Up Close and Personal – War in Croatia
Izbliza i osobno – rat u Hrvatskoj

Image of War Photography Museum

Zagreb, Hebrangova 4

August 2018 – August 2019

Authors of photographs: Darko Bavoljak, Robert Belošević, Matko Biljak, Branimir Butković, Miloš Cvetković, Siniša Duraković, Željko Gašparović, Wade Goddard, Siniša Hančić, Ron Haviv, Toni Hnojčik, Romeo Ibrišević, Zlatko Kalle, Božidar Kelemenić, Silvestar Kolbas, Mišo Lišanin, Paul Lowe, Antun Maračić, Christopher Morris, Željko Sinobad, Srđan Sulejmanović, Imre Szabo, Nikola Šolić, Nikola Tačevski, Zvonimir Tanocki, David Turnley, Peter Turnley, Pavo Urban, Davorin Višnjić, Srđan Vrančić, Božidar Vukičević, Olaf Wyludda, Dragoljub Zamurović

Author of the exhibition: Sandra Vitaljić
Exhibition layout: Sandra Vitaljić
Exhibition catalogue design: Tomislav Turković
Exhibition design: Adriana Pavelić / Studio Pikula
Exhibition setup: Robert Vazdar
Project leader and coordination: Brodoto d.o.o.
Marko Gregović, Valentina Starčević



 In 1924, when the German pacifist Ernst Friedrich published his book War against War, he did it on order to prevent further wars after World War I by showing horrible images of dead, wounded, and mutilated soldiers and civilians.[1] He was hoping that those scenes of atrocities, censored from public space during the war, accompanied by texts in German, English, French, and Dutch, would be a sufficient message to the humanity. The book was translated in many other languages and by 1930 had gone through as many as ten editions in Germany.[2] However, a new world war started already in 1939, with scenes of terror that haunt us to the present day. Many antiwar films have been shot and books written since, and the appeal Never again! has been voiced by many prominent artists, statesmen, and common people. Yet war persists as an ineradicable form of human activity, with equally devastating and enduring consequences for the participants and civilians alike. The question arises: is it still possible to keep faith in anti-war missions, and how can one create an antiwar museum today?

War belongs in a museum

The Image of War museum in Zagreb, inaugurated under the motto War belongs in a museum!, seeks to create space for a public debate on war and its consequences by bringing photographic stories from all parts of the world. In the times when intolerance towards the Other and the different is escalating globally, and when “war” is a word that comes so easily across our lips, it is intended to serve as a place of education, dialogue, and remembrance. The mass media tend to grant lesser and lesser space to profound analyses or complex stories from the war zones, reducing the news to a few television seconds and leaving the information superficial and incomplete. The Image of War museum grants additional space to photographers in order to present long-term projects on the crucial global issues and theatres of war. It is noteworthy that such a museum is being opened in Zagreb, in Croatia, whose people has lived through a war experience with consequences that are still felt today, while the relationship with the past remains a topical and painful issue. The first exhibition, Up Close and Personal – War in Croatia, is dedicated to this very war and includes more than a hundred photographs by professional photographers, as well as testimonies of ordinary people who experienced the war in various ways and in different circumstances. The exhibition offers only one possible view and interpretation of the war in Croatia, seeking to incorporate various perspectives and show great respect for the events and victims on all sides.

Without a clear turning point

The date on which the war in Croatia started has not been established with precision, and it is not certain what dramatic events marked that turning point from ordinary, everyday life, in which children attended schools and kindergartens, into one in which they had to hide in cold and damp basements and shelters, were killed or left orphans, in which twelve-year old girls were executed without mercy and children returned from summer holidays to besieged Vukovar to serve as cannon fodder. The war was never officially proclaimed, but sneaked in treacherously, in a series of tensions, from the orchestrated fight between the fans of Crvena Zvezda and Dinamo at the football stadium in Maksimir to the demonstrations that escalated in actual conflicts between the citizens and the YPA in Split and Zagreb, and further to the “bloody Easter” of Plitvice and the killing of 12 policemen in Borovo Selo.

These conflicts were preceded by political and media agitation, by revisions and relativizations of historical events, intolerance against members of other nationalities, and hate speech instilling fear of the Other. Croatian euphoria caused by the first multiparty elections, by plans of separating from Yugoslavia and fulfilling the dream of having an independent state, alternated with fear, uncertainty, and rebellion on the Serbian side. Barricades were set up on traffic routes around Knin, cutting Croatia in two; Serbian rebels created their own para-state, the Republic of Serbian Krajina, and the Yugoslav People’s Army, once a state symbol of brotherhood and unity, now openly stood at their side, besieging and attacking the village of Kijevo. All these events were documented by photographers: the same ones who had hitherto covered press conferences and sports events, produced vignettes for the city chronicles, or at worst images for the crime page. Suddenly they had turned into war reporters, in a war that was happening at their own doorstep. Only a few among them had any international experience or practice in covering armed conflicts. They were completely unprepared for what awaited them: the danger, the atrocities, risking their own life, watching their colleagues and friends die, the sense of belonging that cancelled the postulates on reporter’s neutrality. For both Croatian and Serbian photographers could record the events only from one side: their “own”. The perception of those times still differs dramatically depending on the “side” from which they are viewed and presented.

Witnesses of a time

This exhibition seeks to show the war in Croatia from various perspectives: through the work of Croatian, Serbian, and international photographers, as well as private photographs and testimonies of ordinary people, collected during the #GdjeSiBio91 (#WhereWereYouIn91) campaign on social networks. This is where the exhibition title Up Close and Personal comes from, as it situates the photographer very far from the imaginary ideal of a neutral and objective witness that the photographic camera and the one operating it are usually associated with. It is this personal approach, tinted with one’s worldview, emotions, personal involvement, and also nationality and patriotism, that I wanted to emphasize with this exhibition, which also includes personal testimonies of photographers on the documented situations and their own experience of war.

Being a witness of important events is a privilege of documentary photographers even more than journalists, since they, unlike the latter – who can collect their information from various sources – must be present at the very epicentre. The celebrated Robert Capa, the poster boy of heroic war reporting, famously proclaimed: “If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Needless to say, modern wars are waged differently, and even the “front line” has been redefined, a circumstance that has changed war reporting as well. However, at the time of wars in the territory of former Yugoslavia, reporters still went to the first line of fighting to get their images. It was the time before the digital age and photography was still surrounded with an aura of credibility. It also served to prove the claims of the warring sides on the committed atrocities – even if images showing the same victims were sometimes used to accuse the other side of the crime. The photographers were doing their job according to their abilities and worldviews, driven to dangerous and traumatic situations by various motives: searching for the truth, wishing to inform the world on the madness going on, hunting for the best photograph, patriotism, adventurism, or financial profit. Even to those who refused to be harnessed in ideological machinery it could happen that their photographs were used for propaganda purposes. Despite all, photographs shot during the war remain an important testimony of the time, and from a temporal distance one can perceive their significance in a different way: bringing them into different relations and confronting those shot at the opposite sides can improve our understanding of the war. The Croatian photographers Darko Bavoljak, Robert Belošević, Matko Biljak, Branimir Butković, Siniša Duraković, Željko Gašparović, Siniša Hančić, Toni Hnojčik, Romeo Ibrišević, Zlatko Kalle, Božidar Kelemenić, Silvestar Kolbas, Mišo Lišanin, Antun Maračić, Nikola Šolić, Nikola Tačevski, Zvonimir Tanocki, Pavo Urban, Davorin Višnjić, Srđan Vrančić, and Božidar Vukičević, and the Serbian photographers Miloš Cvetković, Željko Sinobad, Srđan Sulejmanović, Imre Szabo, and Dragoljub Zamurović, photographed the war from different positions and in different circumstances, but their photographs, observed together, offer new insights into the war events, both at the front line and in the everyday life of civilians affected by the war.

The invisible

Much about the war period and the society in which we lived at the time can also be perceived through that which is absent from photographs – since it was never recorded in the first place. What you will not see in war photographs exhibited at the museum, or generally in war photography of the time, are forced evictions, persecutions of unwanted journalists, people who were fired from their workplaces because of their “wrong” nationality, who were threatened and maltreated for having a different opinion. You will not see crimes committed against Serbian nationals, for even if the news reached the photographers, they were forbidden to photograph such things or decided not to do it out of fear for their safety, perhaps out of solidarity with the persecutors, or awareness that the photographs would not change anything even if one managed to publish them. You will not see photographs of the execution at Ovčara, even though there were dozens of Serbian and international photographers and television crews in Vukovar at the time, and one of them, Serbian photographer Tomislav Peternek, was even summoned as a witness to the Belgrade court as it was suspected that he had been present at the execution. Such crimes were committed far from the camera lens, since photographs could be used to identify the perpetrators.[3] Miloš Cvetković, photographer for the Serbian oppositional weekly Borba at the time, recorded some lootings committed by the Serbian paramilitaries: he confirms that such situations were extremely dangerous for the photographers, and that they happened on both sides. Hrvoje Polan, photographer for the Croatian weekly Feral Tribune, photographed civilians looting shops in Knin after the departure of the Serbian population during the military-police action Storm. Feral Tribune published the photographs, and Polan published his photograph with a comment on the 20th anniversary of Oluja on Facebook, upon which he was verbally attacked and even threatened by his colleagues and acquaintances. The photographers were expected to “play for their own team” and to neglect the professional standards.

Personal side of photography

International photographers featured at this exhibition, such as Wade Goddard, Ron Haviv, Paul Lowe, Christopher Morris, Peter Turnley, or Olaf Wyludda, had a better starting point, since they could work on both sides, at least in the beginning of the war. Despite that, for many foreign reporters who spent a prolonged period of time in the war zone, the war situation would become personal, and their comments and photographs reveal an attitude that evolved from the events they had witnessed. Sometimes these included exceptionally traumatic moments, difficult to cope with, such as witnessing an execution while being aware that one could not do anything to prevent it, and that the very presence of a photographer may have actually contributed to it. Permanent danger and oppressive war scenes left a permanent mark on the reporters’ mind, and most of them still find it hard to recall this period of their lives, of which they speak with intense emotions.

Photographers, television cameramen, and reporters were permanently risking their lives, since they could often become not only collateral victims, but also intentional targets. During the peak of armed conflicts in Croatia, from July 1991 until June 1992,[4] as many as 23 reporters lost their lives, among others photographer Pavo Urban and cameramen Goran Lederer, Žarko Kaić, and Živko Krstičević.

Pavo Urban was a young photographer from Dubrovnik, who had just passed the admission exam for the Cinematography Department at the Academy of Dramatic Art in Zagreb, yet never even started his studies. As Dubrovnik was besieged, he enlisted as a volunteer and then became a war reporter. He was killed at the age of 23, during the fiercest artillery attack on Dubrovnik, on December 6, 1991, which he photographed until the very end, leaving behind a shattering testimony of human suffering and devastation of the cultural heritage, as well as diary notes formulated as a letter to a girl who was staying in the USA at the time. In those notes, he insightfully observes how war alters human character, since it connects people in distress, but a moment later can trigger egoism, war profiteering, proliferation of fake and morbid news, and hate speech. 

We have no right to remain indifferent

All photographs shown at this exhibition and published in this book communicate powerfully and emotionally the testimonies of the time by showing everyday life during the war, the suffering of civilians and soldiers, devastation of cultural heritage, and executions of entire cities. What is missing from the exhibition, however, is those who were pulling the strings at the time, agitating and promoting ideologies and nationalism with consequences that are clearly manifested in these photographs.

The aim of the exhibition is to encourage a dialogue and to make us face the traumatic past in order to understand our present more clearly, and to create a better and more open society of the future. While looking at the terrible scenes resulting from exclusion and hatred, you will recognize things that may be everyday life in another war zone at this very moment. Scenes of the present-day refuge crisis are disturbingly similar to those that you will see at this exhibition. And if you believe that walls and barbwire will help you preserve the way of life that you’re used to, leaving on the other side those less privileged, who are trying to find shelter while fleeing the results of politics and wars in which the governments of our countries are taking part as well, remember these photographs and understand that we all must be held accountable for acting or not acting. Even though war photographs are disturbing, we have no right to remain indifferent. Our duty is to be aware, to keep our eyes and our minds open, and to work day after day on building up a more inclusive society and a future of peace for all of us.

[1] Ernst Friedrich founded the first Antiwar Museum in Berlin, which the Nazis closed down in 1933, http://www.anti-kriegs-museum.de/english/history.html(last accessed on July 7, 2018).

[2] S. Sontag, "Ernst Friedrich, War against War,” New Yorker(December 9, 2002), https://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/07/10/ernst-friedrich-war-against-war-1924/(last accessed on July 7, 2018).

[3] In some cases of mass killings, the perpetrators themselves used cameras. Their intention was to collect trophies, but eventually such photographs were used as evidence in court trials: e.g. the shots of the Scorpion unit and the paramilitary Avengers, who recorded the beatings and executions of Muslim civilians during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

[4] M. Mučalo, “Novinarstvo u ratnim uvjetima” [Reporting from war zones], Politička misao 36/2 (1999), p. 130.