How the Aftermath Project uses post-conflict photography to help build peace after war
Muslim widows are seen here during the prayer for the dead offered at the groundbreaking of a memorial site for the 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim men and boys who were massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995. Photo by Sara Terry.
Images of war have a specific power: to shock the viewer.
But for documentary photographer Sara Terry, the height of a conflict has never been the full picture.
“I believed, and still believe, that what happens in the aftermath of war is as newsworthy, if not more so, than the destruction and horror of war,” says Terry, founder of The Aftermath Project, a small nonprofit that funds post-conflict photography projects.
“War defines our inhumanity. In the aftermath is where you reclaim and redefine our humanity,” Terry says.
After exploring that idea in her own project about Bosnia and Herzegovina, Terry started the Aftermath Project to help others do the same. Each year since 2007, the organization has awarded $20,000 grants to photographers. The resulting images are used in an annual book, “War is Only Half the Story,” as well as other resources.
The projects, which can be described as Restorative Narratives, are more than collections of photos. They are starting points for a dialogue about what it takes for individuals and societies to learn to live again and build peace after war.
Aftermath Project grant winners have focused their lenses on people and communities all over the world, including Ukraine, Turkey and Chechnya.
This year’s winner, Nina Berman, a professor at Columbia University, plans to photograph such places as the Passaic River in New Jersey, which is polluted with dioxin from the production of Agent Orange for the Vietnam War. Berman’s goal is to “document the toxic legacy of war on the American landscape.”
“I’ve been surprised by how many toxic sites exist, and in communities I never imagined,”Berman says. “American society is embedded with the business of war. Perhaps this project will make that fact more fully known.”
An element of warning is common in aftermath projects, says Terry. It’s related to another common thread: questions about how — or whether — a conflict is acknowledged.
Acknowledgement was a driving theme for another grant winner who focused on the United States. In “American Memory,” 2012 grantee Andrew Lichtenstein explored the intersection of the past and present at historical sites across the country.
One image shows a reflection of a crowd visiting the National Civil Rights Museum on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. The museum was created at The Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King was assassinated. It includes an exhibit made from the original room King stayed in.
Another of Lichtenstein’s photos shows two women at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, praying for the millions of their ancestors who died while crossing the Atlantic on slave ships from Africa. The women were participating in an annual ceremony held by a church in memory of the slave trade’s atrocities.
“The first step towards healing a deep wound is acknowledgement. Without that, it is impossible to move forward,” Lichtenstein wrote in his photographer’s statement.
Questions about acknowledgement, healing and other themes in the projects can be teased out using the lesson plans created for some of the projects.
In a lesson plan that accompanies, Rodrigo Abd’s photos of mass grave exhumations in Guatemala, students are asked questions such as:
- Why do you think the photographer explains that the exhumations were “visited by family members of victims of violence from around the world, including relatives of victims of the September 11 attacks in the United States”? Why might those visits have mattered? What impact might those visits have had? On whom?
- By looking at the photographs, have we become witnesses to the exhumation? If so, what responsibilities, if any, come with that witnessing?
The lesson plans were created in collaboration with the educational nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves. They are targeted to high school students but also are used in college classes.
Through The Aftermath Project’s lesson plans, books, exhibitions, and lectures, Terry has curated a decade-long conversation on what happens in the period after most news cameras move on from a conflict zone.
“That’s pretty remarkable as an artist, to do more than create your own body of work — to create a forum on a subject,” she says. “How many people care about an issue and never get to do anything about it?”
But there’s still more to do.
The nonprofit is planning for its 10th anniversary and also halting grants for the time being.
“I want to make use of the work that we’ve funded. We’ve got to stop and think about this work and share with a wider audience,” says Terry, who still works full-time as a photographer and filmmaker.
As part of its anniversary celebrations, The Aftermath Project will organize a traveling exhibition and a retrospective book. Selected photographs won’t be grouped chronologically, but rather by concept. One chapter of the book, for instance, will be titled, “What Remains.”
Viewed through such framing, the images “begin building a conversation,” says Terry.
One takeaway from that conversation is that rebuilding after war is not straightforward or simple.
“It takes time. It’s fragile. It’s a time of relearning and redefining,” she says.
Although those stories can’t be wrapped up in tidy packages, Terry continues to believe in the necessity of telling them.
“If the only stories we tell ourselves are only stories of destruction, who do we become?”