Brett Van Ort’s new book, Minescape, is a chilling and deeply sobering take on the legacy of the Bosnian War. The figures surrounding what was once the most heavily mined area on earth are staggering. During the conflict, the total number of civilians killed and injured as a result of landmines exceeded 3,000, and in the following years, this increased by a further 1,500. In 2007, a Friends of the Earth report estimated that there were still more than one million leftover mines in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Officially, as Van Ort’s book went to press, 2.8% of the country was still considered a minefield – an area almost equivalent to the whole of Greater London. Unofficial esimates from de-miners put the figure closer to 10%.
With such scale involved, how does one begin to make sense of the numbers? Van Ort attempts to do so by navigating around the figures and harnessing our primal instincts of fear and capitalising on our universal appreciation of unspoilt beauty. The book consists of repeated sequences: landscape / mine / prosethetic limb. The vibrant, seemingly untamed scenery of the fomer Bosnian front lines is contrasted throughout with clinical white cut-outs of both the munitions and the replacement limbs used by victims. Van Ort tames the random brutality of the weapons with a sterile method of presentation, giving us the facts surrounding both the mines and the prosthetics, and encouraging us to compare and contrast the frightening disparity in their cost of production. A $5 Anti-Personnel Mine has a kill radius of 50m and a blast radius of 300m and can lay dormant for a number of years. The “Below-Knee Lightweight Prosthesis” that we see on the following spread costs $4,000 to produce and will need replacing after just 5 years.
Van Ort presents us with dazzling meadows in Jahorina, a golden, sun-infused forest in Trebevic and the foggy beauty of Kruscia. The tranquil images of a lushiously green pond in Majevica and the craggy rocks of Maglic could almost have been taken in the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands respectively. In fact, with the range of contaminated sites and therefore potential subject matter around the world, Van Ort made no secret of his decision to photograph a country with a landscape that “Westerners can relate to” - unlike the deserts of the Middle-East or the jungles of Cambodia.
The “terrifying unknown” is used throughout to heighten the impact of the picturesque. As Van Ort describes in the afterword, areas can often be cleared and deemed safe, only for torrential downpours to unearth or even move landmines back into safe zones that are often no more than “the width of an airplane aisle”. Similarly, as the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center explained to FOE, the main problem “is not the number of landmines and minefields, but the fact that nobody knows their location”. Even when photographing well outside of the restricted zones, Van Ort admits to still having “an overwhelming sense of fear”, and this is brought home to the audience by the ease in which one can imagine a lazy Sunday afternoon spent strolling through any number of these scenes.
In a deeply ironic twist, these devastating weapons are now in some ways temporary guardians of the Bosnia and Herzegovinian landscape – they are the very things that are maintaining the superficial beauty of some areas and curtailing mankind’s incessant thirst for expansion. With this in mind, Van Ort’s work perhaps seeks to question the value of a landscape that we may look at, but not yet touch.
— James Duncan Clark