A Balkan Journey by Chris Leslie is a photographic journey through the towns and cities of post-conflict Former Yugoslavia in this extensive and previously unseen twenty-five-year photography archive from the region.

An exhibition of photographs will take place at SOGO Gallery in Glasgow from the 14th January until the 28th February. A limited-edition photobook is available here – www.balkanjourney.com/the-book

A BALKAN Journey begins in 1996, months after the wars in the former Yugoslavia (Croatia and Bosnia) had ended. I arrived in Croatia to live and volunteer on a social reconstruction project in the small, heavily destroyed town called Pakrac. Armed only with a borrowed vintage Canon 35mm camera, a handful of rolls of film, and limited and sketchy knowledge of photography and a Serbo-Croat phrasebook (a language that seemingly no longer existed after the collapse of Yugoslavia).

The town of Pakrac itself was in ruins – estimated to be 85% destroyed during the war with tension and divisions still high and not much had been rebuilt.

The former frontline that separated the town was now a dividing line that few people crossed with Croats mainly living in the town and the Serbs, predominantly elderly ladies, living in the surrounding villages.

A sense of menace and a low-lying level of stress permeated life in the town. Sporadic explosions could still be heard as animals set off landmines in the surrounding fields, a handy reminder not to venture off the pathways or beaten track. This would become my home for the next four months and the crucial starting point for my Balkan Journey.

The National: Photographer Chris LesliePhotographer Chris Leslie

The following year in 1997 I travelled back to the region – this time in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina – Sarajevo. The Bosnian war had ended in late 1995 and the siege of Sarajevo was eventually lifted in February 1996. The longest siege in modern history, it lasted 1425 days during which time the city was riddled with sniper fire and bombarded with hundreds of shells daily. Ultimately, 11,500 people were killed, 1600 of whom were children.

When I first arrived in the city the war and siege were over and Sarajevo was enjoying its long-awaited peace. Sarajevans took to its scarred streets in huge numbers, meeting with friends and drinking coffee safe in the knowledge they wouldn’t be struck down by a sniper or shell. It was a time for simple pleasures. The war was over and life had returned like a stranger. Anxieties about the future, unemployment, PTSD, and rebuilding their city would come later, eventually.

Spurred on by the voluntary work in the Pakrac project I set up a photo project for children: The Sarajevo Camera Kids. Using donated equipment from Scotland, I set up a makeshift darkroom and organised photo classes in the basement of an orphanage.

The children confined to Bjelave orphanage had suffered terribly – both because of the war and from neglect and abuse. One journalist described the institution as “the worst place in Sarajevo apart from the morgue”.

After the siege was lifted, the orphanage was jam-packed with over 130 children, from babies to older children. The pupils I worked with were aged six to 16 and I taught them basic photography techniques: shooting with 35mm SLR film cameras, developing films, and printing.

My basic language skills did not extend to teaching the technicalities of photography, so there were no themed assignments or lessons about shutter speeds. The intention was to provide a creative outlet for these kids who had dealt with a near lifetime of war and siege. It had to be simple, practical and most importantly, it had to be fun. Children ran freely around their playgrounds and streets and photographed anything and everything that interested them – their playgrounds, their friends, their favourite hangouts, all against the backdrop of a ruined city.

The National: illustrationS   of hope

In the subsequent years from 2000-2019 now working as a professional photographer, I returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo to document the aftermath of war and the struggle for peace.

A lot of my photographs from that time witness the rebirth and reconstruction of Sarajev.

Sarajevo has changed dramatically since 1997 when my grainy photographs captured of a city in black and white, destroyed but surviving. Now, 25 years on, the city puts on a brave, bold, cosmopolitan face – a modern European tourist destination like any other.

An abundance of new shopping centres runs the length of the former Sniper Alley – the main thoroughfare leading into the heart of the city – and the Sarajevo that the Camera Kids documented no longer exists.

This collection of photography in A Balkan Journey also showcases a small selection of my earliest photographs from this 25-year period.

The National: illustrationS   of hope

Included in the book and exhibition are my first ever black and white photographs taken in Pakrac and Sarajevo in 1996 that were left discarded in a cupboard. Later photographs are taken from assignments for The Guardian and other newspapers.

This year marks 30 years since the war started in Bosnia at a time when the region and Europe continue to struggle with conflicting ideologies, genocide denial, and a reassertion of ethnic nationalism.

Alongside essays from writer John McDougall, I am hoping that my photographs in A Balkan Journey will provide a crucial moment of reflection for the viewing public as well as mark a pivotal point in my own life and career.

A Balkan Journey by Chris Leslie was funded by Creative Scotland and Post Conflict Research Center in Sarajevo