'The Aftermath Project': Photographers go back after the war

The effects of war linger past the fighting, as Sara Terry found out herself when she documented a mass grave being dug up in Bosnia.

Henry Jacobson
An experience in Bosnia led Sara Terry to create an organization to explore and document the consequences of conflict long after the world’s attention has turned elsewhere.

As she lingered above workers poring through mass graves in Bosnia, photojournalist Sara Terry tried to ignore a cardinal rule of photography: Get closer.

Unwilling to disturb the dead and the people recovering their remains, she and her camera observed from a distance.

Then a Polish forensic anthropologist ordered Ms. Terry to join her in a pit full of the bodies of young Muslims killed at Srebrenica. Shedding her reluctance, Terry did as she was told, standing on a mound next to the workers, trying to avoid becoming ill. Then she turned her camera on the anthropologist as she gently cradled a teenage boy's partially preserved hand in the muck.

Captured on film, the tender gesture reveals a bond formed across an abyss of time and tragedy. "When I show this picture, people look and look away very quickly," says Terry, speaking at her home in Los Angeles. "I always tell them to look again because this is the story of what it means to be human."

Her trips to Bosnia, years after the massacres and chaos of the 1990s, inspired Terry to promote a new rule for photographers: Go back. Return to the scene of war, she urges, and tell stories like this one through images.

With the help of donors, she has created The Aftermath Project, a nonprofit group that provides grants to photographers who want to chronicle what happens after the world turns its gaze away from a conflict. How do people recover? Do they escape the past or remain trapped by it? Can generosity and hope shine through the horror?

'War is only half the story,' Terry says, repeating the project's motto. "You don't have to say more than six words to someone to say what The Aftermath Project is about. People get it."

The project is small, with an annual budget of about $40,000 from donations as tiny as $10 and as large as $15,000. It has given grants to a small number of photographers, and limited distribution hampers the full impact of the photography on the public.

Still, Terry – a former writer for The Christian Science Monitor – has created a dialogue in the world of photography about the importance of returning to war-torn places and people.

"Sara's own experience of trying to come to terms with the extraordinariness of what she's experienced led her to talk to other photographers who admired her work and wanted to do similar things," says Anne Tucker, curator of photography at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which has exhibited Terry's work.

Photographs taken in the wake of war aren't new, of course. "The most immediate aftermath is the dead on the battlefield," Ms. Tucker says. "Then you have the residue, like bombed-out buildings and cities," such as the photos of Richmond, Va., after the US Civil War.

Terry's concept is to wait for years or even decades after a conflict before returning. That's what she did for several trips to Bosnia, which were compiled in her 2005 book that showed the struggles of what passes for peace.

"I wanted to shake people by the shoulders and say, 'How can you ignore this place? How can you not be connected and just walk on to the next crisis spot?' " Terry recalls. Out of these feelings came The Aftermath Project.

Some half-dozen photographers have received funds from the project. Their work has been included in two coffee-table books that were published in 2008 and '09.

Among the topics of the photos: refugees in Europe, Armenians in Turkey, former soldiers in Croatia, child soccer players in Kenya, and a boy who was the only person in his village in Sierra Leone to survive a massacre. (Terry is working on a documentary about reconciliation efforts in Sierra Leone.)

Terry is "a very good photographer herself," says Houston museum curator Tucker. "She understands the complexities of the medium of photography, so she's a good judge of people who have great ambitions and whether or not they can manifest them in visual terms. That is the goal and the challenge."

This year, two project-funded photographers are chronicling the aftermath of conflict within the United States. One is following injured veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, while another is in South Dakota, tracking the aftermath of the 19th century's Indian wars.

"I'm trying to show that commonality within ... people who persevere no matter the conditions that are put in front of them," says photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier, who's following native American families.

The Aftermath Project faces challenges moving forward. It must raise money for its grants to photographers. And there's the larger issue of distribution: The completed projects have yet to be published, and the books aren't major sellers. Terry's own book sold only 1,500 copies, though that's considered a success in the world of documentary photography.

"There's not always an audience for this kind of work," acknowledges Amy Yenkin, director of the Documentary Photography Project of the Open Society Institute, which helps fund The Aftermath Project. "But Sara has been a really good advocate not only for the project, but for these individual photographers."

There's also talk about a change in the project's focus to embrace video along with still images. Louie Palu, a Washington, D.C.-based photographer who's following Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans, records audio interviews with some of his subjects but argues that a still photo has unique storytelling power.

"It allows for contemplation," he says. "You can look at it for a long time, turn away, and come back. And there's a silence in a photograph, where your mind is trying to figure out what the sounds might be."

At her house on a Los Angeles hillside, Terry has a moment of contemplation of her own as she recalls the Bosnian mass grave and the photo she took that inspired her future work.

"I don't know if there will be another war in Bosnia. Maybe there will," she says.

"But here's what I do know: I want to be there when that human hand reaches into the pit to take somebody from the grave and says, 'The final word is not the hatred that put you here. The final word is the humanity that brings you out and gives you back your name and says this is not what it means to be human.' "

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