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Art Review

Life During Wartime

Edward Serotta's photos from a relief agency in Sarajevo reveal the little dramas spurred by a big event.

June 13, 2002|DAVID PAGEL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

War images deliver more anguish, heartbreak and heroism than almost any other genre of photography. Shot by adventurers who make a habit of putting themselves in harm's way, these documentary works often capture, in single frames of film, the emotional intensity of life-and-death dramas.

A recent spate of big-budget movies suggests that Hollywood has learned a lesson or two from classic war reportage. But on the big screen, getting up close and personal with violence and its aftermath is nothing like it is in reality. Studio productions tend to turn the drudgery of warfare into dazzling batteries of special effects so overwrought with amped-up realism that real life pales in comparison.

At the Skirball Cultural Center in Brentwood, a modest exhibition of 46 black-and-white photographs by Edward Serotta zeroes in on the unspectacular underbelly of life in a war zone. Titled "Survival in Sarajevo: Jews, Bosnia, and the Lessons of the Past," it focuses on the activities of La Benevolencija, a group of 54 Jewish, Croatian, Serbian and Muslim volunteers.

By Hollywood standards, Serotta's photographs are boring. Eschewing the flashy glamour of movies, his works also have little in common with the evening news, whose producers seem hell-bent on proving that modern life is an endless series of random tragedies.

Rather than seeking out sensational scenarios and inflating their dramatic potential, Serotta has photographed people driven by the desire to make their lives (and those of their neighbors) as normal as possible.

In May 1992, when Bosnian Serbs began a three-year siege of Sarajevo, a handful of Jews did not flee the city. They maintained their neutrality and transformed their synagogue into "a free and open house for all." It became the headquarters for their non-sectarian operations.

Although not experienced relief workers, they set up a soup kitchen that fed 300 people a day. They staffed a free walk-in medical clinic and ran three pharmacies, which dispensed thousands of free prescriptions. Wall labels and a book also inform viewers that, when mail delivery was cut off, they organized a makeshift postal service that delivered 100,000 letters. When telephone lines went down, they provided two-way radio connections to other cities. They also sent 2,300 refugees to safety on 11 air and bus convoys. Their labors were funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a long list of other charitable organizations.

Most of Serotta's photographs depict the men and women who performed these unglamorous tasks day after day. In one, a dentist making his bimonthly house calls grips a set of dentures with both hands as he reaches toward the camera's lens. In another, a cook uses a shovel-size ladle to stir a huge pot of beans. In a third, a middle-aged man prepares to leave Sarajevo by bringing two suitcases to the synagogue.

All three of these simply printed images appear to have been staged. The people seem to be striking poses. It is as if they are going through the motions of what they would ordinarily be doing so that the Berlin-based photojournalist can catch them in the act.

In this sense, Serotta's pictures are shamelessly illustrative. This shortcoming is forgivable, given the seriousness of the subject. But the posed quality of his photographs has another effect: It gives viewers a glimpse of each sitter's personality.

For example, the shadow-shrouded dentist appears to have followed Serotta's directions to the letter. The resulting image embodies nothing but gentle earnestness. The bearded cook is more playful, hamming it up for the camera. And the man with the suitcases is more than a little put out by the request to have his picture taken. His posture and expression suggest that he wants to be left alone but is too well mannered to make a scene.

A series of 18 portraits emphasizes the staged aspect of Serotta's photographs. In each, he posed one, two or three volunteers before a blank backdrop and had them hold a tool of their trade, like a prop for a play.

A balding man who holds three books and looks weary appears over the handwritten title "Jakob is La Benevolencija's Legal Counsel." "Vlado is in Charge of the Two-way Radio" shows a youth wearing an L.A. Kings jersey, holding a microphone and looking uncomfortable as only a teen can. "Igor is the Postman" portrays a young man with letters fanned out in his hand. Disdain and impatience simmer beneath his embarrassment.

Rather than making light of these volunteers' contributions, Serotta's portraits pay homage to the fact that they are amateurs. Although many are highly trained specialists who donate their expertise, not one is a professional relief worker. Do-it-yourself ingenuity and let's-pretend play-acting come together in this touching series.

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