A Balkan Journey: Chris Leslie reflects on his documentation of post-conflict former Yugoslavia

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Beginning in 1996, Chris Leslie’s visual art project –  a photobook, website, and series of events and displays – captures war-torn communities as they rebuilt their lives

When a young Chris Leslie – a psychology and politics graduate from Scotland – first landed in the previous Yugoslavia in the late-90s, he did not consider himself the photographer. “[This project] is my own journey into photography – that one early lie on my CV about being a photographer back in 1996 that then led me to Croatia, make the path for my career 25 years on. ”

This season marks three decades since the war in the region began. Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, was placed under the longest siege within modern day history, from April 1992 to February 1996. Now, a quarter of an one hundred year later, we see battle on the continent once more. Leslie’s book, website, and series of events and exhibitions – all under the umbrella associated with A Balkan Trip – brings together their documentation of former Yugoslavia in the years following the bitter conflict.    

The Balkan Journey tells the storyplot of the last conflict there were in Europe and how individuals from Croatia, Bosnia plus Kosovo dealt with peacetime plus rebuilding their homes plus lives, ” he says. “It was almost a historical project because no-one ever imagined there would be war in Europe once more. ”

Ljuba Gajić outside her home Ljuba Gajić ispred njene kuće – Pakrac, 1996 © Chris Leslie.

The book begins within 1996 in Pakrac, the war-ravaged Croatian town, exactly where Leslie was volunteering to have an NGO. As well as helping along with rebuilding and community projects, he took on the job of running a children’s picture taking club – despite their lack of on paper experience with cameras at that time.    

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leslie’s own pictures of this early period are simply a small collection. These pictures are of empty, derelict streets but also portraits associated with friendly connections. One incorporated is with an elderly lady named Ljuba. She got remained in her house when her family fled; her warmth and candour encouraged Leslie to pick up the camera. Most of the film chance in this period was dropped, damaged or forgotten. The time was mainly a moment of reflection, and of absorbing his surroundings. “So having 1 photograph of Ljuba – despite all the times we invested together –  is more than enough, ” he says. “That’s why [this] one colour photograph associated with her is so important: since it was so rare. ”

Following this, Leslie moved to post-conflict Sarajevo to start a digital camera club for children. Making use of donated equipment from back home in Scotland, he set up a makeshift studio intended for children in the Bjelave orphanage, teaching kids from six to 16 basic photographic skills. Word quickly distribute and other neighbourhood children joined up with in.  

“The intention was to provide a creative shop for these kids who acquired dealt with a near lifetime of war and siege. This had to be simple, practical and most importantly, it had to be fun, ” he says. The children happened to run freely around playgrounds plus streets and photographed everything that interested them. Leslie continued the project for more than three years, funding his summers in Sarajevo by functioning at a supermarket in Scotland in between. “These photographs, used by the kids, have become very specific, as that city they will documented, in many ways, no longer exists”

Snipers’ watch Pogled snajpera – Sarajevo, 1999. © Chris Leslie.

“We couldn’t believe there would be a war in Europe in 2022, just like no-one could believe there could be battle in Europe in 1992 or in 1942. You will find lessons and stories from ‘A Balkan Journey’ that require to be seen, heard and understood”

© Chris Leslie.

A Balkan Journey also voyages right into a new era, where the camera club kids navigate adult life and as a new group of migrants flood into Bosnia. It also takes in new battle lines and old reminiscences drawn up and out once again in the early 2000s in Kosovo. What stands out is usually his attention to the people along with the landscape: soldiers, civilians plus children stare out from the pages, as an important part of the story.   “I just took pictures of what I saw and what I had been interested in. I knew for sure though that without the pictures and testimonies then the scenery of destruction would be simply ‘ruin porn’ – I had fashioned to tell the stories and possess the people, ” he says.

Alongside the book-project, the website contains expanded essays, and archival content collected over the years which includes documentation of ephemeral objects – from his first camera to maps and contact sheets. The entire site is available in English and Bosnian. “An important audience with this project are from the places in the Balkans I recorded. A Balkan Journey consists of their stories and their own history so it had to be available to them in their language. Not everyone can afford or even desire, a photo book, so the website filled that void and still gives the project a system, ” says Leslie.  

The book ends in 2019, marking the 30th wedding anniversary of the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Leslie’s journey finishes with photographs that are witness to a new, present-day Sarajevo, including those refugees and migrants “trapped in limbo”. The project feels “finished” to Leslie, but he hopes that it will be showed elsewhere, and people will always engage with the book and website, as the seemingly cyclical nature of geo-politics rumbles on.

“Sarajevo has had serenity of sorts for decades now, but the pain, suffering plus loss of the war is definitely never far from people’s thoughts.   Just how Ukraine may ever be able to ‘recover’ is yet to be seen. The cry of ‘never again’ is currently completely redundant. Nor will it matter the year in which we live. We couldn’t believe there would be a war in Europe in 2022, exactly like no-one could believe there could be war in Europe in 1992 or in 1942. There are lessons and tales from A Balkan Journey that need to be seen, heard and understood. ”

A Balkan Trip by Chris Leslie and John McDougall is available in order to order here.

Nicola Jeffs

Nicola Jeffs is a writer based between UK and Germany. She has written for the Guardian, BJP, Photomonitor and This is Tomorrow, as well as texts for artists and galleries. She has an MA in Photography: Background, Theory and Practice from the University of Sussex plus an MA in History through the University of Edinburgh.

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