Best of ASMP 2009

When Steve Horn first set out to photograph the rich culture of the Balkans as a 1970s college student, he never imagined that his images would form the basis for a life-altering visual ethnography more than thirty years later. Yet, when he returned to this war-torn country in 2003, his work became a valuable link for reconnecting a people with their broken past. Already presented in the U.S. as an exhibition and book project, Horn’s recent grant from CEC ArtsLink will now fund a touring exhibition in Bosnia.

Steve Horn


Project: Pictures Without Borders, a book and traveling exhibition, and a grant from CEC ArtsLink.

© Steve HornAll images in this article © Steve Horn

ASMP: How long have you been in business?

SH: 23 years.

ASMP: How long have you been an ASMP member?

SH: 15 years, with a one-year leave.

ASMP: What are your photographic specialties?

SH: My primary specialty is photographing people in real-life situations and I love to incorporate a sense of place. I also enjoy on-location portrait work, architecture, and the natural landscape.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: What do you consider your most valuable piece of equipment?

SH: Whatever camera is available that I am completely familiar with. It could be an inexpensive (but dependable) camera — that’s not the most important part. What matters most is learning to use it smoothly so that I am seeing and working without technical distraction.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: What is unique about your style/approach, or what sets you and your work apart from other photographers?

SH: I like to be relatively invisible — so that there is a more direct interaction between the viewer and the subject. I like to be the messenger, carrying a story for others to see.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: Please describe the processes and techniques central to the making of this work.

SH: On the first trip in 1970, I traveled in a VW bus that I set up as home and darkroom. I parked in remote areas on the nights I developed film — black curtains on the windows and a changing bag for added security. I used an amazing batch of black and white chemistry called PQD — Patterson’s Quality Developer — made by a genius in his garage in New Jersey I think, and long defunct. The stuff was re-usable for 20 rolls of film or more, then I mixed up a new batch. I used Tri-X and Plus-X for a year. They were my good friends. When the weather got really cold I’d rent a room in a cheap hotel and develop film all night. I made contact sheets using sunlight with the now-obsolete printing-out paper that was used for portrait proofs in the old days. I’d view the contact sheets at night by tungsten light, which wasn’t strong enough to expose the paper. I kept reasonably good track of where the photographs were taken — at least by roll — and this helped a lot when I was locating places and people thirty years later. In 2003 I decided to use black and white film once again, to keep a consistency to the project that was emerging. When I made exhibition prints for the US traveling show, I did all the printing in my darkroom — mostly 16 x 20 prints on fiber-based paper. What a huge effort to get into the darkroom at night and see this through! But it was worth it.

© Steve Horn

In 2008 I used a digital camera as my primary tool for the first time while traveling. I loved the ease of carrying cards instead of film, and changing ISO at will. Also, getting immediate review of what I was shooting. There are a lot of other advantages too, but I’m one of those people who still keeps an enlarger in my darkroom, not ready to let go of that world yet. And I wonder, would someone be able to access their digital files 30 years later as easily as I printed my old negatives?

ASMP: Please describe the reason for your trip to Bosnia in 1970, and the circumstances behind your initial photography for this project. How long did you spend there? Did you have any sense at that time that this work would evolve into anything near its current form?

SH: I traveled to Europe in 1970 as a college student on a field study project in photography sponsored by Amherst College. I proposed to photograph rural and small town architecture in areas that were on the verge of experiencing change. I spent a year traveling in the VW bus and some of my most memorable times were in the Balkans. It was there that I first heard a horse’s hooves on cobblestones and the call to prayer sung from mosque minarets. I was fascinated by the mix of cultures. Never did I imagine that some of the photographs of these places and people would become the basis for a book project in the following century.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: What made you return to Bosnia 33 years later to locate people and places from your 1970 trip? Did you have an intention at that time to do a book or an exhibition?

SH: When war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, I heard reports of fighting in the towns whose streets I knew. I learned about the Bosnian Student Project, designed to help bring war-displaced students to the US to continue their studies. I printed up some of the 1970 Balkan photographs to sell as part of a fund-raising effort for the Student Project and this re-connected me with the region. In 2003 I returned for the first time, hoping to share the old photographs with Bosnians in the aftermath of war, and to retrace my original route. The country is now officially called Bosnia and Herzegovina, but many call it Bosnia for short, and I’ll do that too.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: Did you keep in touch with any Bosnian contacts during the time spanning your first and second trips? Did you do anything to keep up with the area or culture?

SH: On the first trip, I didn’t learn people’s names or get contact information. I was a young student traveling and photographing. But I did stay in touch with one of the students who came over during the war — he visited our community when we were fundraising, and I gave him one of the 1970 photographs of his hometown, Mostar. I reconnected with him before I went back in 2003 and he insisted that I stay with his parents in Mostar. Other students, who came over to the US during the war and had returned to Bosnia, served as my guides once I arrived back in the Balkans

Prior to returning to Bosnia in 2003, I read many books about the recent war and commentaries about it. After I arrived there, I met with cultural organizations that were interested in adding some of the 1970 photographs to their depleted archives.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: Please describe the process of locating your subjects during your return trip. What assistance, if any, did you receive from government or non-government organizations in finding people from your earlier trip?

SH: In most cases the local people guided me back to find subjects from many years earlier. It was an extraordinary and emotional unfolding of events. I unpacked a collection of 1970 photographs when I arrived at Bosnian weekly markets in 2003 — like the markets that I had photographed on the first trip — and a crowd would gather, pass the pictures and piece together clues — a familiar hilltop for instance. I had a group picture of 5 children, and no one recognized the kids until we were led back to the old neighborhood. There, a man recognized his sister in the 1970 photo and told us that she was in the house, would we like to meet her? And since the children were childhood best friends, by locating one, I reconnected with all five eventually. They had all survived the war, though they were now scattered in 3 different countries. I have now met all 5 of them — they each have families of their own now — and I’ve given them prints of the 1970 group photo, as well as others from that time and place. We have new friendships created by a single photograph.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: What language, institutional, or cultural barriers did you encounter? Did you make use of a guide or translator? Do you have any insights about dealing with these issues when working in foreign locales?

SH: I learned some tourist Bosnian before returning in 2003. Most of my guides were students, who I contacted before arriving in Bosnia. In some cases I met people who later became my guides. I couldn’t afford to hire professional translators and it worked fine with students and young people. One was completely bilingual. A couple of them learned English by watching American movies and singing American songs. They became interested in the project and our search for people and places turned into a collaborative effort. I highly recommend hiring local people when traveling and photographing, and in my case it was critical for the interviews that I did along the way.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: Did any technical issues arise while you photographed? If so, how did you resolve them? In addition to images, what other kinds of documentation did you compile?

SH: When I prepared to return to Bosnia in 2003, I did some detective work with my 1970 materials. I had many pages of negatives that had approximate dates and towns, some work prints, an old map with my route traced on it, an old journal with daily page entries, and a wonderful guide book from the late 1960s that I’d used on my original trip and had re-located at a book store and bought via the internet for $3 in good condition. Using all these elements I reconstructed my route and identified individual negatives more accurately.

In 2003, I was still using film, and it was complex to get through Eastern European airports. In one case I was told that the film would be x-rayed or I wouldn’t fly. Fortunately the film emerged okay. I worried at times about the possibility of theft of my pack with exposed film, but all was fine with this. I tried to carry the exposed film in a belt pouch whenever practical. I kept a journal in 2003 and this helped with captioning the photographs on my return. Also a good map is a handy tool for aiding this process. A pocket notebook — I like the Moleskine Notebook — is invaluable for recording information on the spot, which might otherwise get forgotten or lost on a piece of paper.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: When you were photographing, did you encounter skepticism from any of your potential subjects? How did you build trust?

SH: The trust came naturally when the people saw the old pictures and understood that I had been to their town or country long ago. Also, for many Bosnians, the US is appreciated for its role in ending the war in Bosnia. Trust also came by having a young guide who explained my history and my positive intentions.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: How did your book evolve from the elements you had compiled? Please describe your interactions with the publisher.

SH: When I returned from my 2003 trip to Bosnia, I presented a slide show in our local community center. Several people came up to me afterwards and said, “This needs to be a book.” Through their help and encouragement, I received a grant to create a portfolio of the Bosnia work for Houston FotoFest in 2004. One of the reviewers there was the highly respected British photography book publisher, Dewi Lewis. He liked the Bosnia project and asked me to send him an electronic mockup of a book as I envisioned it. Once this was approved, the next phase began-fundraising. I needed to contribute toward the publication costs in order for the project to be viable. I received sponsorship from A World Institute for a Sustainable Humanity (AWISH), and was able to get tax-deductible donations through their non-profit status. The Bosnian Institute in London agreed to purchase 100 books in advance as a contribution to the project. I sent a fundraising letter to friends and family requesting their support and sponsorship. The response was way beyond my expectations.

© Steve Horn

I made the final prints on 11x14 fiber paper and they were drum scanned. The texts came together more slowly, with much editing help from friends — it was a community effort!

Dewi Lewis did a beautiful job with the book design and layout, and was very patient with my questions and ideas. He is a person of remarkable energy and enthusiasm. We are both proud of the final result and most copies have now sold.

ASMP: Please describe the scope (number of images or panels) and itinerary for your traveling exhibit. Who provided support for the exhibit, and how much control do you have over the selection of images and the exhibit venues?

SH: The US traveling exhibit includes 45 photographs and many text panels. Funding for printing, matting and framing was provided by the Initiative in Religion, Conflict Studies, and Peacebuilding at Emory University in Atlanta, where the show originated. From there the show traveled to Amherst College, the Bosnian Embassy in Washington, DC, the Dayton International Peace Museum in Ohio, the Dayton Metro Library, and the Lopez Island Center for Community and the Arts.

With a grant from CEC Artslink, a new version of the show is being printed in Bosnia and will travel to several cities, including Mostar, Sarajevo, Travnik, and Jajce.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: Please describe the interactions and resulting emotions encountered upon meeting with subjects you had photographed 33 years earlier.

SH: It was like meeting old friends though in reality we had never met before. All my senses came alive — the sounds, smells and laughter of those moments linger in my memory. If world peace has a feeling to it … it seemed like this was a taste of world peace. I love each one of these people as though they were family and they treat me now as though I am family.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: What social or political impact do you hope your book and your traveling exhibition might have?

SH: I did a presentation at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, and the bookstore manager took me aside and said, “This is the best anti-war book I’ve seen.” Current and recent wars inflict enormous tragedy on local people, the ones who live in the midst of the conflict. The Quakers have a bumper sticker, “War is not the answer.” I agree. I hope this book and exhibition will raise people’s yearning for peace and for connection across borders.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: What effect has working on this long-term project had on other areas of your personal or professional life?

SH: It’s put me in touch with a community of people, Bosnians in the United States and around the world. I go to Bosnian American cultural events, and last summer I took my wife and daughter to meet people in Bosnia who have become friends. It’s also been a way that I can combine my desire to work for peace with my love of documentary photography.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: You recently received a grant from CEC ArtsLink. Please describe the organization, and how you came to receive funding from them. How will this grant be used to further enhance your Bosnia work?

SH: CEC ArtsLink is an international arts organization that supports cultural exchange between the United States and Eastern and Central Europe, Russia, Central Asia and the Caucasus. Working with artists, arts organizations and community-based groups, ArtsLink provides programs and funding for ongoing dialogue between the United States and these diverse cultures. A friend recommended that I apply for a grant, and my proposal was accepted. The grant will allow me to collaborate with Fatima Maslic, the director of the Travnik Regional Museum in Bosnia. We will create a Bosnian version of the Pictures Without Borders show and I will travel to Bosnia where I’ll meet with local photographers and bring some of their work back to the US.

© Steve Horn

ASMP: Do you have future plans for your Bosnia work beyond the upcoming exhibitions?

SH: I’d like to expand the scope to include other areas of the former Yugoslavia. Last summer I traveled back to Kosovo for the first time, and again located a group of children from the 1970 trip. There are twelve of them and I have met four so far. I could imagine a book about their lives — twelve stories emerging out of one photograph. But that’s just a daydream at the moment.