Baylor alumni tell the story of one photograph in A Single Frame
By Julie Engebretson
There is a framed photograph in Jeff Bowden’s home office that seems out of place among pictures of his wife of 30 years, Jennifer, and his three adult children. The photo, untitled, was taken Oct. 14, 1998, by the late French war photographer, Alexandra Boulat. In the foreground, a 12-year-old boy stands on a wooded hillside in Suharekë, Kosovo. He is one of approximately 850,000 Albanian refugees internally displaced during the Kosovo War. There are no guns in the frame, no obvious signs of war—only the boy, his full expression, and two blurry figures in the background.
On any given day and without context it would be possible to glance at this photograph among, say, 150 others hanging in a gallery and notice nothing remarkable. It would be possible to miss it entirely. But for Bowden, who happened upon the photograph at a gallery in Dubrovnick, Croatia while on vacation with his family in 2007, it remains the only image he remembers from the exhibit. The encounter brought him inexplicably to tears and launched a personal quest to find out why, all chronicled in the feature-length documentary, A Single Frame.
Bowden, who earned a BA in history from Baylor University in 1982, serves as both executive producer on the project and the film’s protagonist, while fellow Baylor alumnus, Brandon Dickerson (BA ’95) directs. The pair first met in Waco on the set of Dickerson’s first feature, Sironia (2011), and became fast friends, meeting regularly for coffee to catch up and discuss creative endeavors.
“The story is really about a photograph,” Dickerson said. “It’s a catalyst for Jeff to encounter all these different people. He guides you, the viewer, on this journey with him so you meet all these amazing characters. [The film] weaves an exploration of the impact of photography from both sides of the shutter.”
While visiting Croatia, it was Bowden’s daughter Gracie who urged her father to check out the gallery, War Photo Limited, with her.
“I entered this one little alcove, and for reasons that are still a bit of a mystery to me, I saw the photo and just broke down in front of it,” Bowden said. “My daughter eventually came in that room and saw me. We stared at the image for a long time. I even went back to the gallery the next day, but I turned my back on it, frankly. We left Croatia, and that was it.”
But the photograph was not through with him. Bowden returned to life in Austin, where he is part owner of several newspapers and D Magazine in Dallas. And, until their recent sale, he owned and managed two large tracts of land in the Waco area.
“Then, out of the blue, my daughter gave me that picture,” Bowden said.
Unable to forget her father’s reaction to the photo of the young war refugee, Gracie worked with her mother to purchase it from the gallery as a gift. So, just before Valentine’s Day 2010, the Albanian boy had returned.
“I framed it and it hung on my wall for two years,” Bowden said. “And I finally said, ‘Okay, this is the only non-family-related picture in my office, and I don’t collect war photography or anything. So, what is this photograph? Why do I have this? What happened to me that day in the gallery?’ I decided I would go find the boy in the photo, and maybe in the course of the search it would make some sense as to what this picture was and still is for me.”
The first step, Bowden said, was to seek his wife’s permission to pursue this search. And, in fact, Bowden’s whole family was incredibly supportive of him from the start and throughout a return to Croatia, five trips to Kosovo and Paris, and stays in New York and Boston –– all within 15 months.
For Dickerson, it’s an aspect of the story that sets it apart from other quest narratives.
“One thing I love about this project is that you would expect a story about an obsession like this to end badly,” Dickerson said. “You hear the setup and you expect the payoff to be, ‘The protagonist returns home to find his family is unhappy and his wife left him,’ and so on. But this is a quest that brings the family closer –– it galvanizes them.”
When Bowden arrived in Kosovo for the first time in September 2012, he didn’t know a soul, but he had a name –– Birol Urcan. Urcan had been a successful “fixer” for the New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters and other news outlets during the Kosovo War.
“Fixers are people who are in every area — particularly areas of conflict –– all over the world,” Bowden said. “It’s the fixer who takes a photographer or writer to those places to get the photo or get the story. They speak the language, they get you through the checkpoints. They’re indispensable.”
At their first meeting, Bowden couldn’t have known just how indispensable Urcan would prove.
“We met at my hotel, and Urcan was eager to help,” Bowden said. “Just after the war he started working in television, so fixing was like a muscle he hadn’t used in some time. He had been good at it, and he wanted to see if he still had it.”
But the pair turned up no substantial leads until Bowden’s second trip to Kosovo in December 2012, when Urcan was able to get Bowden an appearance on the most popular television show in the country.
“It’s called Oxygen. It’s this crazy, four-hour variety show that airs Friday nights,” Bowden said. “Half the country watches it.”
Clutching a book of Alexandra Boulat’s photographs, Bowden let the camera fix on the image of the Albanian boy, asking viewers for help in finding him.
That single TV appearance really ramped up the search. The television station received several hundred phone calls and had seven people come forward claiming to be the boy in the photo. Bowden even sat down with one of the imposters.
“Well, he was just a terrible imposter,” he said. “I really expected something dramatic to happen; but this guy didn’t want anything, his heart really wasn’t in it. Someone put him up to it.”
One tip, however, was promising: A woman came forward claiming that the boy was her brother. She knew because the blue sweater and pink pants he wears in the photo were her own. The woman’s story checked out. Bowden’s appearance on Oxygen had worked.
The 12-year-old war refugee from the photo was Sadik Kadrijaj, now a 27-year-old man. Bowden finally got to meet Sadik on the set of Oxygen during his third trip to Kosovo.
“[Sadik] works as a wedding singer, and so coming on this show to sing for all of Kosovo was like his American Idol moment,” Bowden said. “He had ridden a bus from the village where he lives, and he’d brought five or six of his best friends with him.”
Fortunately, Dickerson had agreed to join Bowden on this leg of the journey, bringing a camera along with him.
“We weren’t really making a documentary at that point, yet,” said Dickerson. “But, there is no way we could have re-created that moment on Oxygen later.”
The following day, as Dickerson’s camera rolled, Bowden accepted an invitation to meet Sadik’s family; and Sadik agreed to return with Bowden to that wooded hillside where his picture was taken 16 years earlier. Wearing his sister’s clothes, he had fled into the mountains four miles from his home while Yugoslav forces burned his village below.
As a documentary of Bowden’s quest began to take shape, he and Dickerson soon realized that in addition to the search for Sadik, there was another component, a parallel story to be told. There was still the photographer, Alexandra Boulat.
Birol Urcan’s time as a fixer had put him in contact with a number of photojournalists, some of whom were very close to Boulat.
“On this same trip, [Urcan] was able to arrange our meeting with Visar Kryeziu, a photographer who knew Alexandra well,” Dickerson said. “He started telling some incredible stories about Alexandra, like how she gave him his first camera. I think that was a catalytic moment for us. That’s when we realized this was much bigger and broader than just a search for the kid in the photo.”
Several of Boulat’s close friends and colleagues are featured in A Single Frame, including photographers Gary Knight and Ron Haviv, who with Boulat co-founded VII Photo Agency, named for the seven photojournalists who formed the collective in 2001. Bowden also met with Boulat’s mother, Annie, in Paris a few times.
“So, we also learned about the role of war photographers, bearing witness to suffering in the hopes that their work will help put an end to it,” Dickerson said.
Vivacious and much beloved by her family and colleagues, Boulat was only 45 when she died of complications following a ruptured brain aneurysm in October 2007, mere months after Bowden’s first encounter with her photo of Sadik.
“I was more interested, I think, because she had died, than if she was still alive,” Bowden said. “It would have felt odd pursuing this journey if she were still here. I felt like the photo itself was alive and the fact that she was dead made the picture seem more alive.”
Bowden and Dickerson finished their initial edit of A Single Frame in the spring of 2014, and through private screenings they have garnered the blessings of those who are part of the story.
“We screened the film for Annie Boulat [Alexandra’s mother] in Paris, and then in Kosovo for Sadik and the folks who contributed their life stories to the film,” Bowden said.
Bowden is grateful to Dickerson for agreeing to join him on his journey and having the presence of mind to bring a camera.
“See, this didn’t begin as a documentary film,” Bowden said. “I just started down this path, and then the film — having the project — allowed me to stay on that path as far as it would take me.”
Bowden stays in contact with the boy from the photo who, in some way, first called out to him seven years ago. He hopes to help Sadik in any way that he can. But after all that has transpired, it remains difficult for Bowden to articulate just how he felt, and still feels, about the photograph in his office.
“I think it’s like Girl with the Pearl Earring,” Bowden suggested, referring to the 1999 bestselling novel inspired by the famous painting by Johannes Vermeer. The author, Tracy Chevalier, used her novel to explore a fascination with the ambiguous expression on the subject’s face and the possible story behind it.
“[Chevalier] kept a poster of the Vermeer on her wall for 16 years,” Bowden said. “And she just couldn’t get over it, and she wanted to write the story of who the girl in the painting is. In a sense, I think it’s a lot like that. When I first saw it, it was like I knew that photo. It was real to me. On some level, I absolutely knew that moment and it just felt more alive than nearly anything I’ve experienced.”
This story was originally published in the Fall 2014 issue of Baylor Arts & Sciences magazine.
UPDATE: Bowden and Dickerson completed the final edit of A Single Frame in 2015. The film made its debut at the 2015 Austin Film Festival, where it won the Hiscox Audience Award in the “Heart of Film” category. More information about the film is available at www.asingleframe.com.