The Art of the Visual Peacemaker

During the nineties, we did a lot travelling through the former Yugoslavia and saw first-hand the total devastation that war can have on people and cultures and the horrific and cruel way humanity can treat each other. We were appalled by all sides. We were disappointed and frightened by the biased reporting of the conflict. Where Serbs in general were demonised and vilified. But the truth was, that the both sides were involved in ethnic cleansing and horrific acts against humanity. Where the leadership on all sides planned, initiated, and committed monstrous acts.

During those dark days of the Balkan wars we were involved in providing aid and relief to all sides; talking to and serving the ordinary people, many of whom thought that their leadership was wrong in the way that they were conducting the war but also felt that the world looking in understood little of the real issues and forces at work. This was especially true of the Serbs.

We experienced the inadequate intervention of the allied forces and the desperate inadequacies of the peacekeeping efforts after the conflicts ceased. We saw reverse ethnic cleansing taking place and it became more unsafe to be from certain ethnic backgrounds in the post war environment than it had been for many before the conflicts started.

All through the conflicts, while trying to help meet the basic needs of the ordinary people with medicine, food and clothing we also tried to bring a sense of perspective and understanding to the situation. We wrote articles and letters to the media, we wrote to MP’s, raised questions in the House of Commons, we wrote a book, as well as corresponding by email with those on the ground in the war zone. But the most effective tool we found was the visual media we produced. It was the most effective way to help people understand some of the issues, of seeing all the various sides as people, of promoting respect and tolerance for each side. These images and films often moved people emotionally and materially.

In looking back, I think we could have used these images more effectively. I also think if we had concentrated more on these visual components we would have been more effective in communicating our message of understanding and tolerance, of fairness and balance, of compassion and empathy for all sides.

There have been many times since I have reflected on this time in my life and have felt a passion arising to encourage the art of visual peace-making. To help, encourage and facilitate a whole new generation of visual peacemakers.

Below are a few of my reflections on peace-making in general, and the contribution the visual peace-maker could bring:

  • The art of the peacemaker is not so much to create an environment without conflict but rather to help resolve conflict and leave people and communities with ‘tools’ for the resolution of future conflict.

  • The peacemaker doesn’t necessarily make us feel good but helps us to face the issues that are causing conflict. Often that means that not only do we have to clearly see the offence that was done to us or our ‘cause’ but perhaps the offence we have caused by our own reaction or response. It can even mean that we need to realise that there is a different perspective and/or another side to the issue. It is rare that only one side is wholly guilty; although one side maybe ‘more guilty’. So, it is normal for all sides to have issues to address in order for peace to be achieved or restored.

  • The peacemaker doesn’t look to positively ‘spin’ a situation or even just concentrate on the things we have in common — although that is a good place to start! — but helps us face the stark reality of the situation we face.

o   Sometimes that can mean highlighting the injustices of a situation, pointing to differences that have led to conflict in order that we can find solutions.

o   Often it is helping us accept and celebrate our differences, or learn to tolerate the differences of others.

o   It sometimes means realising that there needs to be a change in our attitude towards something — a culture, a race, a custom, a habit or a person.

o   That perhaps there is need for a process of transformation of our mindset, our perspective on the world, our character or even our belief system. but it will nearly always involve the asking and giving of forgiveness.

  • The peacemaker isn’t looking to eradicate conflict but rather to help people resolve their conflicts now and to have the skills to be able to resolve the conflicts of the future. To help others to realise conflict is never a neutral force. It is either a negative force that will bring about destruction or it is a positive force that lead to transformation and change on at least one side, hopefully both!

  • This contrasts with the objective of the peacekeeper that looks to stop conflict by keeping the sides apart. They look to diffuse the issues and accentuate the positives but are more likely to bury the issues and leave a legacy waiting to explode again for a later time or another generation.

If all this is true of the peacemaker, then what is the role of the visual peacemaker? How can a painting — a video — a photograph etc. contribute to the role of peace-making? What can a visual artist contribute to the cause of peace?

  • A visual artist has some unique things to contribute to the peace-making process. Their ability to view the world from a different vantage point, to use their artistic ‘eye’ to portray a situation in a different light can really help others to see a different perspective and help in the process of peace-making.

  • An artist can often help people to ‘see’ the wider issues — the similarities and contrasts, to give dignity and honour, to tell the story as well as the facts. Because the visual artist shouldn’t just record what is in front of them but help tell the story.

  • The visual artist has the ability and opportunity to show common ground that builds bridges between cultures, religions, communities and individuals. We can promote, celebrate, indulge the benefit and beauty of diversity with all its kaleidoscope of facets ~ whether it be colour, religion, culture, tradition, gender etc.

  • But the visual artist must also be willing to grapple with the realities of differences, to show how sometimes diversity is difficult and presents us with challenges. To reveal the contrasts. To show the bad as well as the good, the ugliness of our world as well as the beauty, the war and what causes it, before the peace. To challenge the forces and things that cause conflict and war, whether that is a one-sided perspective of the world, a bigoted superior view of other peoples and cultures in the light of our own or something else. And in it all to seek to meet the challenge to portray all peoples with dignity and respect!

So, the visual peacemaker has the opportunity to promote and help us discover harmony and tolerance by showing us the beauty and wonder in diversity of the world around us and sometimes to highlight the issues that need resolving in order that true peace can be found.



Ian Rowlands