A report in the Sunday supplement of La Vanguardia about six people who reunite in the Balkans a decade after the conflict brings to mind the name of Sandra Balsells. We meet mid morning in a chocolatería in the centre of Barcelona and hide ourselves away at the table furthest away from a noisy group of gossiping women. With Sandra, there's no ice to break. Her broad smile and warm, friendly gaze put you instantly at ease. I have before me an exotic face: a pair of wide black eyes, tanned skin and long dark hair.
The first significant instalment in her biography is former Yugoslavia. She arrived there in the summer of 1991 during the initial disturbances and had links with the area for more than ten years, becoming a witness to its harrowing disintegration. The book Balkan in Memoriam, published in 2002, brings together 100 photographs taken by Balsells in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina during this decade, spanning from the outbreak of the conflict to the fall of Milosevic in 2000.
The learning curve of war
What most struck me when reading your biography is that you were only 25 years old when you arrived in the war zone! Her cappuccino sits steaming in front of her as Sandra attacks the foam with a teaspoon. "I wasn't going there to cover a war, but the process of former Yugoslavia's breakdown. If I had known beforehand what awaited me I probably would never have gone." It was her first substantial piece of work, in collaboration with The Times newspaper, and she found herself in the middle of a war torn country. A true baptism of fire, "a process of accelerated, 'on the job' learning". She recalls those first moments of doubt and fear, that "constant need to put myself to the test" that came to a head when, from her car, she saw her first dead body lying in the road. "I considered whether I could go on. If I was not able to get out and photograph the scene, there was no point me working in a country at war."
How do you go about photographing scenes of pain and death? The answer flows from her mouth without a second's hesitation. "You can do it if you believe in the meaning of your work, if you are convinced that it has personal significance. And it is also crucial to be quite tough emotionally." It is not the desire to change the world that motivates her work, but the conviction that she is doing what she loves and is emotionally connected to.
Lives hidden by the war
Working in a war is tough, but "it has its rewarding moments", she confesses. "You can have some very intense experiences with people." Perhaps what proves so addictive about war is the special bond that a photographer can forge with the person on the other side of the lens. "It is a very odd kind of communication. You can't even talk to the person you are photographing. You are immortalising them and you know nothing about them", she explains. The hundreds of portraits that she took in the Balkans have always stayed with her and have become familiar faces with which she only shared an instant in the middle of a war. But Sandra Balsells had the 'luxury' of being able to rediscover some of these anonymous faces. In 2004 she filmed the documentary Retats de l'ànima (Portraits of the soul) about the lives of some of the protagonists of her work after the conflict. Lives like that of Amra, a young Bosnian girl who was in hospital with shrapnel wounds when Sandra met her, and with whom she has now been reunited 13 years later. This was a reflexive exercise that involved looking towards the past, the present and the future. According to Balsells this is something that journalism should do more often. It is above all a "way of doing justice to the protagonists of wars, whose captured images we later forget"
The unstoppable journalist
As I listen, I realise that this Catalan is a true fighter, someone who makes things happen and doesn't let apparent difficulties get the better of her. Whilst she was covering the conflict in the Balkans, her "most personal project", she gave photojournalism classes in the university and worked on publications and with humanitarian organisations from several countries. She is still only 40 years old, yet the list of travels she has clocked up is breathtaking. Romania, Haiti, Mozambique, Cuba and the Middle East are settings that she has also experienced first hand. Sandra particularly remembers the feeling of young Romanians who live "on the doorstep of rich Europe, with no future or expectations and with a constant desire to escape". She speaks of the commitment of this 'rich Europe' to this other, with its "painful past and complicated situation", and inevitably we return to the Balkans. "The European Union must take responsibility and cannot turn its back on this zone so filled
with collective hate and still in such an unstable situation".
If politicians and civil society have a commitment to the Balkans, so too does the photographer when he decides to capture a fragment of reality. "It is important to carefully consider what you frame with your camera. You have to understand this reality, be precise, impartial and not simplify things". She offers the example of Kosovo, where "it is clear that the population that is suffering is mainly Albanian, but there are pockets of Serbian minorities, of vulnerable people who are also enduring the horror of war. She remembers a photo that she took of a Serbian woman with a child in her arms. They had kidnapped her husband and she knew she would never see him again. "This woman was as much a victim as the Albanian that had to cross the mountains on foot to reach Albania. Therefore, every observation is a decision and "you cannot record an image on the basis of its aesthetic beauty. There is a much more complex message behind it. This image for image's sake does not work in photojournalism."
Dregs of foam are drying at the bottom of our empty cups, as Sandra adds the final touches to her depiction of her profession. "To personalise situations, beyond the numbers and statistics, brings you nearer to reality". A reality that awaits her around every corner, where the wide eyes of this sensitive, tenacious and politically committed journalist stumble upon a story to capture".