I decided to see what war was truly like. At 21 I made a fake press pass for a fake newspaper and pretended to be a real journalist. I was too dumb to understand the risks and too convincing to be denied…
What happened next? Well, it’s a crazy story, but the short version is this…
The French Foreign Legion were in control of the airport outside of Sarajevo and they told me if I didn’t find a way into the city by dark they would put me back on an aircraft back to Croatia.
I raced to the front of the airport knowing for sure that a CNN producer who had flown in with me must have a ride out of the airport and into the city. The bigger problem was would he give me a ride. His complete and total avoidance of me had made it pretty clear he wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.
As I barreled out into the sunlight I saw that indeed Mr. CNN had a car waiting for him. It was a beat-up, old, red, 2-door Yugo. As luck would have it, his driver saw me first and immediately shouted out, “would you like a ride?” I shouted “YES” and was almost at the car when the producer turned around to see who his driver was talking to. When he saw it was me he rolled his eyes and turned back around to finish stuffing his bags in the car.
I shoved my pack into the trunk and into the backseat I dove. The producer jumped in and the driver was in like a flash firing up our red stallion. We drove as fast as the little car would go. I have never gone so not fast in all my life. We ‘sped’ through Sniper Alley without incident, but it could have only been because Serb snipers were too busy aiming at the bicyclists who I was sure were going to start passing us.
I eventually wound up at the Holiday Inn in downtown Sarajevo. Half of the building was completely blown to shit but the backside wasn’t turned into rubble and glass so they were renting rooms out for $100 cash a night. It was where real journalists were staying.
So, having never been to a war, I had no idea it was a “cash” only environment. I had somewhere around $700 and the Holiday in was running at $100 a night…things didn’t feel very promising. I decided I would browse around the hotel to see if I could figure out a plan. No one was hanging out on the blown up side of the Holiday Inn, so I figured I’d scout out a room with perhaps less glass and rubble to sneak into later and I’d make that work as long as I could.
While I was scared out of my mind that I had actually made it, I was also as excited as hell that I did. I knew my buddies back home would never believe me, so I started looking for shit I could take back with me.
- I have a Yugoslav Army Titovka Ground troops cap that I found outside the Yugoslav Army Barracks that had been abandoned.
- I have a rather hefty 1984/85 Sarajevo Phone Book that I found inside a destroyed room of the Holiday Inn.
- I have jagged shards of mortar and artillery shrapnel that I found both inside and outside civilian homes.
- I have bullets that I found embedded into the wood studs in the walls of the destroyed rooms at the Holiday Inn.
…and it was right about that time when I had the thought, ‘huh, I wonder why there are bullets stuck in the walls?’ I turned around to see where they must have come from (other tall buildings, homes on hillsides, shit the tops of the ridges that overlooked the city for all I knew). It hadn’t yet dawn on me that the reason that side of the hotel was blown to shit was because it was the side that faced towards the Serb held part of the city and surrounding hills. From time to time Serb artillery, tanks, mortars, or snipers would shoot-up the place. Once I put the pieces together I thought it best if I stop strutting around the rooms like a fucking peacock. From that moment on I stayed lower so as not to get my head blown off.
I’m still plundering blown-up rooms for proof to my buddies back home that I had actually gotten into Sarajevo when I crawl out of one room and into another. With my head down checking the floor shards of broken glass I most assuredly did not want to cut myself on I almost bumped into an older guy and a young woman. I’m not sure who was more startled, them or me. They both looked at me as if I was from Mars. I am not sure why, I mean, I had hair all one length to my shoulders (grunge – it was a “thing” in ‘92), a trucker hat with Mickey Mouse on the front (because nothing says “professional” like a Mickey Mouse hat), a t-shirt totally pitted out, some cargo shorts and a pair of very hip looking Nike hiking boots with a purple swish (I saw a music video where Bell Biv DeVoe were sporting them and I just HAD to have them). He was dressed in khaki cargo pants and a button up shirt. He had two Nikon F4’s (which were super badass cameras in 1992). He was older and had a notepad in his back pocket, and Press badges around his neck. She was in blue jeans and a nice blouse. They had been laying on their stomachs at the edge of a shattered window. The young woman was from Sarajevo, spoke English, and was working as his translator. I would soon come to find out.
When I came up behind them all silent ninja style, they about jumped out of their skin. The photographer looked at me as if I was an asshole for crashing his party and pointed sharply towards the door, clearly telling me, without words, to get the fuck out!
I crawled back out to the hallway and he followed behind me. We both stood up out of sight of any curious snipers and standing in awkward silence he looked me up and down again, as if to be sure he was really seeing what he was really seeing. Then he spoke in one of those really awesome English (British) accents that even straight guys think is sexy, “Who the fuck are you?”
Standing in the hallway at the Holiday Inn outside this blown-up room we had just ‘met’ in, and this clearly professional looking journalist of some sort asks me who the fuck I am. I just start blurting the whole story out…this guy is clearly the real deal and I look like a shit-show…”
“I’m a college kid on Summer break and I wanted to see a real war so I made a fake press pass, borrowed a camera and got the UN to fly me in!” (I was 21, but books never came easy for me, so I was attending a junior college in the county I grew up in). This guy’s jaw was hanging wide open, and to the best of my recollection he said something in a real nice British type of way, ‘‘you’re a fucking idiot.”
At some point the guy introduced himself to me, his name was John Downing and he was the Head of Photography at a newspaper I’d never heard of called the Daily Express in London. All of that meant ‘jack shit’ to me then, but it turned out John was a legit Legend and a Big Fucking Deal – he’d been doing photography longer than I’d been alive. He’d been covering wars for forever, won awards all over the planet, fuck he was even made MBE (I have no idea what that means, but I thinks it’s noteworthy).
So, John is pacing in a bit of a circle in the hallway trying to figure shit out. The girl who translates for us is really cute so I’m doing this, ‘How you do’n’?’ bullshit because I’m dumb, and then John stops and looks me up and down AGAIN and says “I know serious journalists who’ve been in this business a long time and they can’t find a way into Sarajevo right now, and here some university kid from the States turns up.” I honestly couldn’t tell if John was talking to me, his translator, to the walls, or himself. And then John makes me a deal that would literally change the entire trajectory of my life…
It seemed like a pretty great deal I thought as John unpacked it. “I will let you go everywhere I go, you’ll stay right by my side on one condition…” said John. I was all fucking ears at whatever he was about to say was going a resounding affirmative from me! John could have said that his one condition was that I had to stand on my head and fart quarters and I would have asked him if he could break a $20! It did not matter what the next words out of his mouth were going to be, my answer would be, hell yes.
“…on one condition,” John continued, “you do exactly what I say at all times and you don’t do anything stupid to get us killed!” It sounded like two conditions to me, but I wasn’t arguing the fine print.
I agreed, respectfully repeating back to him, “I will do exactly what you say at all times and I will not do anything to get us killed.” I wanted John to know I had heard him loud and clear.
As I grew in my own right as a war photographer, I came to realize just how big a risk John took on that Summer day: It can be hard enough trying to keep yourself alive, and while you can trust other seasoned war correspondents you know, to take someone under your wing in the middle of a war zone who is young, dumb, green, and who has a propensity to let his imagination run away, was an enormous risk. I never understood completely why John took me under his wing, but I remember him sharing something about having met another young kid in a war zone once, and John may have taken him in also (which was a very John Downing thing to do – the man has a long history of helping young photographers who have some grit about them). But John seemed to have taken this kid he met in some other war zone and the kid ended up getting himself killed when he went out on his own one day without John. John didn’t want that to happen to me. I think John carried some guilt over that happening and when he met me he felt like it was partially his responsibility to keep me safe.
As I finished promising John that I would get no one killed, he said, “you got some real balls kid.” The truth was, I was just too stupid to know how serious things were, and were going to get.
Evening was coming on when John and I came to our arrangement. The young girl lived on the other side of the city from the Holiday Inn so John invited me to ride with them to drop her off at her parent’s home. I remember taking in two very distinct smells as we pulled out of the garage, sped through some side streets and along some smaller back streets that provided more building cover from snipers. As I would come to find out later, it was the smell of burning garbage and diesel fuel – these are the common smells of war zones and most all third world countries I would come to travel to.
While John drove, the fact that I had actually pulled this shit off, and that I was in a very dangerous place, began to set in. I was watching people gather behind the corners of buildings at each street corner trying to determine if now was the right or wrong time to make a sprint across the street and risk being killed by one of the many snipers terrorizing the city in this rather early point in the war. Later, the people of Sarajevo found resourceful ways at increasing their odds for survival when crossing streets; by hanging large pieces of material across the width of the entire street crossing made it more and more difficult for snipers and their lethal weapons to find their targets. At some street corners that were particularly busy crossing points for people and where snipers were known to have the most success in hunting and killing their prey, they stretched large empty shipping containers lengthwise end to end. In some areas, they had to also stack the containers one on top of the other because snipers were roosting in the taller buildings in the city.
In the days to come, John and I would venture to some of these same street corners trying to get from one place to the other. Regardless of large ‘curtains’ or makeshift metal walls, the mere crossing of streets in Sarajevo made you pee a little bit every time you took a run at it. The worst was when snipers would just shoot to shoot. Visible target or not, they knew these were high traffic areas. They would just pull the trigger to let loose the crack of their rifle, and to hear the boom of their round punching another hole in the container just to remind everyone that they were highly fucked and would be terrorized at the will and whim of another.It would only be a few hours before John and I would make a mad dash across a busy street, the explosion of a round ripping through metal would all but buckle my knees, and the part about a little pee…that’s a thing sometimes. Hey, this shit is scary.
We dropped off the young girl, said hello to her parents and met the older sister; shit we even had tea! The neighbors came over and we had more tea, then came all the neighborhood kids and they laughed and joked (surely about me as I looked a mess). Off in the distance, along the top of the hills looking down on the city, you could hear explosions and gunfire – ever reminding you that all was not right in the world. In fact, it was terrifying. You would hear mortars come into the city this way or that. People would drop to the ground having not yet grown accustomed to the sounds of war and having not yet lost their sensitivity to what was quickly becoming a part of what was now everyday life for them. I would return a year later and no one flinched: They had come to know what was going out, what was coming in, what was coming close, and what was coming in dangerously close.
As we had drunk so much sweet tea, I thought I was going to pee my pants (are you seeing a trend?). I knew the bathrooms didn’t work as I had picked that little piece of information up quickly, but as to where people actually went to the bathroom was beyond me, and I was too embarrassed to ask. It turned out, at this house, you went in a hole in the ground under the outside stairs leading to the front door. This also happened to be where we were all seated. I was glad I didn’t ask. Either way you cut it, that would have been really awkward; everyone leaves so Mickey Mouse American can stand there and pee in private, or what I feared even more back then, everyone would just continue hanging out laughing and smiling while I’m frozen, unable to make my business happen. Back in ’92 there weren’t blogs and shit to teach you about the little details. You just figured it out.
I watched John like a hawk. I still hadn’t realized someone could actually have a career that paid money for going to war zones and taking pictures, so I wasn’t watching him to learn f-stops and shutter speeds, I was watching to try and emulate him – tall, dashing, confident, ever present with the people, but always aware of his surroundings – who was coming, who was going, sensing the mood and energy of those around him. I didn’t know it on my first day with John, but he was already teaching me how to keep the odds in your favor as best as you can in an environment where you could be dead or maimed without ever hearing or seeing it coming. John always had his cameras at his side. I thought it was a bit much to have TWO Nikon F4’s; like what in the hell do you need two for? I would also come to learn why that was. I had a camera; it was an old Nikormat. Think of it like I had an old Volkswagen bug from 1972 and John had not one, but two Porsches. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had the Ferrari of cameras, I had never taken a picture before in my life. I didn’t bring the camera for photography, I brought it as a prop, you know to really sell the whole ‘I’m a professional journalist’ shtick! ‘See, look at me, I have a press badge AND a camera’. It would scream professional! Or so I thought.
As it began to turn into twilight, John and I jumped back into the car. Knowing I only had $200 in cash, John decided to sneak me into his room for the night. We had to be sly about it because it was rumored the hotel was being run by black-market mob types who didn’t take too kindly to freeloaders, or those that aided and abetted them. It wasn’t like we would run down to the Marriott if we got caught. After that night, I was able to convince a BBC TV crew with an armored vehicle parked in the Holiday Inn garage to let me sleep in the back of it; that way I was still with John and some place safe…kinda.
I couldn’t have realized it during the crazy drive back to the hotel, but if I thought this day was mind blowing, the next day was going to absolutely shatter the world as I knew it. Tomorrow would put me on a direct course to becoming a war photographer, no matter the stakes. Tomorrow, I would find myself, my purpose, my worth. I would for the first time taste a calm amidst chaos unlike anything I had ever experienced. Tomorrow would bring silence to my own internal chaos; a chaos that had been roaming my soul since that night, as a little boy, I found my mom dead in the bathtub from a drug overdose. Tomorrow, in the middle of Sarajevo on a hot summer day, in the basement of a makeshift morgue at John’s side, and with a single beam of light breaking into a dark room and onto the bodies of dead children, I would take my first ever photograph.