Thomas Kern

Tales of War

When the war broke out in former Yugoslavia in 1991, Swiss photographer Thomas Kern knew immediately that he wanted to work there. He managed to get a commission from the renowned Swiss monthly magazine Du. His aim was not to document the war as it was happening with photos to accompany the daily news. Thomas Kern wanted to take his time to gain a deeper understanding of what was going on in this country. A not so distant country that was suddenly in a state of war. “I didn’t just want to make a statement about the war in Bosnia. I wanted to show what it means for people to live in a situation like that. How they cope with it mentally,” he explains.

He traveled through the war zone for several months, watching the people, talking to them, living with them. The resulting pictures are documents with a timeless quality; they show how war becomes part of everyday life and everyday life a part of war. Without using technical effects or unusual perspectives, but with an intuitive immediacy, they tell how people try to create a kind of normality despite the permanent state of emergency. For example by holding onto rituals. Like the Muslims whose mosque has been destroyed and who now pray in the courtyard, among empty bottles and rubble. Or the boy who became a local celebrity with his collection of grenades and projectiles. “These scenes speak for themselves. I didn’t have to add exciting elements or dramatize them,” says Thomas Kern. “After all, this didn’t happen far away, but in the heart of Europe, in a culture we are very familiar with.” Thomas Kern’s pictures stop us Western Europeans from thinking this war may have been a terrible thing, but it didn’t have anything to do with us.

By grouping his photos into series, he underlines what he finds important in his work. Like a mosaic in which each piece is a vital element. But this also makes it clear how many aspects of war he was unable to show, because he wasn’t in the right place or because they are simply not visually comprehensible. Again and again, he questioned his role and position as a photojournalist. And found the answer: he couldn’t change the war itself with his pictures, but he could alter the way it is perceived.

Biographical information

1965

born in Brugg, Switzerland

1984 -1987

education as photographer

1987

Photography class of Zurich University of the Arts

since 1989

works as a photojournalist for international magazines

1990

co-founder of the Bildagentur “Lookat Photos” in Zurich

since 1994

teaches photography in Switzerland and abroad

1996

World Press Award

lives and works in Moeriken, Switzerland.