Beginning in 1996, Chris Leslie’s visual art project – a photobook, website, and series of events and exhibitions – captures war-torn communities as they rebuilt their lives
When a young Chris Leslie – a psychology and politics graduate from Scotland – first landed in the former Yugoslavia in the late-90s, he did not consider himself a photographer. “[This project] is my own journey into photography – that one wee lie on my CV about being a photographer back in 1996 that then led me to Croatia, and set the path for my career 25 years on.”
This year marks three decades since the war in the region began. Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo, was placed under the longest siege in modern day history, from April 1992 to February 1996. Now, a quarter of a century later, we see war on the continent once more. Leslie’s book, website, and series of events and exhibitions – all under the umbrella of A Balkan Journey – brings together his documentation of former Yugoslavia in the years following the bitter conflict.
“A Balkan Journey tells the story of the last conflict we had in Europe and how people from Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo dealt with peacetime and rebuilding their homes and lives,” he says. “It was almost a historical project because no-one ever imagined there would be war in Europe once more.”
The book begins in 1996 in Pakrac, a war-ravaged Croatian town, where Leslie was volunteering for an NGO. As well as helping with rebuilding and community projects, he took on the task of running a children’s photography club – despite his lack of on paper experience with cameras at that time.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Leslie’s own photographs of this early period are just a small collection. These images are of empty, derelict streets but also portraits of friendly connections. One included is with an elderly woman named Ljuba. She had remained in her home when her family fled; her warmth and candour encouraged Leslie to pick up the camera. Most of the film shot in this period was lost, damaged or forgotten. The time was mainly a moment of reflection, and of absorbing his surroundings. “So having one photograph of Ljuba – despite all the times we spent together – is more than enough,” he says. “That’s why [this] one colour photograph of her is so important: because it was so rare.”
Following this, Leslie moved to post-conflict Sarajevo to start a camera club for children. Using donated equipment from back home in Scotland, he set up a makeshift studio for children in the Bjelave orphanage, teaching kids from six to 16 basic photographic skills. Word quickly spread and other neighbourhood children joined in.
“The intention was to provide a creative outlet for these kids who had dealt with a near lifetime of war and siege. It had to be simple, practical and most importantly, it had to be fun,” he says. The children ran freely around playgrounds and streets and photographed anything and everything that interested them. Leslie continued the project for over three years, funding his summers in Sarajevo by working at a supermarket in Scotland in between. “These photographs, taken by the kids, have become very special, as that city they documented, in many ways, no longer exists”
“We couldn’t believe there would be a war in Europe in 2022, just like no-one could believe there could be war in Europe in 1992 or in 1942. There are lessons and stories from ‘A Balkan Journey’ that need to be seen, heard and understood”
A Balkan Journey also voyages into a new era, where the camera club kids navigate adult life and as a new group of migrants flood into Bosnia. It also takes in new battle lines and old memories drawn up and out again in the early 2000s in Kosovo. What stands out is his attention to the people as well as the landscape: soldiers, civilians and children stare out from the pages, as an important part of the story. “I just photographed what I saw and what I was interested in. I knew for sure though that without the portraits and testimonies then the landscapes of destruction would be just ‘ruin porn’ – I had to tell the stories and show the people,” he says.
Alongside the book-project, the website includes expanded essays, and archival content collected over the years including documentation of ephemeral objects – from his first camera to maps and contact sheets. The entire site is available in English and Bosnian. “An important audience for this project are from the places in the Balkans I documented. A Balkan Journey contains their stories and their history so it had to be accessible to them in their language. Not everyone can afford or even want, a photo book, so the website filled that void and still gives the project a platform,” says Leslie.
The book ends in 2019, marking the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the war in Bosnia. Leslie’s journey ends with photographs that are witness to a new, present-day Sarajevo, including those refugees and migrants “trapped in limbo”. The project feels “finished” to Leslie, but he hopes that it will be exhibited elsewhere, and people will continue to engage with the book and website, as the seemingly cyclical nature of geo-politics rumbles on.
“Sarajevo has had peace of sorts for decades now, but the pain, suffering and loss of the war is never far from people’s minds. Just how Ukraine will ever be able to ‘recover’ is yet to be seen. The cry of ‘never again’ is now completely redundant. Nor does it matter the year in which we live. We couldn’t believe there would be a war in Europe in 2022, just like no-one could believe there could be war in Europe in 1992 or in 1942. There are lessons and stories from A Balkan Journey that need to be seen, heard and understood.”
A Balkan Journey by Chris Leslie and John McDougall is available to order here.
Nicola Jeffs is a writer based between the UK and Germany. She has written for the Guardian, BJP, Photomonitor and This is Tomorrow, as well as texts for artists and galleries. She has an MA in Photography: History, Theory and Practice from the University of Sussex and an MA in History from the University of Edinburgh.