Brett Van Ort’s photographs of meadows and towns nestled in cradles of foliage verge on Disney-like. But the title of the project, “Minescape,” betrays the sinister side of the story. These are photographs of the Bosnian war’s front lines, still laced with explosives 17 years after the conflict ended.
Van Ort, 39, was carted to those former front lines in the back of a four-by-four, jostling along gravelly paths and muddy terrain, during two trips in July and September 2009. After stopping in a small de-mined area for parking, he would move along lanes as claustrophobic as an airplane aisle that were cleared of mines. These zones were designed for de-mining crews; Van Ort said that there were times when he would shoot while technicians were on their hands and knees probing the land for explosives.
Frames that exclude human elements but still point out human influence are certainly not a new concept. But the photos suggest history in an unusual way. They are a reminder that a forest’s present-day appearance is a sum of all the explorers who have trampled through, the animals that live on and modify the land, and, as shown here, all the wars that left pockmarks in it.
The lush scenes play off of a second group of photos that complete “Minescape”: stark shots of prosthetics and Yugoslavian-manufactured land mines. They form a highly simplified diagram of the insane cycle of human self-destruction and regeneration. And the sheer number of implements are a macabre show of how creatively we do both.
Even the final photo, a self-portrait, puts a deadly twist on a frame that has been shot millions of times. It is a view of Van Ort, an avid hiker and backpacker, looking down at his boots as he stands on a nondescript patch of green-tan grass. During a trip to Maglic, a mountain in Bosnia’s Sutjeska National Park, Van Ort found himself constantly looking down as he walked and realized that the anxiety he experienced on-site was poisoning spaces that he knew had been declared safe.
This is partly because of the invisible barriers that land mines create in nature and partly because minefields are a moving target. Bouts of flooding can trigger landslides, displacing both people and explosives. After a series of floods in Teslic in 2010, a news release by the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Center warned Bosnians about stray munitions newly washed into fields, picnic grounds and beaches. Today, an estimated 200,000 land mines and explosives are still to be found in Bosnia, according to the Mine Action Center. Almost 3 percent of the country is suspected to have embedded mines.
Still, Van Ort said he didn’t want to dissuade people from visiting the country. “People think Bosnia is ravaged by these things. Going to minefields is dangerous . . . but you can enjoy the beauty of the place without worrying about this.”
At VII Gallery in Brooklyn,
April 18-May 24. TED Books is releasing a companion e-book titled “Minescape: Waging War against Land Mines.”