The Photo Album


I am looking through a series of matt photos that are organised in an album. They have each been carefully placed behind individual plastic sheets that are now torn and offer the photos only a little protection. It’s the 1980s. The photos portray families with serious expressions imprinted on their faces looking into the camera. Others show gatherings of families sat together around coffee tables laden with fizzy drinks and snacks. There are others of men and women posing casually next to their first car, or of a young couple embracing in front of a national monument, and of men posing variously beside neat flower beds or precariously balanced on scaffolding at dizzying heights somewhere in Germany. It was a time of hope for a better future and economic upswing. It was a time of fear of poverty, persecution and political turmoil. It was a time when 400,000 Albanians emigrated from Kosovo to Western Europe as Serbia revoked the province’s autonomy, acquired control over its institutions, and introduced Serbian as the official language.


Turning the worn pages of the album, I am catapulted forward to the 1990s. The scenes in the photos become more sinister. They now portray mostly men, and very seldom women, during meetings in café bars or in their homes with weariness etched on their faces, others are of young men exhilarated after protest marches in the nearby cities or the capital of Prishtina, and some are of men in camouflage with guns in their hands posing with their companions someplace in the woods and hills. War was looming as the Serbian oppression of the Kosovar Albanian population had increased severely, leading to open conflict between the two ethnic groups. The Kosovo Liberation Army’s freedom fighters led the first attacks against Serbian policemen and government officials that were swiftly countered by the Serbian military police with revenge attacks against any villagers who had sheltered KLA fighters. During 1998, the conflict escalated rapidly as Serbia declared war on Kosovo.


As I turn the pages of the album the faces of the protestors and warriors look back at me and a strange sense of foreboding sets in.  The photos seem to pronounce their subjects’ near finitude. The imminence of the men’s deaths is all-pervading and almost palpable in the photos without being actually portrayed. Holding concepts of life and death together in my head and thinking what cannot be thought is almost maddening as the contradiction impresses itself on my mind. [3] Susan Sontag, an American philosopher, filmmaker and writer, noted a similar sensation when looking at photographs of war, writing: “Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives headed toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.” [4] It is this sensed temporal move toward the subjects’ absence that makes me turn to the next pages only hesitantly.


The turning of the album’s pages sits alongside an oppressive sense of knowing the absent, a gap in chronology, a kind of absent presence, as there are no pictures portraying the violence, the killings, and the suffering. It is precisely this absence of the sheer brutality that spurs my imagination and makes the continuing journey through the photo album painful. Following this gap in in the images, are photographs of destroyed homes and compound walls, scenes of burials displaying wooden coffins waiting to be lowered into prepared holes in the ground, and of stoic or weeping women with their children holding pictures of their loved ones whom the war had taken.


These photographs haunt me as I attempt somehow to grasp the idea of life and death together. I am haunted by questions of what it takes to perform acts of such cruelty that shatter the lives of others, and of how one can possibly re-inhabit a world marred by terrible violence and loss, and how the war dead continue to live on in people’s daily lives and imaginaries. I am haunted too by the gaping space remaining that allows for the imagining of what has been and what could have been, had it not been for the murder, the looting, and the pillaging, and I am haunted by what still might be, despite everything. It is this haunting, Susan Sontag writes that draws us to images and makes us listen to their message as they seem to say: “This is what human beings are capable of doing – may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.”

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