Pakrac November 24, 1996
On the surface, the project was designed to teach the children of the primary school in Pakrac the techniques of black and white photography. The initial lessons covered the operation of a manual SLR camera and basic darkroom developing and printing techniques. Later lessons explained simple compositional principles, and some more advanced printing techniques such as dodging and burning, although the emphasis focused more on allowing children to express their creativity without too many preconceived notions of photography.
On a deeper level, this project is meant to gather children together and provide them with a forum to share ideas and work on projects cooperatively, as well as providing space for personal goals and growth. Photography is used not only as a medium to teach children a skill, but to provide a creative way to deal with their tense lives in Pakrac, as well as encouraging them to work towards definite goals with others. Artistic, interpersonal and self- evaluative skills are taught indirectly through this project.
Though this project is meant to gather both communities' children we still have not been able to reach this goal. We managed to find 15 children from Seovica, a village on the former Serbian side to take part in the photo group. In the beginning, we wanted to take photos in their area and then cross the symbolic former check-point to develop the photos in the secondary school's darkroom. But, mostly because of the parents' fears, this was not possible. So we started to develop the pictures in the bathroom of one of the children's houses, and so the magic began.
The children participated in a four-week project that included taking and developing photographs. Though it was the first time they had ever touched a camera, the results were much more exciting than what we could have expected. The photos the children took were very pure, unhindered from preconceived ideas and a perfect arena for "happy accidents." They were so enthusiastic about the project that after four weeks they had already produced more than 1000 pictures!. At the end of this session they organised an exhibition displaying about 170 pictures. The exhibition provided an avenue for making better connections for parents and children with local society.
The children were aged 6 to 15. They have lived in this area since they were born, and during the last four years, the parents and children from this war-torn area have tried to maintain an existence as normal as possible under abnormal circumstances brought on by war. This area was once one of the richest agricultural areas in Croatia but, as a result of the war, has been largely isolated from the rest of the world.
After this rough period of time, the children's memory of life before the war was threatened. Some of them just couldn't remember it; some had only a few memories. For these children, the concept of normality remains an enigma. The main purpose of this project is to use their skills, their memory and their imagination to create something. We want photography to be a creative outlet to help them forget about what they have been through, and most of all, we want them to see that they are still capable of doing something good and trust themselves.
Since the beginning of the year, we have four new groups: most of the children are now from Pakrac itself, but we still have one class in the orphanage in Lipik (a destroyed village south of Pakrac), and one class of Serbian children. All the classes, except for the one in Lipik, take place in the darkroom of the secondary school.. Each week we hold a one-and-a-half hour class with about six or seven children. Our guidance is gentle; we don't give any specific directions of work to the children, because we think it is important for them to exercise the freedom of creativity. When you see the pictures, you realise these pictures could have been taken by any children of the world. If at the very beginning the topics chosen were almost all linked to the daily life in the village, they now focus much more on pictures of themselves, friends and family. Though there is a lot of destruction in the town and in the surroundings areas, very little is shown on the children's photos. Most of the pictures feature their families, smiling or acting a little silly for the camera.
The children from the former Serbian side also have a envisioned project on their own. They want to tell the story of a small village on the Serbian side, which has been completely destroyed by the war. The children knew a lot of people in this village, who have now been forced to flee away or have been killed. They want to create and publish a photo-essay book to show others what physically remains of the village, and the human consequences of war.
Our most pressing goal for the coming months is to compile a book of the best photos taken by the children since the conception of the project. This book would then be distributed both internally as well as internationally, if the funding permits. In the idea of this book, we hope to present to the outside world a glimpse into the eyes and minds of children that have undergone a war, and to see that a positive force still exists within the children, despite the conditions they have endured.
In the distant future, we also hope to find a suitable local replacement to run the photo project, as it is the goal of the entire Volunteer Project Pakrac to become self- sufficient on a local level, and not to be dependent on an international force to keep it operating. We feel it is important for locals to have input and responsibility for the social reconstruction process.
This project can be a very valuable tool of reconciliation between the children of both sides. It is important to stimulate them, to push them towards positive change, and to move them beyond their current lives and traumas. It is also important to link them to the outside world (through an excursion or through exchanges) and to break their isolation.
Thus in order to resume this project and to realise our goals, we are appealing for funding from organisations who are interested in working with children from areas that have been devastated by war. We are seeking allocations for photographic materials, publishing costs, travel and office expenses. We would greatly appreciate either monetary or material aid, although the former would be easier to handle as custom duties are significant in Croatia, and this would be a heavy stress on our finances.