Innovative Projects | Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace

The opening screen of the nonlinear photo essay, “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace,” photographs by Gilles Peress, published by the New York Times on the Web in 1996.

Two snipers keeping score, part of the nonlinear photo  essay, “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace,” photographs by Gilles Peress, published by the New York Times on the Web in 1996.

In an attempt to move the paradigm forward, at the end of 1995 I proposed to an editor of the newly born New York Times on the Web, Kevin McKenna, a project to create a photojournalism that would be responsive to world events, readers’ concerns, and the exploration of the Web for more complex and pertinent communication. Why do the same thing one can do on paper when the digital offered so many new possibilities?

“Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace” was a Web site presented by the New York Times for three months in the summer of 1996. After four years of horrific bloodshed among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, and the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, the idea was to create a photo essay that departed from the usual shockingly graphic violence of war to one that used imagery to describe the tentative making of peace. The intent was also to take advantage of the new strategies made possible by the Web—nonlinear narratives, discussion groups, contextualizing information, panoramic imaging, the photographer’s reflective voice—rather than imitating a print-based essay.

From the very beginning it was evident that the photographer Gilles Peress, a Frenchman living in New York who had worked extensively in Bosnia, needed to be centrally involved in the creation of such a project rather than simply hand over his imagery for others to select as is often the case in print media. My many years of working as a picture editor were insufficient for the multilinear, multimedia editing required. I could not simply select the “best” images and string them together, bemoaning the imagery that had to be left out due to lack of space, because in fact the Web allowed an enormous quantity of images to be used which could be made accessible to the most interested readers. The photographer had to articulate the multiple meanings of each image as a way of deciding upon accompany- ing texts and images, and to strategize possible linkages to photographs and media on the other screens that would make up the site.

As the eyewitness who was aware not only of what was within each frame but of that which remained outside it, both spatially and temporally, the photographer had an ongoing and pivotal role even after the actual photography was accomplished. Peress, fortunately, was someone who viewed his role as not only that of a photographer but an author in the largest sense of the world. It would take two months to edit and build the site— longer than to photograph the essay; several hours for a viewer to go through it; and the photographer remarked afterward that the process was equivalent to making three books or one feature film. By comparison, he edited and sequenced an eight-page essay of these same photographs for the New York Times Magazine in about two and a half days. Even though the photographs were made with film (in 1996 digital cameras did not have the requisite resolution for serious journalistic work), scans turned them into a part of the digital environment.

In this need to interrogate every image for possible meanings there was a sharper sense of my own distance, as editor, from the events and people being depicted and, concurrently, a heightened desire to understand them. I wanted to know the people that were photographed as individuals rather than as symbols; furthermore, with all the nonlinear, multimedia possibilities of the Web, generic imagery of a suffering mother or wounded combatant would not propel the narrative. In fact, such simplistic imagery would squelch it.

A photograph of a dead man on the ground that I had selected from uncaptioned contact sheets while the photographer was still in Sarajevo turned out to be, to my surprise, an actor playing dead: the shooting of a feature film on the siege of Sarajevo had commenced only four days after the shelling had stopped. The multiple meanings of the photographs were often not at all apparent. Ultimately, as in the case of Schrödinger’s cat, it was possible either to collapse each photograph’s potential meanings into one that could be called a defining caption, or to sustain the ambiguities in the presentation so as to provoke new thinking, not only about each image but also about the larger conflict in Bosnia.

Peress and I worked with some four hundred small photos on the walls of his loft, with differently colored lines connecting the various images, playing a kind of four-dimensional chess as we pondered how to structure the photo essay. If the reader clicks on this image near the window, where would it take him or her? To the image on the other side of the room? What if a reader clicked on the image but only on the person on the left; where would it lead? Why would a reader want to become involved in such a new form of reading? How interactive could (and should) the experience be? When would we lose a reader’s interest?

Looking at the photographs of Muslims returning to their own neighborhoods and Serbs moving away, as they responded to well-intentioned United Nations directives and to sinister rumors about potential genocide, we decided that the metaphor of the journalist should be the operative strategy for navigating the essay. Just like the journalist who arrives at the Sarajevo airport not knowing where to go, what specific story to explore, the reader would be required to click on images without knowing where they lead. Unlike a book or magazine, there was no way of quickly flipping forward to assess and select a path. Each click of the cursor would put a reader on another screen with new perspectives and unknown possibilities.

In our construction, readers would be required to size up the info mation presented, then take trips and side trips through photographs, text, sound, and video, with the option of extricating themselves at any time from Peress’s essay to go to one of fourteen forums and participate in various discussions, as well as to consult maps, a bibliography, or a glossary. There would be a copy of the Dayton Peace Accords and links to large numbers of other sites and other archival material provided by the Times and National Public Radio.

The navigational devices for each screen, in these early days of the Web, were exhaustively discussed as we aimed for simplicity, short download times (most people then had telephone modems), and the capability to explore aspects of the narrative with greater complexity. It took three weeks for a group of us to agree on the rather simple trio of buttons PREVIOUS/MORE/NEXT, allowing the interested reader to pursue more depth at specific places in the narrative. We also decided, without telling the reader, that clicking on a photo would link to the same screen as if MORE had been selected; the idea was that choosing a photo indicated sufficient interest so that the reader should be shown more than the linear narrative would provide. Most important, two screens of a couple of dozen small photographs each were provided as grids—one compiled from the screens concerning Sarajevo and the other from screens dealing with the surround- ing suburbs — that would allow the reader to decisively reject any linearity by clicking on an image to leap to any other part of the reportage. The uncaptioned photographs that made up the grid were meant to encourage a more intuitive, visual reading. Any confusion that resulted for the reader seemed minimal compared to the actual chaos in Bosnia.

The photography was discussed and reevaluated in Web terms—we could present a 360-degree navigable panorama; we could use complex images which link to di=erent destinations; we could scroll up and down or sideways (hiding pictures beyond the border of the screen); we could create collages, and so on.

We decided to pair Peress’s photographs with his own written text and recorded voice to add other points of view. His emotional reactions and philosophical questions would help to contextualize and extend the imagery beyond what the typical identifying captions could accomplish. (“The sniper’s world is a cubist virtual reality where both killer and victim have mapped out space in a game of life and death, and where ten centimeters of unthought potential are met by the crack of the gun. When the sniper is ‘on,’ the air vibrates, the sound of a shot can come at any time, and the street changes its form from a positive space to a negative one, more defined by its outlines than by its center. And now that war is gone, you can visit the other side of the mirror from which he was looking at you.”)

The newness of the medium required that we discuss nearly every decision at length, lost in a new and emerging language. And we tried to be ambitious. Rather than publish the conventional photographs of war, sensationalizing victimization and emphasizing the grotesquerie of violence, we preferred photographs that would strive to understand the problematic and possibility of peace. We were attempting to ask how people who viciously killed one another for years might live together, and provided forums for readers to discuss strategies for resolution.

The idea was to challenge some previous limitations of storytelling without completely losing the reader’s interest. The essay opened, for example, with an uncaptioned photograph that was, in fact, a rephotographed snapshot of a Muslim family in which the face of each family member had been erased by a drill bit; the disfigured snapshot was all that was left when this family returned home after four years of conflict. Then the reader had to choose, intuitively clicking on one of two photographs that would take him either to Sarajevo or to its suburbs, unsure of what each choice entailed.

The photo essay allowed the viewer, at one point, to navigate through a 360-degree panoramic showing a Serbian cemetery filled with empty holes where bodies once were — the caskets were being dug up by relatives afraid that the dead might soon be desecrated by vengeful enemies. The idea was to recreate some of the eerily disconnected feeling of what it was to stand in the middle of that cemetery, where many of the relatives, fueled by alcohol, were unburying family members. It enabled the viewer to look around and get closer to the dirt and the empty graves as if he or she had been provided with a periscope rather than a fixed view.

Rather than circumvent a photographer freshly back from extraordinarily intense experiences and who was highly invested in his own work, Peress was given center stage. And rather than produce the site primarily relying on the authority of the New York Times, by acknowledging and encouraging a conversation among photographer, subject, and reader we could be seen as undermining it. By the newspaper’s willingness to engage its readers in such a relatively open and unresolved fashion, the online project demonstrated the Times’s self-confidence. Two hundred thousand e-mail messages were sent out announcing the site, and although readers outside the United States at that time had to pay a subscription fee to access the online newspaper, the Times made this project free to anyone with Internet access who might want to participate.

Some of our hopes for the project were not realized. The complexity of experiences available to the reader were not nearly as great as we had initially wanted (we were prepared to use hundreds more photographs), but we had to weigh that against the fact that this site was already much more complex than possibly any photojournalistic foray previously attempted in any medium. We had wanted to automatically keep track of a reader’s movements so that some mixing of pathways through the essay could take place based upon previous choices. For example, a reader who continually chose photos depicting Serbs might be given more photos representing Serbs or maybe would be required to look at more images that showed Muslims. We also wanted each reader to be able to pause and then to reenter the site at another time depending upon what had already been seen. (One reader told me that it took her four hours to go through the site.) But these options would have involved too many demands upon the Times servers in 1996.

I also had wanted to engage the viewer’s history of choices as a primary navigational determinant, so that if a reader clicked on a picture showing someone from the Muslim community, then later she might be surprised to be prohibited from selecting pictures of Serbs (the computer might temporarily freeze, for example). In a much milder way this could have reminded the viewer of what had happened to the inhabitants of Sarajevo who were continually being hemmed in and at times assaulted or murdered not only over their own ethnicity but also according to their previous choices of friends and neighbors. Here the viewer would risk only an ocular occlusion.

In the end it was the discussion groups that proved the most volatile and the most painfully revelatory. Four computer terminals were set up at the United Nations in New York and two at The Hague to expand the discussion with those who normally might not have had Internet access then (another center planned for Sarajevo University encountered problems and was slow to go online). Yet the discussion groups were quickly dominated by some of the most racist and vitriolic comments ever to appear in the New York Times. There were fourteen forums with differing subjects (introduced by UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, human rights leader Aryeh Neier, among others), many of which were dominated largely by pro-Serbian commentators abroad who felt their cause was being vilified by the conventional media; someone suggested, accusing the Times of a pro-Muslim slant, that the newspaper must be owned by Saudi Arabia. The discussion groups, despite entreaties for civility by former Times foreign editor Bernard Gwertzman, were so rampantly hostile that a reader could learn more from them than from any news report as to how extensive, irra- tional, and personal the contested claims could be.

At least a couple of commentators felt that the project succeeded in important ways. In Print magazine, Darcy DiNucci wrote: “Clumsy as today’s low-bandwidth presentations must be in some particulars, the site indeed pioneers a new form of journalism. Visitors cannot simply sit and let the news wash over them; instead, they are challenged to find the path that engages them, look deeper into its context, and formulate and articulate a response. The real story becomes a conversation, in which the author/photographer is simply the most prominent participant.” Joe Goia, writing in the online journal Salon, cited “the McLuhanesque consequences of photography freed from the confines of material reproduction.” He responded to the relative insub- stantiality of the screen-based photographs: “They seem barely more permanent than the moments they presume to record. Quick to load, the photos present themselves with the ease and weight of dreams.”

While all reading is a conversation between the reader and the author, the hyperlinked nonlinear narrative is more similar to the oral tradition. Those in a conversation pick up on different ideas and follow them in what- ever ways interest them and they feel are appropriate, assuming that the others involved in the conversation can and will follow. The Web had shown itself capable of a conversation among a variety of authorities; for this project a discussion was provoked by the singular voice of a photographer within the boundaries of a news organization. The interpretation of the news was made more overt, and the requirement on the part of the reader to digest and reinterpret these interpretations, acting as what Barthes called the “active reader,” was reinforced. No longer was the continuum from subject to reporter to editor to reader conceived as if in a straight line; the Web allowed, and promoted, a more zigzag approach.

In 1997 the New York Times nominated “Bosnia: Uncertain Paths to Peace” for a Pulitzer Prize in public service. But despite the increasing interest in the “digital revolution,” the Pulitzer committee immediately rejected this project. Why? It had not been produced on paper. The following year, inspired in part by this project, the Pulitzer committee decided to consider Web sites for the prize in public service if they were associated with print projects from traditional media outlets. Stand-alone sites, however, were not admissible. It would take nearly another decade for a variety of online media such as data- bases, interactive graphics and streaming video, published online but still with a print component, to be ruled eligible for a Pulitzer. The connection to the tangible, analog medium was difficult to relinquish.

Journalism schools across the country are now focused on “convergence”—the need to impart skills to students in multiple media techniques (video, photography, writing, sound, new media)—in order to meet the needs of a multiplatform industry. But they miss the essential point: stories will not be told in the same way. The power relationships among author, subject, and reader will evolve, as will the filters, and the linear narrative, based on the authority of a single voice, is up for grabs in an increasingly nonlinear, decentralized media environment.

Excerpt from Fred Ritchin, After Photography, in the chapter “Beginning the Conversation,” published by W.W. Norton in 2008.