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EPF 2010 Finalist

Matteo Bastianelli

The Bosnian Identity

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The exteriors of the houses and apartment blocks display a multitude of open wounds. The holes made by machine-gun fire and the white blotches of concrete, used to fill up the gaping cavities created by the bombs, look like imaginary constellations scattered across the whole of Bosnia. Recollection, notwithstanding the implacable passing of time, is swathed with scars, but it is not the destruction that causes us to remember the horrors of war, neither is it purely the pain for those lost; more than anything it is the daily endeavor to recuperate thousands of hidden identities. 15 years after the end of the conflict in ex-Yugoslavia, 30 thousand humans who simply vanished into mid-air are still missing. The International Commission on Missing Persons in Sarajevo has been working non-stop, ever since 1996, with the intent of identifying the missing persons who disappeared during the armed conflicts, thus contributing to the development of an appropriate commemoration of the victims: by giving them back their names in remembrance of the genocide and allowing their families to mourn their own dead at a decent graveside.

From the ‘protected’ enclave in Srebrenica, the scene of the largest-ever massacre in Europe since the 2nd World War, at Cerska, where a populace of peasants was forced to defend itself with only rifles and machetes against Serbian mortars and missiles, down as far as the Drina Valley the carnage carried out by the Serb-Bosnian forces against citizens of Muslim religion is still very vivid in collective Muslim memories. I came into direct contact with a number of people while conciliating both civilian and professional commitment and, without stealing images, mine was more than anything else a co-division of memories and visions, of moments truly experienced and others only imagined. I photographed B&W frozen emotions, a transition still present between past and future: where a kiss rekindles hope, amid the obscure meanderings and  backdrops of the mind.



Born in 1985, I’m a freelance photographer and journalist based in Rome. I graduated at the “Scuola Romana di Fotografia” in 2009. In 2007 I started working on long-term projects about homeless conditions and squats in Rome. In Croatia, I worked on the health system and also on a documentary dealing with the living conditions of the Croatian and Bosnian Rome population who live in ghettos financed by the European Community. Currently I’m documenting consequences of the genocide carried out by Serbs against the Bosnian Muslims in former Yugoslavia. In my work I merge my personal experiences and civil commitment, through volunteer work, which allows me to come within close proximity of my subjects and with whom I love to establish human relationships that go far beyond a simple photographic tale. My pictures have been published in some of the most important Italian newspapers and also in some international magazines. I was a finalist for PDN’s 2010 photo annual contest in photojournalism.


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Matteo Bastianelli


27 thoughts on “matteo bastianelli – the bosnian identity”

  1. Works quite well for me, the images are strong and it seems to tell a story.
    The edit could be a little bit tighter, I felt there we’re a few too many of the object images, they work well but I personally would have one less, maybe the watch.

    1 & 7 are the most powerful for me with 14 & 19 being the weakest.

    Great work though and congrats on getting into Burn!

  2. JAY…

    i agree and i did a tighter edit that will not seem to stick…whatever i am doing to delete, my normal way, is not working….anyway will keep trying…yes, there were too many object pictures for an online slide presentation…in print in might have been fine….the tight edit is nice i think…18 pictures….4 less…..i just hope i can finally get it to stay …..

    cheers, david

  3. Personally, I like the repetition with the objects. I’d sprinkle in one or two more of those bags of effects and see how that looks. Repetition, done right, works. It’s an effective technique for storytelling. Tried and true. Don’t see enough of it here on burn, imo.

  4. hi matteo.

    what i get from these images is a sense of the murky world left after such an evil episode. like you mention, its the scars that remind us of our past trauma’s, and here, not only the architectural wounds left from mortar attacks but more personally those possessions found in graves, or simply left behind.
    many of these images work for me on a different level as well, where some feel like open canvas’s drawing one in to create their own personal memory allowing us to empathize with these people.

    well done on putting it all together..

  5. Matteo

    Well done. I’m somewhat surprised, but pleased to see a fourth essay in this series.

    I’ve viewed your site. First, I have to tell you that it is probably the best put together photographers site I have ever viewed. It is elegant, easy to navigate, and the images can move quickly..a downfall of many sites.

    “A silent scream for life” in particular resonates with me.

    Your work shows a wonderful eye for composition, the eye of a poet. There is a consitency of approach and style throughout, which is evident in all your work.

    I do have one concern, which is evident throughout your work. While I appreciate wonderful graphics and strong compositions, I am longing to feel more engaged with your subjects. Even one photograph with eye contact within a series would help.

  6. So very grim. It makes me wonder what right I have to feel happy as often as I do, and to complain as much as I do. Well done.

    I haven’t looked at your site, but given Gordon’s high recommendation, I soon will.

    Concerning the issue of two much repetition, I see this concern come up on Burn again and again, yet, personally, I very rarely agree and if anything would like to see more. Now David has made a statement that runs 180 degrees counter to my own thoughts regarding online vs paper production:

    “yes, there were too many object pictures for an online slide presentation…in print in might have been fine…”

    By way of thinking, it is just the opposite. Paper display has physical limitations that online display does not. While one could easily get too carried away and drop in hundreds of images, it seems to me that one of the advantages of online publication is that it allows the display of more images.

    Yes one – certainly me – can easily lose discipline and include unnecessary images that paper would force one to drop, yett when I am looking at the work of a good photographer, I always like to see more images and online publication makes that more practical.

  7. Funny how you can have two different ways of looking at it, me and MW.
    I think the repetition works well for sure, but more in print, I think in slideshows the viewer tends to only look at an image for 5 maybe 10 seconds as opposed to it being in their peripheral vision for 30+ seconds as they read an article, also in a slideshow we have no control over formatting in size, for example 3/4 of the object images on a smaller size would work well with a written piece.
    I don’t envy the job of an editor, its difficult work.


  8. Looked through without reading anything so can’t comment on whether it tells the story you want it to but I love your pictures…really really good work.
    Thanks for sharing.

  9. Yes Jay, I don’t mean to be too negatively critical on this topic. For storytelling in general, repetition used well can be a powerful technique. Consider the refrain in popular songwriting to see it in one of its simplest forms. I think it can work well in a photo essay as well and, like Bill, see little difference between print and online in this regard. In the case of this essay, I had thought of it in relation to the bags of personal effects from the mass graves before I had read the comments. I think using those photos, presuming there are more, as a refrain would have created a powerful effect. But I certainly respect other points of views on this. And this comment borderline, probably the wrong side of the border, violates my personal prohibition against telling editors how to edit. But I don’t mean it that way. Just an interesting, technical topic to consider and this essay provides a good context.

    And the grimness of this and so much other recent work is yet another topic that begs for a dialogue of its own. Not that I’m against it, there’s obviously a lot of grimness in the world, but sometimes I question it compared to the possibility of a more well rounded story, certainly if that roundedness actually exists, which it almost always does. Perhaps this is arguable, but I look at Salgado’s work which contains many of the most consistently horrifying images I’ve ever seen (their quality sets them apart from the run-of-the-mill unspeakable horror), yet among them are captures of stunning beauty. Both the horror and the beauty are real. It’s the contrast between the two that make them so powerful. I suspect that’s what’s lacking in so many of these especially grim essays. We’re missing that contrast cause on some level we know it’s there in reality.

  10. MW…

    i think repetition can work well in either exhibition or book form, but not so sure about internet slide shows…anyway, something to think about….the tech/internet gods must be on your side though….i keep trying to take out 4 pictures on this essay and they just refuse to be deleted….you want to add some personal effects pictures?? does not seem like a good idea to me….but it is always interesting to me how people view pictures….one or two detail pictures to me make the point for this type of presentation…and something we definitely need to discuss someday is the term “storytelling”…i am not sure what that means…never have…well of course i know what it “means” as in definition , but i think we all have totally different expectations of what an essay is supposed to DO to us or tell us….

  11. Thanks…This is my first stage of a long term project in Bosnia Herzegovina;it’s all about scarred recollections and memories. I have juxtaposed objects coming from mass graves to scenes of daily life to allow the observer to see just how daily life in Bosnia is full of scars. When I met families from Cerska and Srebrenica for the first time,they told me that “if you are Bosnian, whenever you look at a watch, a diary or a couple of pens maybe, if you are part of the large number of people who are still looking for their relatives, you are forced to remember what took place during the war; which is not easy to forget”. So, the repetition of objects is not a mode, but an obsession for what is missing and can’t be forgotten. Moreover, I did this work for my Bosnian friends, not for myself. They are still waiting for justice but nobody talks about what goes on there…Now I’m focusing my stories on the life of the young people who live in Bosnia who hope to turn over a new leaf in their lives or dream of leaving their home country.

  12. David my take is that repetition works on the wwwdot world, well I use it all the time with subtle image changes. But then again I sorta like to frigg around and it is all in the timing.

  13. Regarding the personal effects photos as refrain, don’t get me wrong, I’m not entirely sure that would work, it would be an interesting experiment. That’s what I thought was happening the first time I viewed the essay and liked it. But who knows? Editing, always subjective in the end. Regarding storytelling though, there is a long tradition and many techniques have been identified over the years. How well oral and written storytelling techniques transfer to photo essays is questionable, but that’s where I’m coming from, and I’m sure many of the same techniques can work. And of course the unique characteristics of photographs and how they are sequenced in photo essays add another dimension to the storytelling experience. Fun stuff in both theory and practice.

  14. Works for me with the idea of the objects as pacemaker for a rhythm … Not sure what other objects you have edited out, DAH, but maybe there are two that could function as opener and closer, some sort of visual brackets? I am not convinced that the ones up now can do the job.

    hmmm … not sure if I have managed to explain what I mean …

  15. @MW
    No I agree that for some the objects may very well work, editing is very subjective!

    On the grimness, yep its a grim story however I actually can see two stories here, one when I have the captions and one when I don’t. For example 11 & 12 without captions would lead me to think of families reunited, a country recomposing itself. A man protecting his family. Positive messages. And then ending on 21 a positive note about the younger generation recovering from War and conflict and acting like other young teenagers.

    Would you set your slides to music? If that was the case a repetition in the content reflecting to music would definitely work.

    Storytelling to me is when through the images and maybe the captions (I prefer without) the pictures will take me on a journey, a great photo essay will bring me right through an entire place/time/person and give me a well rounded view of them. If I see a photo of a man shooting a gun on a street, I want to know who he is,does he have a family, why is he fighting, a series of images that tell me the who what why’s of what the photographer want me to experience, a reflection on what the photographer experienced.
    Ideally i want to be moved by an essay enough to do something different in my own life, thats the mark of a really great essay, wether it makes me get up and fly to somewhere to shoot that place myself, or just wether I mention it at the next coffee break somewhere. It stays with me and makes me want to do something different with my own time/life/whatever.

  16. Sorta left with the feeling that the visual style and edit is bleak for the sake of being bleak.
    I know it isn’t, of course, but I think that producing, or including, some images that are a little
    more ‘hopeful’ would help re-inforce your perspective and at the same time add a layer of depth
    to the story.
    At the end of the day, your potential, non-photographer viewers can only absorb so much misery
    and will tune out

  17. Jay I would use repetition without music, repetition is a important visual principle just as harmony, rhythm, balance etc all go into creating visual aesthetics or the structural aspects of a story/essay.They sit alongside the elements such as tone, colour etc and the all important subjective/ cultural content.

  18. We carry the world inside our pockets as if an old and slightly rusted pocket watch and even during those moments when we forget the tug of gravity upon the weight of that past-down watch, still it remains there, matter…..a matter.

    I’ve read the comments above and many of the comments under the dialogue section and don’t completely understand many of the lamentations. To begin with, I honestly think the fault (though that is an excessively too harsh word) of whether or not this essay (and some of the preceding ones) collapses beneath their weight of misery and sadness and wearied thought, lay with the reader, not the photographer. Much of the complaints i’ve read here about ‘misery tourism’ and the ease with which it is to speak of sorrow and death than it is comedy (o, really?) i find a bit disingenuous. If we are wearied by images of war and death and destruction, that is it not us who has wearied. Is it not us who have too long honed our eyes toward that without properly balancing our own perspective of the living and the joyous. For life and death to not exist in far-flung verlala places, but live inside and upon and joined to one another, just as sorrow is inextricable from the comedic. Show me a brilliantly funny person (and what is life if not that), i’ll show you a heart that aches….

    For me, as both a viewer of photography and photographer/writer, i take it as my responsibility to look and read work within the story of it’s own life. I dont care if this is the 100th essay in a row about the former Yugoslavia, it hasn’t changed my reaction to it, primarily because i try (and here comes my responsibility as someone who looks at a lot of photography and has taken up the responsibility too, as have each of you who write here) to comment upon the work and lives of others. That, imho, requires more than just flippant or cursory views, boxcar’ing each essay against one another. Fortunately i look at enough other work that viewing 3 essays in close proximity, regionally, spiritually, on Burn does not make up for the entirety of my viewing relationship, it’s the work immediately at hand that has its priority. And each photographer is responsible to the vision and lives that they themselves must carve out, they are responsible for the stories that inspire and finger-fracture their lives, they are responsible for honing whatever tale it is they were determined to tell, regardless of what others have published, or not. It is our responsibility to bring to bare our own critical senses, our own generosity, to view an essay for what it is, itself, alone, and not it’s number in the publication queue …

    to begin with, i think the repetition of the personal artifacts uncovered in the mass graves is not only a critical elemental to this essay (and it’s longer future), but works structually as an intrical part. As a photographer, i too use repetition in essays as i do when i write essays or poems. It is a critical formal element that helps not only the structure of a piece but it’s inner mechanism. If an essay is simply a string of ‘singles’ that maybe it wouldn’t work, but I dont see Matteo’s essay as that at all, nor the general use of repetion within the work of a photographic story. In fact, i found those images not only a bit of a relief (a great paradox, given what they are and what they represent) but also a talisman, a marker, a thread by which i was pulled back into the reality of what lay at the heart of this story: the disappearance and destruction of so many lives….no matter whether we wish to acknowledge it or not, we live in places haunted by the dead and in fact, most of that haunting comes from our own absurdly, painfully awful human atrocity and failure…and those images, in this piece, serve to remind, in very simple and very powerful ways (the wrist that once wore that watch, the eyes that once saw and peak from behind those classes, the notes and letters and words that were once scribbled by a hand with that pen, the book stained by not only mud and the weather’s detritus but by thumpprint and skin), that lives have gone….and even amid misery, we owe it as our act of celebration, celebration even amid sorrow and laughter, that we remember, as best we can, that we are here ONLY because of those who came before…and were vanquished….

    as for the contention that this is once again a kind of misery-tourism, I would say that this kind of critique is not only lazy but unfortunate. A look at Matteo’s website is enough to detail for readers his deep and personal commitment to stories in which he has invested himself and the careful and intimate work with others. There is an intimacy here that speaks of friendship, of understanding, of loss. I do not read this essay at all like another priviledged young photographer from the west going to a land of misery to build up her photographic chops in a place of misery, war or famine/destruction. To the contrary, i see a story about the negotiation of living life day to day amid the weight of the land’s history around you. And for those complaining about no humor….i dont know, there are some pretty surreal moments in this story that punctuate the ‘reality’ of life for me….the kiss at the end…the sheep…the sheep’s shadow….the empty table overlooking the ‘shopping mall’ (where?) in the snow….to me, an essay (just as a book, or story or piece of music) must be taken on it’s own…..and its judgment must be within its own terms….sometimes i need Parr or Kevelar…sometimes i need d’agata or moriyama…sometimes i need mikhailovich sometimes of need fukase…..sometimes i need nothing, nothing at all…

    there are some beautiful photographs here…and some prosaic ones, and i also liked very much that combination of the emotional expressiveness of some of the images juxtaposed to the simple, nearly banal (table in snow, picture of tree by a death-river, etc)…..all gather as a way to try an express, as best as possible, what this land and what these lives endured….

    i think we sometimes fail in our understanding that photography is not truth…does not represent that world as it is, does not speak as a final marker of the lives and places and stories it wishes to tell. Photogrpahy, like a poem or a song or a scent or even a memory, however has a way of conveying to a reader an experience, a thought, a story…..and as David Grossman writes near the end of his extraordinary new novel (read it folks!) ‘to the end of the land’

    “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for my story is with me…”

    congratulations on the publication of your strong essay….


  19. Heh I’ve always loved your comments Bob bak at LS and here, a modern philosopher if I’ve ever read one!

    I stick to my own personal preference of one or two less item, or one or two more photos for balance, but that is merely my own take on someone else’s work and shouldn’t at all take away from what I do think is a great piece of work.

  20. I don’t know exactly if all of us have the possibility to look, read, and going into a story without prejudice, or if for the sake of do it, everyone of us have the presumption of being always in the right. Anyway i like critics, especially when I can see some constructive ones. Thanks to Bob, Valery, Gordon and to all the others. I repeat that this selection is for me like an obsession. I was obsessed by the things that I saw in Bosnia and by the story that a lot of people told to me and I decided to obsess also the possible viewer of this essay. So, what do you think about the work made in Bosnia by Ziyah Gafic (VII photo)? There are maybe too much repetitions?
    I want to tell you a story.
    Last spring I was in Marseille to show this project at the atelier de visu. And there I met Antoine d’Agata. He was doing a workshop in the same place. He said to me that he liked very much the essay and write me down on a piece of paper that “each of us have his own journey into the darkness..”. I thought and i think also now that the most important things in photography is not only the right composition, light or scene that you take, but sharing your feelings and also your obsession to the others. And always give them a little piece of you. I repeat that his sequence it’s only a quarter of the story, or maybe less then a quarter. My new essay is entirely based on the life of the young that I met in Bosnia Herzegovina, with a lots of different situations, from friendship between muslims, catholic and orthodox, to the mine-lives, etc.. And there are also other three unpublished story about bosnia, yet in progress..in october i’ll come back in Sarajevo to continue my work..
    Next year maybe, all my work will be published by an italian courageous editor in a book.
    All the best


  21. that we are here ONLY because of those who came before…and were vanquished….

    ….and won too…

  22. Matteo, I think the ‘problem’ some might have is that you, and other young photographers, walk too much in the footsteps of what has already been done, and been done by photographers being born in the places your story comes from, like Zihya Gafic, or Bevis Fusha, another one who makes of repetition something (to me) very powerful:


    More of his work here: http://www.bevisfusha.com/gallery/albums.php?set_albumListPage=1

    Of course everything has already been told, and that shouldn’t keep you (anyone) from telling that story the own way, but it might be harder to give it a strong, own voice though.

    On the last pages of the dialogue “advance warning” there’s a quite interesting discussion going on, that’s part of what Bob’s comment is referring to.

    Looking forward to see your next chapters, and wishing you well with the book!

  23. Eva, I don’t think that this is the real “problem”. If I’m walking trough the road of Croatia and Bosnia it’s only for my personal experience, and sure, there are a lots of young photographers moving around the world, trying to find only their right roads..we’re cosmopolitan?! Right? Moreover, the Balkans, when there is not a conflict, are so far from italian’s main magazine, but also so territoriality close to Italy. So i decided simply to follow my instinct, not the step of anyone. Consider that Zihya Gafic is not an old man (30)… and we are talking about something (the genocide carried out by the serbs in Bosnia and the aftermath of war), that at first Gilles Peress told at the time of war in his wonderful reportages, published in book: Farewell to Bosnia and Mass graves. So, both photographers who you were talking about, Bevis Fusha and Ziyah Gafic have made a good work, especially to help family to find some informations about their relatives or giving them the possibility to recognize some objects and I think that everyone of us have (fortunately) a different (photographic) language, sensibility, way to see, and all of them have the right to exist.
    You have to buy my book! ;-)

  24. Some very strong images here Matteo, congratulations. I would say either fewer item shots as Jay said, or simply distribute them more evenly throughout the series; at the moment, the two shots of bagged items just feel too close together for me and disturb the rhythm somewhat.

    I also feel the captions could use a little work, as they seem to be important to you, but inconsistently so, and sometimes redundant.

    There is some wonderful work here, though, as others have said.

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