Off Limits

The landscapes and landmines of Bosnia and Herzegovina

Lelija Brett Van Ort
Lelija Brett Van Ort
01 May, 2014

AN EERIE STILLNESS PERVADES the landscapes of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the photographs of Brett Van Ort. These images, part of Van Ort’s Minescapes series, recall the American photographer Robert Adams’ seminal black-and-white photographs from the 1980s of the San Bernardino Valley in California. Van Ort cites Adams as an influence, but while the latter’s San Bernardino pictures show traces of human habitation, many of Van Ort’s lush, almost primordial landscapes seem untouched by human construction or destruction.

The landscapes, however, are only one part of Minescapes. Van Ort juxtaposes them with clinical photographs, shot against white backgrounds, of landmines and prosthetic body parts. These serve as a stark reminder that Bosnia and Herzegovina is still littered with leftover military explosives from the brutal ethnic war that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1992.

In 2009, the year Van Ort travelled to the country, the government’s Mine Action Committee for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BHMAC) estimated that 3.5 percent of the country still contained landmines. Several deminers Van Ort spoke to, however, believed that the figure actually stood closer to 10 percent. In the majority of cases, the deployment of explosives during the war was never documented; in many places their locations were known only to soldiers on the ground. Despite extensive efforts to clear unexploded ordnance, deminers said more mines continued to be unearthed, especially after torrential downpours. In 2009, old explosives caused 28 casualties in Bosnia and Herzegovina according to the Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor, a research group affiliated to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Van Ort was told to be careful—that nowhere in the countryside was truly safe.

Van Ort, a US native, has lived in Texas and California. As an avid hiker and backpacker, he said, he had always “found nature to be easily packaged, conquerable, and pleasurable to explore” before shooting Minescapes. “I chose to photograph the former front lines of the Bosnian War as a way of challenging this lack of fear.” Van Ort, who has a background in film, is most comfortable with landscape photography, which he felt speaks “about us as human beings, in a much quieter, softer voice … It shows a narrative about the human condition that a portrait cannot.”

Van Ort met people who had been injured by explosives, but did not include his photographs of them in Minescapes. “I’ve always felt that photographs of landmine survivors [were] almost a victimisation of the survivor,” he said. Despite the omission, Van Ort said the survivors’ insights “allowed me to feel the weight and emotion that touches so many people’s lives in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

Van Ort shot his landscapes mostly around the capital, Sarajevo; the northern cities of Tuzla and Doboj; and the arid region around the southern city of Mostar. For the other photographs, Van Ort shot defused mines used in BHMAC training operations, and prosthetics from a London-based manufacturer that provides artificial limbs to amputees in Bosnia and Herzegovina. “There is a commercial aspect in weapons production that we, as consumers, hardly ever see,” he said. “I wanted to portray the objects as a product that is bought and sold on the market.” These photos are accompanied by catalogue-style captions with information Van Ort gleaned from deminers in Bosnia and Herzegovina, many of whom were former military engineers.

Put together, the images in Minescapes present a land in suspended animation, poised between beauty and terror. “Human beings have an almost insatiable appetite to expand, explore, conquer and transform nature,” Van Ort noted. “Ironically, in this instance, it is a man-made killing machine that keeps the setting in its natural state.” It is, he said, “our own hand that ‘preserves’ these landscapes.”