Adrien Selbert is one of the 50 best emerging photographers for 2015, as named in the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards. He was also one of the eight “jurors’ picks.” Here is his winning entry and artist’s statement. Below, you can also read more about what made his work so special in the eyes of the jury.
July 1995: The Serbian army from Bosnia launched an attack upon the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nearly 8,000 men were massacred in three days. 20 years later, the city seems frozen in its own history. And a new generation wanders throughout its dark remains, overshadowed by genocide.
Srebrenica, beautiful and quiet.
In Tito’s Yugoslavia, the city was famous both for hot springs and air quality. Known as the Silver City, Srebrenica flourished thanks to that precious metal. After the war, the money flowed back into the city, but the hot springs are still closed.
Since the war, Srebrenica has become the symbol of both Serbian barbarism as well as the UN’s inability to stop genocide in a so-called “protected zone.” Being a symbol has a price. For 20 years, the city has lived under generous donations from NGOs. International assistance paid for assisted return programs. Some plants have been re-opened and a brand new supermarket stands alone in the middle of dilapidated buildings.
Living in Srebrenica is to experience this indefinable time of post-war. Though everyone knows when this “post” started, who can tell when it stops? Strolling through this space where the testimonies of horror cohabit with peacetime, a question emerges: “Is there an end at the end of war?”
LC: What first brought you to Srebrenica? Were there problems of access given the area’s troubled past?
AS: The first time I came to Bosnia was in 2005. I was 20 years old. A friend and I had decided that we would go by car from France to Sarajevo: 24 hours of non-stop driving.
Why come to Bosnia? Maybe to see the land and people that we saw on TV when we were children. During the 90s, the Bosnian War was daily news. These were the first images of violence that I saw as a kid. Srebrenica, due to the huge massacre (8,000 people killed in 3 days) became the symbol of this horrible war.
When we finally arrived in Bosnia, the country hit us in the face. It was just 10 years after the war—but in Srebrenica, things looked like the conflict had ended only yesterday.
In 2008, I got an opportunity to make my first documentary movie. With the same friend, we decided to make a feature on post-war daily life in Srebrenica, specifically focusing on the youth. After a few months of filming, a story came to us and we put together a film about a grieving mother’s struggle to recover the body of her son who was killed in the war.
Last summer, four years after the movie, I was still frustrated. I felt like I had failed to speak about the situation for youths in Srebrenica. Perhaps it’s because film is about movement, while the situation of these young people is dominated by frozen time, by boredom. I still wanted to show how life looks when you are 20 and you are born in a city forever scarred by an abomination. The injustice of the situation deeply concerned me.
I needed to freeze facial expressions, capture postures, stop time to get at the special feeling of living in an indefinable pause in history. So I decided to buy a photo-camera and began living the life of my subjects. I wanted to share beers with young folks, wander aimlessly with them in empty streets. That’s when I started to photograph their endless nights…as it turned out, photography was the best medium to express this melancholic atmosphere, the disjointed post-war time.
LC: Although you took on a subject that has a 20-year history, you chose to only show contemporary pictures. How did you reach this key aesthetic decision?
AS: The documentary movie I made showed what had happened during the war and the consequences for the survivors. But it was not really about daily life. As I said above, what came to matter to me was how young people from Srebrenica are constantly haunted by the war. Every foreigner who comes here is interested only in the massacre. They want to speak about what happened 20 years ago and little else. For example, a horde of journalists came in July for the 20th anniversary. But nobody comes in the winter. Nobody cares about the daily life of someone born after the war.
So for those reasons I decide to live in the city (not in a hotel) and spend all my time with young people. And then I decided to make my pictures only during the night because that is the only moment when they truly own their city.
The more time I spent with them, the more I found what it was like to wander in the darkness of a history, together. But while I chose to come here, these young guys didn’t choose to have this burden, this focus on a past they didn’t even experience.
Aesthetically, because of the darkness, it’s difficult to see the historical context. This was intentional. I chose not to focus on the ruins but rather to let the past come silently from within the pictures. The pictures also ended up looking quite cinematic. I like that.
Ultimately, I was motivated to make pictures that could be appreciated by people who know nothing about the situation and also by specialists of Bosnia. I hope both parties can be touched by these images.
LC: In your artist’s statement, you speak with empathy for the local 20-year olds whose whole lives have been shadowed in tragedy. Did your subjects also think in these terms or did this feel more like your own interpretation?
AS: Between making my film and making this series, I have spent a lot of time in Srebrenica. And as I said, I made sure to be “one of them” as much as possible. I spent all my nights with them, drinking, smoking, chatting, chilling. Of course, these photos are still my vision, my interpretation of what I felt, what I saw and what I heard.
But the grain of my artist statement sprang from long conversations I actually had with these young folks. Now, luckily, there are some who are more positive than I am about the situation—which is a good thing! But I also showed my project to many youths who told me they were glad that someone adopted a different stance on Srebrenica, a perspective closer to their everyday (and every-night) life.
LC: Europe is filled with sites of great, terrible historical significance. Some of them remain frozen as memorials (e.g. Auschwitz) while others have been able to rebuild (e.g. Dresden or Guernica). Why do you think Srebrenica remains so stubbornly frozen?
AS: Srebrenica remains frozen in the past for many reason. First, there is corruption. It’s hard for young folks to get a job without going through political channels. You have to know “someone” to get anywhere. On top of that, half of the country is unemployed (44% unemployment rate, 57% for youth). So, many young people are going to bigger cities or, more likely, seeking their fortunes abroad.
Since so many people are trying to escape from Srebrenica as soon as they can, how can you hope to build a new city without those very same young people?
More broadly, Srebrenica is frozen because even today, 20 years later, the populace remains traumatized. As long as there are missing bodies to be found in mass graves, the deep psychological wounds will remain. As long as each foreigner who comes here is thinking only about the massacre, it will be hard to move on. For example, while the recent anniversaries have brought attention to the city, they have focused solely on the brutality of the massacre. Thus, these events in the past continue to imbue and hang over every part of the city.
If we don’t let the youth live a normal life in Srebrenica, then the city will become owned only by old people and then by ghosts and then forever to its terrible past.
But it’s always complicated trying to balance between the duty of memory and the need to look ahead. There are no easy answers…
Anyways, to finish with a positive point: since I made these pictures, a few good things have appeared. For example, a music school just opened in the city center!
—Adrien Selbert, interviewd by Alexander Strecker