By NICHOLAS WOOD
3 June 2004
The New York Times
(c) 2004 New York Times Company
DUBROVNIK, Croatia, June 2 -- With his back to the camera, a cigarette in one hand and a gun in the other, the soldier nonchalantly kicks the body of a middle-aged woman as she lies dying on the ground. It is one of the most famous photographs of war in Bosnia, and 21-year-old Katie Shierlaw is staring at it for the first time, transfixed.
The picture, taken by the American photographer Ron Haviv, is among 700 or so in an exhibition called ''A Decade of War'' that officially opened Tuesday in this port, a Croatian beauty spot on the Adriatic and the scene of fierce fighting from 1991 to 1995.
War Photo Limited, the gallery that has mounted the exhibition, claims to be the first in the world dedicated exclusively to war photography. Its organizers say they aim to expose people to details of war that they have not seen before. The exhibition, the gallery's first, covers the Balkans wars that gripped this region for close to 10 years.
The photographs, brilliantly lighted on dark walls, range from the violent to the absurd. They include pictures of dozens of bodies, victims of the shelling of a Croatian city; artillery fire painting bright orange lines in the night sky; and a Serbian policeman offering water to an elderly Kosovar Albanian as his colleagues burn the old man's village down.
''It's shocking,'' said Ms. Shierlaw, from Niagara Falls, Ontario, who stepped into the gallery with a friend while on vacation in the city. ''I knew something went on, but not to this extent.''
The reactions of other foreign visitors, no matter what their ages, are similar. ''It's pretty hard to understand, pretty hard,'' one viewer commented in the visitors' book. Wrote another, ''I am shocked at my ignorance and how little knowledge I had of what was happening here.''
The exhibition features the work of 10 photographers who covered the wars, including Darko Bandic, Christopher Morris, Srdjan Ilic and Noel Quidu. All of the pictures on display have been selected by the photographers themselves, as opposed to being chosen by a curator or photo editor. That and the sheer range of photographs on display, War Photo Limited's organizers argue, exposes people to a more raw and vivid impression of the conflict than they are likely to have encountered before.
''I certainly believe that people get a much better idea of what happened than if they picked up a copy of a newsmagazine, even when the war was on,'' said Wade Goddard, the gallery's director and a photographer who also covered conflicts in the region.
The majority of visitors to the gallery through the summer are expected to be tourists, many of them brought by cruise ships that stop at Dubrovnik as they sail up the Adriatic. There are few visible scars of the war left in the city, and some visitors could be forgiven for not knowing that the spot they now walk through was under shell fire just nine years ago.
''I quite like the idea that you come here on holiday and it's very nice, and then suddenly you are back in reality,'' said War Photo Limited's owner, Frederic Hancez, a Belgian businessman who has invested close to $600,000 to convert the stone building where the gallery is housed. He visited Croatia repeatedly throughout the war, selling shoes, and struck up an interest in war photography after meeting members of the press corps. (''There was nobody else around to hang out with,'' apart from ''arms dealers and members of the U.N.,'' he explained.'')
But while this Western-financed show has perhaps had the desired effect on tourists unaware of what happened, the reaction from those who lived through or took part in the fighting has been mixed. The gallery was open free to residents of Dubrovnik throughout the winter. For some, the images are still too raw, even though nine years have passed since the fighting ended in this region.
Miljenko Popovic, 52, a former Croatian soldier and now owner of a snack bar opposite the gallery, said he did not want to see the photographs. ''There are too many emotions, wounds that have not been healed,'' he said.
Mr. Goddard has also faced criticism from other former soldiers who say that not enough heroic pictures of the Croatian army are on display. And some resident of the city have said that more photographs of the war in Dubrovnik should have been used. Mr. Haviv's collection, titled ''Blood and Honey,'' is the main show on display, and it encountered violent responses when it went on tour in Serbia in 2002. Nationalists there claimed the photographs presented a biased or anti-Serb view of the war. The exhibition was banned in two cities and was forced to close early in another.
Whether the reaction is hostility or shock, the exhibition has provided the photographers with an outlet for their work that some have said was lacking. Mr. Haviv used to believe his photographs could change the world, he said, but became frustrated when the world stood by impervious to what he saw.
''I now realize that this is part of a process,'' he said. ''One image can no longer change the world. It is just not possible anymore.'' The dialogue provoked by the exhibition and the work of War Photo Limited, he said, ''keeps me going.''