Allow me to introduce Ian Rowland. His bio is below, but let me just say this for now. Some people never stop growing, never stop believing they can make difference, and never stop overflowing with hope. So, accolades aside, Ian has character. And he maintains that timeless human attribute that's transformed humanity since the beginning of time: He's fun. I invite you to read his words here. He's one of us, a true Visual Peacemaker.
During the nineties we did a lot travelling through the former Yugoslavia and saw firsthand 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 other 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 trying to conduct 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 on the more 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.
Recently I have been reflecting on this time in my life and feel a passion arising to encourage the art of visual peacemaking. To help, encourage and facilitate a whole new generation of visual peacemakers. So below are a few more thoughts on peacemaking in general and the contribution of the visual peacemaker.
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.
photo: Ian Rowlan. "My visual artist friend, Ben Hodson, in Iraq."
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, 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. 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. Often that is helping us accept and celebrate our differences, or learn to tolerate the differences of others. It some times 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. 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.
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 causes transformation and change on at least one side, hopefully both!
This contrasts with the objective of the peacekeeper that looks to stop conflict, to keep 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 peacemaking? What can a visual artist contribute to the cause of peace?
A visual artist has some unique things to contribute to the peacemaking process. The visual artist’s 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 peacemaking.
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 but sometimes needs to highlight the issues that need resolving in order that true peace can be found.
(One way we are trying to help, encourage and facilitate the release of a new generation visual peacemakers is by running internships. We run the internships through our artists collective A Thin Place. The internships tend to have a wider focus than just visual peacemaking but look to equip artists to have an effect on the world in which they live. If you would like more information then please contact us. To see some of the things we are involved in please visit us at: www.athinplace.org)
Share your thoughts and reflections below in the comments...
MORE ABOUT IAN
Ian Rowlan is originally from Wales. He is a social entrepreneur, helping to find creative and innovative solutions for problems in society. He does this in many different cultures and contexts through coaching, consultancy, advocacy, training apprenticeships and initiating and running projects. His main focus is in the Arts and education and he is becoming known as a photographer, storyteller and wordsmith in the tradition of the Celtic bards! He is the co-founder, along with Ben Hodson, of A Thin Place. www.athinplace.org He seeks to create venues where people groups and communities of different backgrounds, cultures etc. can find better understanding and co- operation together.