A lens on war frames an understanding of peace

Updated on Oct. 14, 2020

Photographer Gary Knight has documented war, but now he’s trying to understand peace. 

A global journey to document peace is the idea at the heart of the sweeping and ambitious project by the VII Foundation titled “Imagine: Reflections on Peace,” which launched last week in France. A concept directed by Knight and produced by his wife, Fiona Turner, features a stellar cast of world-renowned journalists who have compiled a book of photography and writing as well as a photographic exhibition and a series of short films. 

 “As journalists we are preoccupied by war, the unknown and the spectacular. Peace which is the great aspiration at the end of war largely goes undocumented. … Peace is complex. Peace is messy. Peace is easy to imagine, but peace is very hard to implement,” said Knight, a co-founder of the VII Foundation.

Their work pivots from documenting war to trying to discover what makes for peace, an attempt, as the website puts it, “to reveal the complexities of redemption and rebuilding in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Cambodia, Colombia, Lebanon, Northern Ireland and Rwanda.” 

The images and the reportage by Knight, and the team of veteran writers and photographers he and Turner have assembled, are complemented by the insights of the practitioners of peace and scholars who study the aftermath of war. Together, they offer a view of what it takes to move beyond the unspeakable brutality of war. 

The stunning photo essays in this collection span decades: Gilles Peress documenting The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Stephen Ferry travels the path to peace with FARC out of the Colombian jungle toward an uncertain future. Don McCullin documents the brutality of the war in Beirut in the late 1970s and Nichole Sobecki brings us back to see the streets of Lebanon today; Jack Picone returns to Rwanda 25 years after the genocide to see the breathtaking advancement toward peace. Ron Haviv’s signature work journeys from the height of the war in Bosnia to a return to see that, a generation later, the end of the conflict has not really established what could be called peace. Roland Neveu was documenting the take over of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge and Gary Knight returns 45 years later to capture the lives of those whose lives are still shaped by the war. Nicole Tung’s photography looks at the war in Iraq and the struggle in Mosul and Raqqa to find a way onto the road toward peace. 

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Writers Jon Lee Anderson, Robin Wright, Philip Gourevitch, Anthony Loyd and others bring years of frontline reporting to the book and drive the narrative alongside the photography. Architects and activists of peace, like Padraig O’Malley and Justice Richard Goldstone, offer insights into how peace fails, and what it takes to make it succeed.

In an interview from France, where this project was launched on Oct. 6, we asked Knight what he hoped the project would accomplish.

“Maybe we can provide something that will be as relevant to America now as they are to the countries that have experienced war like Rwanda and Bosnia,” he replied.

Knight said there were signs of factionalism emerging in America in recent months and he said if a life-long study of war and efforts toward peace has illustrated one thing, it is this: “If the factionalized communities in America really desire peace, you can make it work. If they don’t, they will have to go to war… When both factions feel they can win, they have no basis to try to find peace. The problem in America is both sides feel they can win. America is pulling itself apart, and none of us know where this is headed… It is really a leap of faith – until both sides have something to lose, you can’t start to build trust.”

And referring specifically to the example of Rwanda and its struggle to build a lasting peace after a genocidal war, Knight said, “If they can overcome what happened there, then America can overcome what has happened in America.”  

Knight, head of the VII Foundation, was a co-founder of The GroundTruth Project. And three of the journalists on this team are former GroundTruth reporting fellows, including photographers Nichole Sobecki and Nicole Tung and the journalist Elizabeth Herman, who writes on post traumatic stress. Knight said that the journalists who contributed to this work – legendary veterans as well as emerging talent – are bound by an idealism, a belief that would seem unlikely for those who have seen war up close: “The goal, what brought us together, is the idea that through our work we might make the world more comprehensible, and to try to change it for the better.”

Knight added, “We genuinely want to make the world better because of what we experienced in covering war.”