Aftermath, Behind the scenes, Forensic Photography, Photojournalism, Stories

21

Potocari War Graves, Srebrenica, March 2019

5 minute read.

Having been surrounded by death in my working life, I found myself habitually immune to the historic tragedy of the Srebrenica Genocide. I was about to embark on a memorial walk with thousands of others, towards the place where this tragedy happened, but realised that all those years had made me emotionally detached, immune to the feelings that loss and tragedy had on the ‘other’.

It was a strange experience, then, to be so far removed from this place of trauma – sat one rainy winter evening, scratching away at the surface of a print – to find a deep sense of sorrow welling up from somewhere unfamiliar. I was using scissors and a scalpel working methodically over each identifiable face, re-creating the image I’d seen in a hotel stairwell in Srebrenica itself.

Day 1, Mars Mira, Bosnia Herzegovina 2019, (defaced Dec 2019)

The woman was disfigured for reasons unknown, by a sharp implement. Present yet partially erased, like a distorted memory. Now I was thinking about these individuals in the context of victimhood, and placed myself in the skin of the protagonist, in control of their image if not their lives. By obfuscating reality, I was somehow re-energising that sense of loss felt by so many of those who had taken part, and started to feel the effects of that onerous process.

I re-photographed the prints as objectively as possible: square on, copy lighting at 45 degrees, just like the many documents I’d photographed for court purposes, but which were almost always equally suited to a humble photocopy. A few months went by before I looked at what I had again. I felt I needed the images of some of the deceased to make this personal and specific. The web is a wonderful tool for preserving memories, and a search quickly found a site devoted specifically to the systematic cataloguing of victims together with their names and dates of birth.

Zijad Ahmetovic 02.10.74

Here, perhaps, was a way to connect past and present – with portraits that were badly reproduced, poorly lit or in some way deficient. Their lack of detail seemed to be an error of quantity as well as quality. Undeniably, if they’d lived longer, these blurry images would have morphed into pixels with more detail. There would have been no shortage of choice had this atrocity happened in the Facebook age.

At the heart of this is an emotional response to the degraded quality of these family snapshots together with the violence of the event and my appropriation of violence in realising this project. The 12 victims were born in the same year as me, 1974, and meant that they all died when they were 21 – a significant and symbolic year in anyone’s life.

From the top of the Stari Most, Mostar, July 2019

To be clear, this to be about me. My intention in this post is to add a context to my interest in the subject. My goal is to throw a little more light on a region so close to home but so vulnerable to extremist ideology and still harbouring significant sections of society in denial about this murky chapter in its not too distant past.

A copy of the work in book form can be seen here:

https://www.blurb.co.uk/books/10176238-21

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Aftermath, Behind the scenes, Forensic Photography, Photojournalism, Stories

Defaced (Bosnia revisited)

(5 minute read)

I had to go back.

A pledge is something to be honoured and it was gnawing at me. If I went, what could I possibly do? Did I have anything to add to this tragic story? I convinced myself that I did. A forensic angle, perhaps? I wasn’t sure. My research led me deeper into a mire of meticulously recorded detail and testimony. Yet nothing would be resolved in my own mind if I didn’t go.

I joined the annual peace march covering the same paths and tracks the victims of the genocide travelled almost 25 years ago. The terrain. The trails. The trees. Seen with my own eyes, the eyes of the victims and the eyes of thousands of others who shared their grief in a moving act of solidarity with the living and the dead.

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I started in Srebrenica, a place whose name is synonymous with the genocide. It didn’t take me long to get the sense that the town was struggling with the weight of European history; a cloud that literally and metaphorically hung over the town and continued to stifle the aspirations of a new generation.

There were glimmers of light. Laughter from a ruined house near a vantage point, turned out to be a young couple in each others arms, joking and kissing.

I descended the hill and took a few more pictures for no apparent reason other than to draw out precious minutes and savour the early evening glow. When I got to the square a voice bounced around the buildings – a friend, who I’d briefly met at the local hostel, had found a spot in a third floor restaurant with a balcony and was calling down to me. I wandered up the staircase examining all the photographs on the wall as I went.

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On the second floor mezzanine, I did a double take. The picture itself was unremarkable – an interior of the restaurant above. What gripped me was the face, more accurately lack of face, of one of the seated figures: a woman in thoughtful repose had been disfigured, her identity stolen by a sharp object that had scarred her into obscurity.

Back in the UK, I realised this might be a strategy I could use to start to think again about what happened in this complicated place.

I decided to take a selection of the walk images, have them printed, and start defacing the identifiable people. I did this in the same way the restaurant picture seemed to suggest – with scratches and scrapes exposing the paper fibres beneath. The tools of the pathologist seemed apt: a scalpel and long-handled scissors. I then re-photographed the prints as a forensic photographer would copy documentation for reproduction in court.

I found the process itself surprisingly emotional. It’s not something I’ve done before and I’ve always seen the image as something sacrosanct, something to be revered, not scarred. I felt like there was something ritualistic and deranged going on as I scratched away at face after face, my mind wandering back to the muddy trails and constant, often cheerful chatter. How would these people feel about what I was doing?

Below are a selection of tampered photographs and detailed shots of the forensic pathologist’s instruments.

Originals taken on the Mars Mira memorial walk, July 2019.

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A forensic connection could be made here (in the sense that these pictures of pictures evidence violated objects) to the long running International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia who indited, among others, Radko Mladic for his part in the Srebrenica Genocide.

It also highlights the ongoing forensic work being carried out by the International Commission for Missing Persons in nearby Tuzla, where pathologists are still finding and identifying human body parts from mass graves 25 years after the killings.

It also bring to mind Radovan Karadzic, who radically changed his appearance to evade detection until his final arrest in Belgrade in 2008.

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©Reuters

 

All images ©djnorwood 2019 unless stated.

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