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Book Review: Somewhere Between War and Peace


Book Review Somewhere Between War and Peace By James Hill Reviewed by Tom Leininger Truth hits you in the face before you ever see an image in James Hill’s book Somewhere Between War and Peace. Hill, a freelance photojournalist since the 1990s, has created a book where he writes about the memories and experiences associated with his pictures.

Kehrer Verlag, 2014.
 
Somewhere Between War and Peace
Reviewed by Tom Leininger

Somewhere Between War and Peace
Photographs by James Hill
Kehrer Verlag, Heidelberg, 2014. 160 pp., 60 color and black & white illustrations, 6¼x9".


Truth hits you in the face before you ever see an image in James Hill’s book Somewhere Between War and Peace. Hill, a freelance photojournalist since the 1990s, has created a book where he writes about the memories and experiences associated with his pictures. For him and the reader, this can be an unsettling process; after recording scenes of tragedy, violence and pain, darkness has crept into his psyche. The book reads like the meditation of a man looking back at his life, recounting the joys and agonies of his chosen profession.

Hill, who studied history at Oxford before embarking on his career in photojournalism, writes with a sensitive hand. This sensitivity clearly helps him in creating his photographs, but halfway into the book I wondered why he did not choose to become a writer instead. Hill brings the memories associated with these photographs front and center, adding a layer of context to the images.

Somewhere Between War and PeaceBy James HillKehrer Verlag, 2014.

Luck is one of the recurring themes of the book. Hill left London for Kiev in October of 1991, allowing him to live and travel cheaply. When the Soviet Union was dissolved, Hill was presented with many opportunities to show his images of a place that was not widely known. During the time before the ever-present internet, social media and many digital technologies, getting his slide film out of the country so it could be processed and stories sold, was a challenge.

The first of many of the conflicts he covered were the ones that tore through the Caucasus region in the 1990s. Hill takes us through the first time he was fired upon while on patrol with soldiers. The details added by the text make one realize that in these extreme situations it is a miracle that anyone comes back with pictures. Hill refers to this event as wearing “mantle of photojournalism” and how this metaphorical mantle is not always easy to wear, especially when a group of soldiers he just faced danger with beheaded a prisoner in his presence.

Somewhere Between War and PeaceBy James HillKehrer Verlag, 2014.

Somewhere Between War and Peace is not just a recounting of harrowing tales, but presents the totality of Hill’s career since the 1990s. Feature stories are part of his life, too. One picture in particular, The Walrus, shows a woman emerging from a pool of water cut from the ice in the middle of a snowy woods. The swimmer’s hair is perfect and her face shows contentment. This black and white image shows the other side of Hill, and why he is in demand as a photographer. This picture is followed up with an image showing the remains of an Orthodox Easter celebration. A long table is laden with food and drink and a man reclines against the wall with Icons of Saints looking on. The morning light streams into the rather simple looking room. Hill explains that his diary for this reads only that it is Russian Orthodox Easter. The details may be scarce, but the photograph speaks volumes about how Russians celebrate holidays.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq take up many pages. In one image, a couple travels down a mountain road in Afghanistan. The man walks and a woman rides donkey, the red light of dusk enveloping them and the picturesque mountains in the distance. This photograph and the dramatic image of a Marine trying to eat a bag a Skittles in the back of a truck during a dust storm reinforce Hill’s ability to go beyond the confines of journalism.

Somewhere Between War and PeaceBy James HillKehrer Verlag, 2014.

Hill’s coverage of the hostage crisis at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia touches on this sensitivity that he consistently brings forth. The text accompanying the image of a body of a young boy covered in wet plastic speaks to his humanity — he keeps telling himself the boy is asleep. The black and white pictures that follow, made two weeks after the school reopened, quietly shows the horror of the events and how those affected are dealt with it. Sensitivity comes through again with his color pictures of the area surrounding the Chernobyl zone.

All of the pictures in the book are strong and describe what was in front of Hill at the given moment in time, but there is a slow shift in the book from straight journalistic pictures to pictures informed by Hill’s own aesthetic interpretations. These photographs start to live in the realm of documentary instead of photojournalism, showing Hill’s growth during his career. Some of these photographs are made on a medium format film camera. That may not seem like a big deal, but as a news freelancer, it is an affirmation that Hill has clients that understand him working non-digitally (non-immediately, essentially), trusting that he has a greater photographic statement to be made.

Somewhere Between War and PeaceBy James HillKehrer Verlag, 2014.

The photographs in the book are encountered individually, then a page that is slightly shorter is turned to reveal the text. Because of the small size, this is a book that inserts itself into your life; it is easily carried around and the reading experience is very intimate. The picture size varies, which intentionally helps with the pacing and going between the words and the pictures is pleasant. I especially liked the attached bookmark, a sign that it isn’t designed to be consumed in one sitting.


I have followed James Hill’s career for a number of years. Many readers of The New York Times have, whether they realize it or not. Many of the images sprang from my memory reading this book. We see the arc of his career, starting as a strong journalist, but transforming into a documentarian with his own clear voice. I hope that in making this book Hill was able to find some peace, or more of himself. “I am caught between the duty to remember and the desire to erase,” he writes at the start of the book. I hope he continues to wear the mantle of photojournalism.—TOM LEININGER


TOM LEININGER is a photographer and educator based in North Texas. More of his work can be found on his website.

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