Artist captures ‘places of memory and commemoration’ in Kosovo

Article / August 11, 2016

Ottawa, Ontario  — Leslie Hossack did not grow up in a military family and did not count any military personnel among her friends when she first began to delve seriously into photography 10 years ago.

 The Ottawa-based artist set out to use the medium to explore a more general interest in architecture and mid-20th century history that, she explained, has inevitably brushed up against military events.

“It’s not an interest in the military that is the primary driver,” she said. “History is. I want to know about mid-20th century events, and they happen to be very military. I’m interested in architecture that is monumental; massive buildings that are designed to convey power. That took me to Hitler’s Berlin and to Stalin’s Moscow, and there’s a whole military aspect to that.”

More recent history was in Ms. Hossack’s viewfinder in 2013 when she spent nearly two weeks with the Canadian contingent at Camp Film City, the headquarters of NATO’s Kosovo Force (KFOR) in the former Yugoslavia.

Canadian troops first arrived at KFOR in 1999 to assist refugees and provide other humanitarian assistance amidst ethnic conflict in the region. Canadians continue to serve among the more than 4,000 troops still stationed there.

For Ms. Hossack, the opportunity came via the Canadian Forces Artists Program, which provides artists the opportunity to be embedded with soldiers to record their activities and environments for posterity.

“It’s a fantastic program,” Ms. Hossack said. “I can’t speak highly enough about it. I had been at a neighbourhood Christmas party, and I met someone who asked, ‘What do you do?’ I said, ‘I’m a photographer.’ He replied, ‘Oh. I’m with the Canadian Forces. Have you applied for the Canadian Forces Artists Program?’ I hadn’t heard of it. I started looking into it and it sounded like a terrific opportunity.”

Successful applicants are chosen through a juried competition. Ms. Hossack decided on her Kosovo proposal after researching options and finding KFOR was likely to provide an immersive experience.

“I really wanted to get an experience of the military,” she explained. “I knew virtually nothing about it. The NATO headquarters camp is a multinational force. There are over 30 nations participating. And there are anywhere from 800 to over 1,000 personnel in that camp and I thought, ‘Well, that’s going to be a military experience.’”

The images Ms. Hossack captured can be seen on her website and in a book entitled Testament: Leslie Hossack In Kosovo, which also includes entries from a journal she kept during the visit. A summary of the book on Ms. Hossack’s website describes it as depicting “places of memory and commemoration.”

“That is a theme throughout my work,” she said. “It wasn’t specific to Kosovo but I really zeroed in on it in Kosovo. I’m fascinated with mid-20th century history so memory comes with it. Commemoration comes into it too. How is history commemorated? By massive, monumental events in history, and particularly in built structures. So I’m always looking at memory and commemoration but for Kosovo it became the key focal point.”

The photographs themselves depict sites both of great beauty, such as the Bahtir Majaci Mosque in Pristina, and the more ramshackle signs of the ethnic conflict that engulfed it. One image is entitled simply, “Damaged Building West of Pristina Kosovo.”

“The KFOR Headquarters camp, although it’s been there for a long time now, is temporary in the grand scheme of things,” Ms. Hossack observed. “It’s not a city made of stone. When we went out of the camp into the countryside, I was very much impressed with how many buildings were damaged or not in good repair. And then there are the war monuments. They ranged from looking lovely and new and well-maintained, to one only built 10 years ago that is already completely decrepit.”

One common element in Ms. Hossack’s Kosovo photographs is space. The structures depicted are seen at a distance, under vast skies and, in the rare instances where people are present at all, they are nearly indistinguishable. Ms. Hossack said this is also characteristic of her other work.

“I want the building to be the subject,” she said. “It’s a portrait of the building and I don’t want contemporary distractions. That way, I feel, when you’re looking at the photographs you can imagine the event I’m hoping to evoke, whether it’s the NATO airstrikes in Kosovo in 1999 or Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Olympic Stadium.”

While the ghosts of conflict might still be felt in the region, Ms. Hossack said she will always fondly recall the experience and particularly her hosts from the Canadian Armed Forces,

“The officers with whom I stayed were extraordinary. They were welcoming, they were kind, and they were cooperative. They supported what I did. I will always remember them. The whole experience exceeded my expectations.”

Major Annick Chantal, currently posted with Canadian Joint Operations Command in Ottawa, was the Canadian Task Force Commander at KFOR at the time of Ms. Hossack’s visit.

“At the beginning, I must say, we were kind of not sure how it would be – a civilian and a photographer with us,” she recalled. “But she joined the group so easily she was just a part of us, so it was nice. And she’s such a lovely person, so we had great conversations.”

Saying she regards Testament as a “good souvenir” of her time at KFOR, Maj Chantal added that Ms. Hossack’s presence at the camp gave her a fresh perspective.

“Every day I was running around the camp and I’d seen all the different observation towers but I never noticed they all had names,” she said. “Leslie arrived and she was fascinated by those towers and she took different pictures. One day she said, ‘Do you know they all have different names?’ When you’re there for months at some point you don’t see the same things anymore and it was nice to get that refreshing set of eyes.”

By Steven Fouchard, Army Public Affairs

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