Thinking Images v.18: Ratko Mladic and the limits of visibility




This photograph of former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic after his arrest was (as Tom Keenan observed on Facebook) too long in coming but nevertheless still satisfying.

In many ways its hard to equate the pathetic visage on display here with the barbaric deeds Mladic’s forces committed in the Bosnian War between 1992-95, with the genocide at Srebrenica the most appalling. For anyone who doubts the enormity of the crimes committed under the leadership of Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the prosecutor’s indictment in Case No. IT-95-5/18-I should make salutary reading (thanks to @martincoward for the link). Mladic deserves a fair trial, and whatever the limitations of the ICTY in the Hague, the trial he will receive there will be infinitely fairer than the vengeance he wrought on thousands upon thousands of innocent civilians in the former Yugoslavia.

The Bosnian War was something that preoccupied me for much of the 1990s, and I researched the issues it raised for years before publishing a book, National Deconstruction, on the subject in 1998. I subsequently conducted a detailed investigation of the controversy surrounding the media coverage of the Bosnian Serb-run concentration camps in the Prijedor region, which was published in 2002. It is the case that all sides in the conflict committed war crimes, but I have no doubt that the nationalist programme of Karadzic and Mladic – backed by Milosevic in Belgrade – resulted in the worst cases of ethnic cleansing and genocide. (To those who might want to redirect responsibility for the atrocities in comments, don’t bother, they won’t be posted. I’ve done my time trying to debate revisionists who want to diminish the suffering inflicted by those who partitioned Bosnia, and I’m no longer willing to engage people who are impervious to evidence).

The Bosnian War was a seminal event in the photographic visualization of atrocity, and one that exposed the limits of visibility. Because it took place on Europe’s border, was shown nightly on television, and widely pictured in the press, you might think that the abundant images of innocent victims would have provoked a major response from either Europe or America. The war was certainly a major media story. And there was much diplomatic activity and many grand statements by concerned leaders. But the fact is that no amount of visual evidence form the siege of Sarajevo, and the destruction of other cities, moved countries to offer more than under-equipped UN forces distributing inadequate care packages. When NATO did eventually act with limited air power towards the end of the war, it only secured the partition of Bosnia along lines that rewarded ethnic cleansing.

The idea that photographers, broadcasters and journalists could produce a just political response through the power of their imagery came up short in Bosnia. We still have much to learn about how pictures work and the nature of their relationship to change. In the meantime, I will take some belated satisfaction that we get to see the portrait of a man whose violent past has caught up with him.

Photo credit: Politika, via Reuters, from the PhotoBlog

3 Responses to “Thinking Images v.18: Ratko Mladic and the limits of visibility”

  1. Fürst

    I completely agree with your assessment. I am wondering if the simplistic narrative that was built around the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s is partially to blame. The story line seemed to follow a predictable plot of ancient hatreds among wild Balkan tribes finally playing themselves out. It was really a case where facts were not allowed to get in the way of a simple-to-follow story. The wars in the former Yugoslavia were treated mostly as entertainment and maybe we should not be surprised that the reaction was not stronger. If you think about it, most people could not tell you much about the conflicts taking place there because the coverage was not meant to actually explain what is going on. The blame should be put on producers and editors who wanted sanitized images without ambiguity and complexity that told a preconceived story. Recently, a Croatian daily I used to work for published a gallery of photographs from the 1990s (Watch for the annoying ads: that we have never seen before. Not great, but certainly more complex than what was previously shown. It makes you wonder if the editorial policies were different, would the images actually have more impact. We will never know, but I have a feeling that for as long as editorial decisions to make war and suffering into sanitized entertainment remain the typical approach to conflict coverage, what photojournalists produce on the ground will not matter much. Sorry for a long comment.

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