Studio: Dubrovnik

Anthony Daniels visits the War Photo Limited gallery in Dubrovnik

This article is taken from the October 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Visitors to Dubrovnik (there are 90 per cent fewer of them than before the Covid pandemic) would probably have difficulty in believing that only 30 years ago, half the buildings of the city had been damaged in a violent siege during a vicious civil war. The spic-and-span-ness of Dubrovnik is no doubt testimony to human powers of recuperation and to the prosperity, if not necessarily the charm, that mass tourism brings. In one of the narrow streets of the old city, in which tourists wander in their eternal search for sandwiches and souvenirs, is a photo gallery that suddenly recalls the crowds of pleasure-seekers to the fact that life can turn nasty.

War Photo Limited is a non-profit-making gallery devoted to displaying the photographs of war photographers from around the world. It has a permanent collection and hosts (or used to host, before Covid) two exhibitions a year [1]. It publishes high quality albums of the photographers’ work at a very reasonable price.

The gallery was founded in 2003 by Wade Goddard and a friend. Goddard, a New Zealander, had been a young photographer during the Yugoslavian wars, starting aged 23, and has published a book of photos of the Kosovo war. He understood the dangers — not only physical — of continuing this line of work, but did not want to leave the field altogether, and so founded his gallery. His approach is strictly non-ideological: he is not concerned with the rights and wrongs of armed conflict, but merely aims to show its consequences both for participants and bystanders. Naturally, he hopes that his work will be a contribution to ending such conflict.

To speak of favourites in this context is to trivialise at best and be sadistically voyeuristic at worst

War photography is a peculiar genre. It risks aestheticising the unspeakable. I remember once, during the Peruvian conflict provoked by Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), I was witness to something horrific. I wanted to take a photograph of it to tell the world what was happening: and soon, to my discomfiture, found myself more concerned with the composition of the picture I was to take than with the horror of what I was photographing. I needn’t have worried: it was so terrible that no one would publish it.

It would not be quite right to refer to my favourite pictures of those shown at or published by War Photo Limited. To speak of favourites in this context is to trivialise at best and be sadistically voyeuristic at worst. Some pictures are more terrible, more startling, more horrific than others, of course; but each has a deep meaning, provokes reflection, stimulates thought. One looks at a photograph and tries to extract its significance as a bee extracts pollen from a flower. They are practically all so laden with meaning that it is almost invidious to choose between them. 

For example, the photos of the Iraq-Iran war by Alfred Yaghobzadeh, an Armenian Iranian, recall us to our humanity. It was all too easy to dismiss this war at the time with the flippant hope that both sides would lose (as, in a sense, they did). But nearly 1,200,000 people lost their lives in it: hundreds of thousands of them children and adolescents aged between 12 and 18. 

One sees, for example, the happiness of wounded Iranian soldiers waiting at an airport to be evacuated [2]: badly wounded enough to need evacuation, but not badly enough to be in danger of death. Their wounds, on the contrary, are life-saving. But what kind of world do we live in that losing an eye or a leg is the price of life? The viciousness of the emotions aroused by war is perfectly captured by the picture of a mullah holding aloft a Kalashnikov [3] in a gesture of triumph over a sandbagged pit containing the decomposing bodies of Iraqi soldiers. How easily we forget that our enemies are — were — human beings.

The photographs of the Liberian Civil War by Noël Quidu are like what La Rochefoucauld says of the sun and death: they cannot be stared at for long. They were of particular power for me because I visited Monrovia during that war and saw a church in which 600 refugees had been massacred, the outlines of the bodies of some of whom were still imprinted on the dried blood upon the ground.

We see a barefoot man from behind with a gun slung over his shoulder [4], holding aloft, again in celebratory triumph, two bleached human bones, free of flesh, as if Man’s highest goal were to kill others of his fellow-creatures. And there is a picture of a drunk and probably drugged child in a red bandanna [5], no more than ten years old, again with a powerful gun, grinning so fatuously into the camera that his eyes are shut, unaware of the seriousness, or the permanence, of killing and being killed.

Eric Bouvet’s photos of the Chechen war are disturbing in their beauty, for their subject is the total ruination not by time but by war (his almost insane bravery in taking them is enough to make one tremble). But is the picture of a woman pushing her young child [6] in a pushchair through the deserted rubble only an hour after the battle that created it a paean to the irrepressibility of the human spirit, or merely testimony to the fact that life must be got through somehow?

In the midst of what might be called the frivolity of tourism one suddenly comes across this astonishing gallery, in my case quite by chance. What surprised me also about it, and surprises me still, is that it is not world-famous, known to everyone. 

War Photo Limited is in the old town at Antuninska 6, Dubrovnik HR20000, Croatia. The current exhibition is Paula Bronstein — The Unwanted: The Rohingya (runs until 31 October 2021)

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover