Picture Day

The West is inundated with images of refugees. But as Seila Rizvic explores, every wartime snapshot is also a family photo.

  • War photography today is meant to highlight the plight of still-living victims.
    Photo by Staton Winter

One of my earliest family photos shows my father, mother and me together in a tent. There's a just-healed bullet wound visible on my father's leg. My mother looks tired; she had just spent the day waiting in line for medication. Then there’s me, two years old with a few chicken pox lingering across my chest and arms.

The picture was taken in the summer of 1994. Our copy was cut out from the local United Nations newspaper. We had just left our home, a village in northwest Bosnia — one small corner of the former Yugoslavia, which was torn apart by nationalistic wars in the 1990s. My parents kept the image long after our move to Canada. They even had it enlarged and framed before hanging it up on our living room wall. After passing by it day after day, though, the photo became familiar, blending into the background. Just another image in a world full of pictures.

Then last summer, while visiting my parents, I took a closer look at this family photo and noticed things that seemed unremarkable before: how the tent was too small to stand up in; how someone had abandoned a plastic doll in the background; how young and vulnerable my mom and dad looked at twenty-three and twenty-six, respectively. I also noticed a caption: “Meho Rizvic, his wife Sehniza, and their daughter Seila, in the camp at Staro Selo” — then, separated by a dash — “Photography by S. Winter.”

Curious to learn more about the photographer, I set out to find him online. After a brief search, I came across an email address for a photographer named Staton Winter. I sent a message with the image attached. Within a few hours, my inbox lit up with a reply: “Dear Seila, Wow. I am the one who took this photo.”

Stunned, I didn’t know what to think. I felt as though a wormhole had opened up in front of me, connecting the past and the present. Without realizing it, I had begun a long process of trying to understand the deeper meaning of a photo I took for granted for so many years.

Today, more than twenty years after my parents and I left Bosnia, there are still refugees in the world — hundreds of thousands of them, in fact. The current refugee crisis, fuelled by wars in Syria and across the Middle East, has been immortalized by photos of families just like mine: men, women and children sitting in bus stations waiting for food, trapped behind border fences and holing up in dilapidated refugee camps. Every day, countless times a day, photographers will walk up to a family and take their picture. This picture may then be posted on Facebook and printed in newspapers, or flashed across television screens. These images of suffering are used to prompt or prevent political action, to inspire pathos or anger, to inform and entertain. But these aren’t just documents of historical events, they are family photographs, each containing memories. I couldn’t help but wonder what other refugees see when they look at themselves staring back.

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