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Quiet images of wars' victims raise questions for viewers

By Helena de Moura, For CNN
  • Balkan war was one of the most documented in history, media experts say
  • Srebrenica massacre is Europe's greatest tragedy since the Holocaust
  • Taryn Simon's "A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters" ends on November 6

(CNN) -- Friday's televised appearance of former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic before the International Tribunal in the Hague unleashed a deluge of archived images relating to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the worst European catastrophe since the Holocaust.

Extensive photographic and film documentation is available of the days preceding the massacre that resulted in the deaths of 8,000 men and boys, allegedly committed by Bosnian Serb troops under the command of Mladic himself.

The Balkan war's endgame was heavily filmed, photographed and transmitted, experts say. Eventually, it became known as the "camcorder war."

From the suffering of innocent civilians and the moral and logistical ineptitude of international monitors there to safeguard them, to the savagery committed by warring parties, airwaves were saturated with images of horror and devastation daily on live television.

Former Paris Cardinal Aaron Jean-Marie Lustiger once said of the war: "Here are no secrets. Here are journalists, from here pictures are transmitted, there are satellite communications, all of this is known. In this city there are soldiers of the United Nations, well armed, and nonetheless it all continues to happen."

Did the media's extensive, 24/7 coverage of the Balkan conflict make us more proactive as world citizens? Did the flood of visual information help inform the international community so as to prevent further atrocities during the war? Or did we become a more passive audience, flooded by relentless imagery transmitted over and over again?

These are some of the many questions we are forced to ask ourselves through Taryn Simon's photographic revisiting of Srebrenica at London's Tate Modern museum.

In "A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters," at the Tate until November 6, Simon asks us to pause the saturation of frenzied war images we are accustomed to digest and to learn from what is not shown, what is not portrayed and reported.

The thought-provoking exhibition is the result of an ambitious four-year project during which Simon circled the globe in search of universal patterns among families victimized by fratricidal wars and conflicts, affecting, interrupting and reproducing broken families and fragmented bloodlines.

In her section on Srebrenica, Simon photographed individually members of an entire family against a very simple background.

Missing family members are replaced by either a blank sheet or a photo of the man or boy's remains. Dead or alive, each and every member of the family tree is represented and registered.

"They are very formal, very machine-like" said Simon. "It has a periodic-table-like effect that highlights the individual."

The quieting effect of the portraits is suffused with unspeakable human suffering. And when Simon juxtaposes these simple images with the frenetic media images of the war, she makes a comment on the way we experience human suffering through different lenses.

The key ingredient, Simon said, is not to tamper too much with the subject matter. The author, journalist or documentarian must be absent. And the viewer must work hard for the truth. The effect clearly becomes more powerful this way.

"In my work, I never take a position," Simon said.

"That's part of the problem with contemporary media," she said. "I've never been interested in the kind of photography that pretends to be a participant."

As the photographer steps back, human experience gains prominence through this visual effect. We are left to ponder on the lives of victims individually and families as a whole, inside and outside their historic experience.

"In this work, there is something so extreme and so emotional, it doesn't require further embellishment by the photographer," Simon said.

Taryn Simon's "A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters" ends in London on November 6, 2011. It will move on to Berlin and then to New York.