Twenty years after the Dayton Peace Accords, wounds still run deep in Bosnia and Herzegovina. People tell me constantly that even now, ethnicity plays a major role in everyday life.
Divided schools are very real factors of life for many children across BiH, perpetuating a glaring lack of dialogue that has persisted since the end of the conflict.
Many children live mere miles from major hubs of civilization and history, and yet have never been to them — in part due to economic conditions — but also largely a result of perceived differences and historic disagreements with the people “over there.”
So getting the right balance of participants takes on a grand significance in a project meant to bring kids from different ethnic groups together. Here are the numbers behind National Geographic Photo Camp BiH, an intensive photography camp that brought teens together to tell the story of their country:
- 20 kids from 19 cities and towns.
- 12 adults from National Geographic and Internews.
- 3 major ethnic groups (among others).
- 2 entities
- 1 country: Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But the numbers only tell a part of the story.
From the time they arrived for the five day camp in Sarajevo, participants were made to work with, seek input from and rely on each other. Through living and working together they were able to transcend the differences that have kept them apart — be they ethnic, economic, religious or otherwise.
The students saw many aspects of Bosnian life during their time at the camp. They traveled from Sarajevo to Travnik and back, taking pictures all the way. They toured kitchens and teahouses, mosques and synagogues. They were challenged to engage the people around them — artisans, cooks, merchants, craftsmen, or simply people on the street — to better understand the subjects of their photos.
“I believe that photography can change people’s visions of society by presenting some elements that maybe can’t be seen in ordinary life. Viewing photographs that tell stories is a key step in sparking some progress for both my country, and the people in it. I know that I will give the best of me to show the world – in the best possible way – the good and bad sides of my country.”
Top photo and quote by Ivana Blagojevic. Portrait of Ivana by Amer Begovic.
Throughout, they were learning the art of photography. By using different types of lighting, shooting at sunrise and sunset, playing with framing, composition, and exposure, participants composed poignant works of art that transcend the past 20 years’ of stigma that has hampered BiH’s image worldwide — all under the constant guidance of National Geographic’s talented team.
“Photography is very powerful way to communicate with others. Firstly, photographers, through photo, can tell amazing stories about Bosnia and Herzegovina, about her people, the situation in which she is situated, her beauty and nature and show them to people in other countries. I hope that through the power of photography more youth will stay in our country and contribute to development of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”
It is perhaps most telling of the camp’s overall nature that the final exhibition in the Art Gallery of Bosnia-Herzegovina featured portraits of the participants. Painstakingly gathered and pored over throughout the entirety of the camp, these portraits best capture the essential qualities of the subjects through the eyes of their partners.
The pairs were matched male-female — in every case, someone from a completely different community and background — and tasked with getting acquainted through photographing each other and capturing portraits that identified the key personality and character traits of the other person. While initially a challenging and awkward experience, this task allowed the participants to gradually shed some of their apprehensions regarding photography and get to know each other better as individuals.
Through this truly unique experience, kids were able to tap into another place — they were free of the societal pressures that weigh on the country, free of the rhetoric that surrounds them, and free of the divides that have become doctrine in their day-to-day lives. They could, in essence, be kids.
And sometimes it’s their perspectives that we need the most, to make sense of the senseless.
“I think photography can do a lot for my country. A picture is worth a thousand words, and I think our country is ready to tell its story and story can change a lot of people’s minds on Bosnia and Herzegovina. I hope my photos will someday change someone’s mind and perspective on life.”
National Geographic Photo Camp was conducted in partnership with Internews, with support from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo’s Office of Public Affairs. The camp participants, aged 14–19, were mentored by National Geographic contributing photographer Stephanie Sinclair along with editors and trainers Jeanne Modderman, Ross Goldberg, Jim Webb and Jake Rutherford. Chris Benevento is an intern with Internews in BiH.