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Book Review: Imagine: Reflections on Peace (2020)

“What is peace? You can’t make peace if you know nothing about it.”
– Mira Sidawi in Imagine

Many violent conflicts have been covered by photographers, and many have been forgotten again. Our attention span is staggeringly short. Therefore, it is a highly interesting endeavour to re-visit well-known scenes of conflict and to explore today’s situation. And for us, who are exploring and searching for visions of peace, it is even more interesting to see the current situation through the camera lenses of photographers who have already reported about a conflict during the peak of violence. This is the concept behind Imagine: Reflections on Peace, a volume comprised of both photo and written essays.

The collection covers sections on Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Colombia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, and Rwanda, featuring photographic documentations depicting the spike of violence as well as telling stories about the current situation in these countries. Moreover, the photographs are surrounded by written accounts unraveling the backgrounds of the conflict as well as illustrating recent developments.

Most of the visual and textual encounters with the aftermath of these violent conflicts create a rather pessimistic view of the future. To say it with the volume’s conceptual and editorial director, the photographer Gary Knight, “In some cases, the best that could be said was that the peace was preferable only to war – a notion that struck me as a very low benchmark.”

For Imagine, a number of prestigious photographers such as Don McCullin and Ron Haviv were won to contribute with their photographs and personal experiences in the conflict zones. Other prominent figures such as the first chief prosecutor of the Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia, Justice Richard Goldstone, the peace negotiator Padraig O’Malley, or Jonathan Powell, the British government negotiator for the Good Friday Agreement – just to name a few – shared their stories from their involvement with the respective conflicts at hand. It is a compelling collection of experienced personalities adding their insights and thus contributing to a diverse and multifaceted account on these conflicts and both the present and the future of these conflict-torn societies.

Nonetheless, the stories also reveal some more optimistic perspectives on the respective countries. Especially the sections on Rwanda and Northern Ireland offer a more comforting outlook. Exemplary, Martin Fletscher writes, “Northern Ireland’s peace process has certainly not failed. Crucially, its rival communities have learned too disagree without killing each other, and that is an enormous gain”.

Even though most of the pieces are provided by foreigners (a notable exception is the case study of Northern Ireland), the volume also includes essays by and conversations with local people thus representing voices from the conflict regions. Yet, all the photographs presented in the book come from photographers who documented the countries as outsiders – and left after their assignment had ended or the international interest had faded away.

Surprisingly, for a book collecting photographs by a variety of famous photographers, the photographs get a bit dominated by the textual contributions. And in the end the impression prevails that the book offers reflections on violent conflict rather than on peace. Peace continues to “… be framed in the context of war, as an absence of something rather than as a presence” and an “… ephemeral space between wars, a pause, both an aftermath to war and prelude to yet another war” (Gary Knight). What Imagine does is rendering visible the complexity of achieving peace, dealing with the past, and developing a path to a peaceful future. As Robin Wright puts it, “After all, peacemaking is not a sprint. It is more of a marathon.”

Imagine: Reflections on Peace (2020). Edited by Constance Hale and Fiona Turner. Concept and Editorial Direction by Gary Knight. The VII Foundation. SparkPress