Covering the Bosnian war was a wake-up call for a former adman turned photojournalist.
Thursday, February 25, 2010
Christian Maréchal left a plush job as creative director of a London advertising agency in November 1992, drove across Europe to Croatia and Bosnia, and into Sarajevo.
Founded by the Ottoman empire in the 15th century, Sarajevo was lauded as the “Jerusalem of Europe” for its ethnic and religious diversity, and hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. But when Maréchal arrived, Sarajevo was surrounded and under siege by the Serbian army during the bloody Bosnian war. He went there to cover the war as a freelance journalist for Marie Claire and other British press.
“I was a journalist manquée,” says the British-born Pacific Grove resident. “It’s a French word for ‘something I missed out on.’ I took a wrong turn and for decades I worked in this [advertising] industry I was successful in, but never felt comfortable with. What was missing was an honesty in communication.”
Honesty, he felt, was also missing from his government, then led by Prime Minister John Major.
“When Slovenia and Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia, it was news but not big. Then the Serbs laid siege to Vukovar [in Croatia], reduced it to rubble, and took 300 people from a hospital – staff and wounded – to a nearby farm and killed them. It got little play in England.”
He deduced that the British government had taken a “non-involvement” stance, dismissing the conflict as a Balkan civil war – none of England’s business. But Maréchal, who paid closer attention when the term “ethnic cleansing” floated out of the conflict, believed the “civil war” was actually an act of aggression and land grab “orchestrated by [then president of Serbia] Slobodan Milosevich and his proxies.”
“Nobody was addressing this,” he says. “What was happening to women [including mass rapes] wasn’t covered by the media.”
He went into Sarajevo during the first winter of its four-year siege to witness and photograph, intermittently, over three years, the horrors of war firsthand. The results of that experience will be shown this Friday at Cafe 316 in downtown Monterey with Marechal’s first-ever exhibition, Bosnia Redux. (He will speak at its opening reception.)
The photographs, shot from 35mm Nikon EM cameras, are crisp, high-contrast black-and-whites, raw portraits of a city thrown suddenly into chaos and violence, accompanied by powerfully direct captions.
After surrounding the capital city, the Serbian army cut off gas, water and electricity, and blocked roads to cut off food and supplies to starve and sicken the Bosniaks. Then the Serbs mortared, shelled and sniped the captive city ferociously. Maréchal captured the aftermath of this destruction in images like his shot of a roofless burned out shell of a two-story building.
“The photos in the exhibition are carefully chosen as photos that can hang in a coffee shop,” he says. “They’re more emblematic. The captions do the real work.” The photographs don’t show the kind of butchery to the human body that war causes, but focuses on the resulting atmosphere and predicaments: buildings pockmarked by bullets, streets devoid of people amid lyrical winter snow.
UNICEF reported that 40 percent of the children of Sarajevo were shot at by snipers, according to a caption accompanying a photo of two kids playing in a windowless, doorless car: “These two are comparatively safe in their shaded, sheltered street. If they venture into the sunlit cross street they will be nicely illuminated for the snipers.”
There’s a shot of a car, destroyed by one of the many accidents brought on by people driving recklessly fast to avoid gunfire.
Another image shows a woman standing in front of Sarajevo’s Pivara Brewery during her daily, dangerous trek across town to fetch water. There’s snow on the ground. “On 19 January 1993, an 11-year-old boy stood in line for water at Pivara with his mother and father,” reads its caption. “A sniper orphaned him right there. He poured water over his parents’ bodies, trying to revive them.”
According to U.N. estimates, about 10,000 people were killed in Sarajevo and 56,000 wounded, reads another caption. Big, horrific numbers, made intimate and human by Maréchal’s photographs and captions. That’s the way he wants people to regard modern warfare.
“Embedding is the smartest thing the U.S. ever did to control information,” he says, drawing parallels to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Here in Monterey we are very inured. We’re relatively well off… detached. It suits the government for it to be that way.”
The original name for his debut exhibition was Knowing is Doing: “To know about it is to do something about it, to start the conversation,” he says. He lays his cards out in a press release for the show, saying “When you come face-to-face with the limitless depravity of men making war, it remakes you into a different person.”
Maréchal hopes others will be remade by his photos and stories of a war that’s been largely forgotten and never fully inhabited the collective consciousness. Not like it deserves to.