Although Bosnian photographer Ziyah Gafić was too young to take part in his country’s war of independence, he was old enough to be aware of its ramifications. Apart from personal tragedy, he felt the national grief of his country.
Due to this experience he knew the urgency of telling what happens to communities during war-time. And so he traveled the world for his series Short Stories from Troubled Societies. From Palestine and Israel to Kurdistan, Iraq to Afghanistan, Ziyah visited countries marked by war.
His current work is powerful not because Ziyah shows, but because he tells. Rather than shooting very explicit images of war, Ziyah captures its impact on society in smaller, intimate moments. With these instances he gives you “permanent, unbiased and accurate reminders of what happened,” as he explains in his TED Talk.
So for example he photographs a left-behind toothbrush or the outlook from a window in a decayed house. “I always like to wonder what the owner was thinking when enjoying the view,” he explains.
The photographer admits war has impacted his relationship to the world in a profound way. “Usually wars are depicted in traditional black and white dichotomy of good vs. evil, whereas war in its nature has infinite shades of grey with spikes of ultimate goodness and unfathomable evil. Unfortunately one only understands that in retrospect. Once you realize the banality of evil your optics are changed forever. This is not necessarily good or bad, it simply is.”
Being in such extreme situations, he struggles with the limited impact you have as a photographer. “The most sobering moment is once you realize things won’t change whatever you do. You’d be surprised how many photographers actually think the world benefits from their work. Almost exclusively it’s the photographers that benefit from their imagery, rarely the subjects.”
Perhaps it’s true his subjects do not immediately benefit from Ziyah’s photos, but it wouldn’t be right to say his images aren’t extremely powerful. His work – not only beautiful, but also very important – gives us a nuanced view on communities dealing with the worst our world has to offer.