Europe.
2. You are also a video-maker. On your website we can see a video report from MSF war hospital at the borders between Syria and Jordan. What story impressed you the most?
The thing that always strikes me about people fleeing war is how long they are unwilling to accept the possibility of a war coming to their doorstep. The story is the same for everyone in the world: for my family in Bosnia in the 90s or for Zuhur, a Syrian woman that me and Raffaella Cosentino interviewed in the MSF war hospital in Al Ramtha for the Italian daily La Repubblica. Zuhur could clearly hear the bombs for weeks in her town, she saw destruction all around her, but because she had no other choices, because she never wanted the war and never believed in the reasons people were fighting for, she could not bring herself to see that the war would ultimately touch her and her family too.
When the war broke out in Bosnia, there were buses full of refugees from the Eastern parts of the country stopping at our restaurant close to Sarajevo and they were asking us to use the toilet. We clearly saw the refugees, they were from places only a few kilometres away from our house, but until the war came to our doorstep, we could not believe that we were a part of it. Neither could Zuhur, until a bomb hit her house and wounded her and her family as seriously as it did.
It also always surprises me how banal are the things that people do in the moment they realize that the war is unavoidable. I remember watching television, a cowboy movie, in Sarajevo in our flat when we saw the first shelling of the town; Zuhur was making tea for her children and her husband.
3. You were in Jordan’s Zaatari refugees camp. What does it mean to live there?
Zaatari is a strange place, difficult to describe. It is both a place of hope and deep desperation. You are safe, the bombs are not hitting you and you hope for a better future. But the wait, the wait always gets to you and screws with your mind. In the camps it becomes your new job. You wait for food, wait for water, wait for electricity, wait for the end of the war, wait for messages from your homeland, wait for a text from your lost family members, wait for the end of a sand storm, wait for an answer from the UNHCR bureaucracy. You’re waiting for something and anything and you’re waiting constantly. And that something and anything comes rarely and irregularly.
And in-between, there are long suffocating pauses of nothingness. And most of all, you’re waiting while sitting on the cold ground in a tent or a caravan with your hands folded and suddenly left without purpose because in most host countries, you’re not allowed to work, move freely or get out of the camp. Living in a camp also means that, most probably, you’re going to stay there for a big part of your life, statistics say that the average is 17 years. If you are born there, there is very little chance of getting good education and, most probably after you leave the camp, you will have spent all your youth and formative years in a place where there are very few opportunities. When I hear someone saying that they lost a year of their lives because of a bad relationship or a bad career choice, my mind always goes to Zaatari: here, we’re talking about a whole lost generation, people hanging mid-air without a legal possibility of restarting their lives and doing something about their situation. And lastly, the camps are incredibly isolated. They are built very far away from civilization—in deserts, on wastelands—on purpose. Keeping refugees far away keeps them out of sight of the populations in host countries and purposely cut off from any sort of life connected to the country where they are staying. What’s more, those places were unsettled for a reason: people never started towns or villages there because it’s hostile to a simple life: sand storms, snow, mud, rain, heat… you name it.
4. Is there the risk of getting used to these situations?
In my opinion the problem is not really about getting used to things, but about not paying attention any more. I’ve seen a few photographers walking around a refugee camp without care and considerations, as if it belongs to them: they demand that people pose for them, they come with big egos and consider the place and its habitants a mean to their ends. In a way, it’s natural: you don’t want to fuck up your comfortable life back home by coming a changed person unrecognisable to your closest family members. You need to protect yourself from the hardship and suffering. But the mistake they make is that they stop considering, paying attention. Yes, get used to it, there is no choice if you want to stay sane, but if you want to do this job, find the will and energy to be present and attentive to the people you’re photographing and filming. Otherwise you’re doing more harm than good. The same goes for most of the audience watching photographs of refugees and camps: the more you see, the less impact it has on you. You tell yourself that you do not wish to burden your life with their problems, that you’ve got your own problems to deal with. But, by not paying attention, you miss the stories, you miss the details, you miss the understanding, you stop comprehending the world you live in. And the world will come to your door one day and all of a sudden, you will not understand how you got there. By refusing to pay attention to other people and their lives, you’re only ignoring them. You become isolated, you become insensitive, in a way you become less of a human being.
5. Do you always shoot or sometimes you chose not to? And why?
I don’t take photographs all the time. Simply said, when I’m dealing with stories, I rather spend time with the people I want to work with, explaining who and what I am, what I do and let them decide if they want to let me into their lives. By having a conversation, I understand much better what is appropriate to photograph and what isn’t. Sometimes, a photographer should rather reach out, give support, instead of forcing his camera into someone’s face. However, there are no real rules here, you need to have a level of empathy that guides you through this.
6. Is there a photo or a video report to which you are you most connected?
There is one photograph and it’s not of refugees and their lives. It’s from an art (non-journalistic) project called Trans’Agata, an ongoing portrait series about transgender sex workers from Catania. It’s one of those photographs that you need to pay close attention to or you’re going to miss what the photographs is trying to say to you. And, admittedly, most people skip it when they flip through the project.
It depicts three states that a transgender person can find themselves in. Cioccolatina, out of her work clothes, has a strong jaw line, masculine figure and face. But when she wears her clothes, her personality changes, her outward femininity changes and all of a sudden, you’re not talking to a man but a woman. And to me, that photograph captures that fluid state in which many transgender people flow. In the front part of the portrait, there she is, Cioccolatina, a woman putting on her stockings. However, in the reflection in the lower mirror, you can clearly see the face of a man. And in the mirror just above, her and his face is hidden and by looking at it, you understand that she’s somewhere in the middle, that human sexuality and genders are much more of a shade of grey situation than a simple, binary one.
Simona D’Alessi interviews Denis Bosnic who took the pictures in this article.