People often ask me, “what’s your favorite photograph you’ve ever taken?” You’d think as often as I’m asked that I would have at the very least a go-to answer. I don’t. Is it the one from Kashmir? The one people always love and say it looks like a Caravaggio painting. Is it the one I shot in Rwanda that took 1st in one of the World Press Photos categories that one year? Or is it the one that took 3rd in World Press Photo that same year? Is it the one from Kosovo that took 3rd in one of World Press Photo categories a few years later? Is it one of the two that was part of the Pulitzer Prize entry for the Seattle Times coverage of WTO Riots back in 1999 – when we lost to the Rocky Mountain News’ coverage of the Columbine School Massacre (and deservedly so).
Is it one of those ones that I always like for its complexity, but everyone else misses it or doesn’t get it? Fuck man I do not know…until a few day ago that is. On Thursday, March 25th, 2021 at 8:16 AM my most favorite picture that I have ever taken, between June 1992 when I took my very first picture all the way to today, almost 29 years later to the month, was revealed to me.
While there is still much to share in the story of my faking my way into Sarajevo in 1992, then meeting the legendary photojournalist John Downing MBE, who took me under his wing in those war-torn streets. With whom I stood next to when I took my first picture – two orphan babies murdered by a sniper. I first want to share something powerful, beautiful, and transformative that has happened – an event that feels ordained by God or whatever you want to label it. It’s a story that has flipped my entire understanding and value of photography on its ass and revealed something of myself that at 50 I had never been aware of before.
We’re only in Chapter or Part…I have no idea anymore, but I’m about to drop a major spoiler alert. You can choose to not read further and wait for the book, movie, or board game to come out or you can choose to read on – your call.
SPOILER: I don’t die. Not in Sarajevo in 1992 and not when I returned during my college break in the Summer of 1993. I get out alive both times, but only by the skin of my teeth in ‘93 however.
When I did get out of Sarajevo in ‘92 war was the only place I wanted to be and photography was my passport back.
If you’ve read from the beginning you all know that I was in Jr. College when I had the “brilliant” idea to go see what war was all about for the first time. I’m not sure if everyone knows what a Jr. College is in America, but I’ll try to explain it to the best of my ability so we’re all on the same page. Jr. College is a cheaper way to take college level courses without a bunch of overpriced college education fanfair. It’s local to a county/city and the student body is made up of a wide variety of people. In my experience for example, I had classes with super smart high school kids that took college level courses prior to their high school graduation. I took classes with 20-somethings who didn’t have parents who could afford a four-year college so they took two years of JR. College classes to offset the cost of a 4-year university, then they would transfer to a larger, more prestigious institution to focus on their major studies and get their degree from that school. Then you had old people who were retired who liked being around young people and learning. They would pick and choose topics of interest to them in their later years to stay busy or before leaving to travel somewhere I would never want to go at age 21. Then there are the older women…at least one that I personally knew of; who never had to work a day in their life because they inherited a shit ton of money when they were young so they stayed busy by taking classes at the local Jr. College where it also just so happened to be prime pickins for attractive younger men (legal, but half their age legal) who they would invite over for “studying” wink, wink, nod, nod. Eventually one of two things happened; she either gets bored of all muscle, no mind college boy (her friend swung by where I worked to let me in on that) OR…the younger man comes to realize that what he thought was going to be his sugar momma is next level crazy and one night laying in her bed “he” tells her he’s going to go to Bosnia during Summer break and she tells him he’s “fucking stupid” and he gets up, gets dressed, and never speaks to her again…If I’m going to put it all out there I might as well explain how that car wreck of a relationship stopped rolling. Or, in JR. College you meet someone like me, someone who has no idea what they are going to do with their life and their parents aren’t financially able to burn $60-$100k to let little Johnny go figure his shit out at a four-year college he actually never had the grades to get into anyway. So there, that’s Jr. College in the America I grew up in.
It was in Jr. College I got the idea to go to Sarajevo during Summer Break of 1992. I came back with a dream of one day being John Downing MBE, a real photojournalist whose career spanned decades and whose impact was tangible. I enrolled in all the photo courses I could that Fall, but they were all ‘art photography classes’ – stoner hippie shit, but I take them because I don’t know shit about photography. I also don’t know shit about journalism, or photojournalism, or documentary photography, or fucking anything else. I know what I saw and experienced in the besieged city of Sarajevo with John Downing. And while I don’t know how to become that, I have a ferocious drive to figure it out. With a couple hippie art photo classes under my belt, along with some better camera gear, black & white film (not fucking slide film), I go back to Sarajevo during Summer Break of 1993. My goal obviously, is to try and become a war photographer. Why? That’s a complicated answer that probably is best summed up like this for now; Partly because I see a place where I think I can make a real difference in the world – war zones. Partly because I think if I’m a guy who can handle war shit then I’ll surely gain real, not manufactured self-confidence and stop being so scared and insecure inside. Partly because I’ve felt invisible my whole life. I’ve felt unloved and not wanted. I’ve felt unworthy of love. I’ve felt like I must be someone not good if my mother would leave me like she did and the loss of my mother is compounded by how the rest of my childhood played out. I want people, especially my dad, to be proud of me to see that I made something of my life. That I was something more than some guy who just flipped burgers, dug ditches, or pumped gas his whole life (not that any of those things in reality are bad, but when those were conveyed to me as my options if I didn’t get my shit together those jobs didn’t feel like winning to me). How bad did I want to find a purpose? How bad did I want self-confidence? How bad did I want to be loved and valued? Bad enough that I was willing to die for it if that’s what it took. I was that hurt, confused, and lost inside.
So when I returned to Sarajevo in 1993 I did so trying to make something of myself and the one thing I knew I could control was “looking the part” of a war/conflict photographer.
When I arrived I was much more clean-cut, clean shaven, cut hair – gone was the shoulder-length Eddie Vedder hair (I met Eddie many years later and shot an album cover for something he put out on his Fan Club – that was cool). I had better camera equipment; two decent cameras – Nikon FM2’s with MD 11 motor drives. A long 70-200mm zoom lens like John had…well, not exactly like John had. His was a top end Nikon lens with a 2.8 aperture likely purchased brand new from a Nikon certified dealer. Mine, well, an off-brand maker with a very limiting 5.6 aperture purchased from a pawnshop in Florida that likely got it from a certified dealer, but probably more like a dealer of drugs. The other lens on my other camera was a 35mm wide angle lens just like John had, but not really. For Christmas that year I had gotten a “pro” photo-vest, light brownish in color that you would see a lot of sideline photographers wearing at major sporting events. I wore either cargo shorts or khaki pants, but not jeans, I had real looking hiking boots, gone where the Nike hip-hop soldier boots I had worn the year before. When I returned to Sarajevo in 1993 I’m trying to establish myself as someone who is, or who is on his way, to becoming a war photographer.
And while I absolutely wanted to make pictures that were so compelling that they would instigate change in the world. That people on the outside of this conflict and they would demand that the evil and carnage happening here and elsewhere be stopped. Fuck, did I want to do that. I wanted there to be no more dead moms, grandmas, grandpas. No more dead sons and daughters and fathers. For fuck sakes how about we just stop killing all the innocent children and babies? Are we capable of just putting a fucking stop to that? Could we stop killing the children? Can we do just that at least that? Anyone?
I also want you to know that I wanted selfish recognition. I wanted to be published and win awards and have near-death stories to tell. I wanted these things because I thought they would cause people to think well of me. I wanted the fame and recognition so people would think I had become something special. That I was worth loving. I wanted to feel special. And yes, I wanted to think of myself as one bad motherfucker, rather than the scared little boy I had always felt inside. I wanted to feel my father’s pride. I want you to know these things impart because they’ve felt like secrets I no longer want to hide myself or the secrets that maybe everyone hides, fuck if I know. I also want you to know these things because I’m not any different than many of you are. If there is any small difference at all, maybe it’s that I wanted these things so badly I was willing to die trying to obtain them – the truth is I was starving for love.
As the Summer of ‘93 was getting closer and closer I was being diligent about my research and I had read the British were flying UN aid flights out of the northern Italian resort city of Ancona. When planning flights to leave San Francisco again, it turned out to be faster and cheaper to get to Ancona than into Sarajevo than it was to get to Zagreb, Croatia than into the besieged city. So I booked a flight to Rome, then a connecting flight to Ancona and my grand plan was to show up at whatever airport/airbase the British are operating out of, flash my fake shit, get on the plane, and somehow find a ride from the airport into Sarajevo, and we’d be all good in the hood. Except I run into one minor problem…
When I got to Ancona some weeks later I checked in with the officer overseeing logistics for flights going into Sarajevo from Ancona. I told the officer who I was and did so with the arrogance and confidence of someone who assumed himself to be a household fucking name. He looked at my credentials, told me they looked great, but he was going to need to see my UN Accredited Documents. The blank look on my face surly tipped him off to the fact that I had no idea what he was referring to so he kept talking, “you know the ones you need from the UN Press Office in Zagreb (Croatia unfortunately…a Zagreb in Italy would have been helpful). The British officer was nice enough about it, but not nice enough to ignore the fact that I didn’t have those docs and to go ahead and let me on a plane anyway. He hadn’t become an officer in the British air force by ignoring rules. I tried to save myself by casually letting him know that I had plans to pick up a new set of credentials from Mack Magnuson, my old buddy from 1992, at the UN HQ in Sarajevo. He said something to the extent of, ‘yeah, no. You can’t get on the plane unless you’re approved by the UN Press Office in Zagreb.’ And just like that I was fucked! I was going to lose at least a week, perhaps two, and a lot of money earmarked for staying in Sarajevo. I was now going to have to go from Ancona, Italy to Rome, Italy, over to Budapest, Hungary, then catch a train to Zagreb, Croatia. Then maybe or maybe not get the credential I needed to get on a flight that maybe or maybe not flying into Sarajevo based on how much shooting was happening that week. Versus, the British plane currently sitting on the tarmac 100 yards away from me right that moment being loaded up with pallet after pallet of aid and was scheduled to take off in about 30 minutes. Fuck! How do I get on the plane?
“Hey, I totally get it, you’re just doing your job. Any chance we could give the Zagreb office a call? I’m sure we can get this cleared up?” I asked. The officer obliged and we went into an office/break room for flight and ground crews. The officer picked up the phone, “yeah, this ‘Officer ‘Edward’ over in Ancona (I have no idea what his name is, but Edward sounds British enough). We have a journalist here with credentials and an expired UN Press Credential from last year. He’s looking to get on a flight into Sarajevo that’s about to leave. Can you clear him from here?” I stood just inside the office/break-room holding my breath. He paused, listening to the person on the other end and then covered the lower portion of the phone with his hand, “they have to get the officer in charge to see if we can approve it,” he half whispers to me. Right then a member of the ground crew pokes his head into the office, “we’ve got a problem with one of the blah blah blahs for this flight, what do you want us to do with it?” Officer ‘Edward’ looks at the phone, then at me, then at the ground crew guy. It’s obvious he’s unsure if he should just hang up or not. He looks back at me and hands me the phone.
“Someone will be back in a second, they need to sign off on this or you’ll need to get over there to get accredited,” he says to me as he rushes out of the office. “Yeah, okay, sure,” I say, but he’s already out of the room. I’m standing there all by myself, totally caught off guard so I hold the phone up to my ear and wait. Maybe another 30 seconds go by and then a voice speaks, “this is officer blah, blah, blah. Who am I speaking with?” Hello officer blah, blah, blah this is Thomas Hurst photojournalist with Tamalpais Publications in San Francisco, California,” I say in my most confident big guy voice. “Yes?” is all he says in response. So I start bullshiting my situation to him trying to prove that I’m both a legit journalist AND that this
call stems from a big misunderstanding that I’m sure can be resolved in some way that benefits me.
I give him both barrels, I was there last year, have my accreditation from last year, how me and Mack Magnuson go way back, that my newspaper travel agent made a stupid mistake – I’m laying it on thick and when I’ve finally pleaded my entire case I stop talking. I assume that given all the details I’ve just laid out for him, he is going to have to weigh it all out before rendering a decision in my favor. Not even close…officer blah, blah, blah doesn’t weigh shit and as soon he realizes I’m not going to keep talking he says. “Not going to happen. You need to come here to the UN Press Office in Zagreb if you want a seat on a UN flight into Sarajevo. No exceptions.” and he hangs the fuck up. Standing there in shock, I pull the phone away from my ear and just look into the receiver like, did he just say no and hang the fuck up on me? The more sensible part of my brain, the side I’m not known for listening to says, “oh, yeah he did!” And the inflated ego, prideful side of my brain, which I am way too in tuned with is like, “no fucking way he just hung up on me!”
WTF, I just gave Officer blah, blah, blah both barrels of bullshit and he took it and rammed it right back up my ass. The terrible thought of how much time, effort and money was going to be lost on this stupid mistake of mine and how it could all but ruin this trip for me started to become too much. Standing in the office, I hear footsteps coming. Without even a thought, I put the phone back to my ear as if someone is still on the other end of the line. Officer ‘Edward’ walks back in, I give him a little head nod to acknowledge his presence and then I turn slightly away from him and start talking into the phone…to a fucking dial tone. “Yes, no, I totally understand,” I say to no one whatsoever. “Yeah, this was totally our mistake. Absolutely, the newspaper should have handled this better. Oh yeah, the person who arranges our travel is going to get an earful. Yep. Ok. Hey, listen, we owe you guys big time, I mean it. You know what? I’m going to come back through Zagreb just so I can buy you a beer – no, no, a lot of beers. Thank you so much. Okay, not a problem. Nope, he just walked back in. Do you want to talk to him? No, okay. Not a problem I’ll let him know now. Hey and thanks again,” and I hang the fucking phone up, turn around to face Officer ‘Edward.’ “What’s the verdict?” the officer asks. I shrug, “put me on the flight,” is all I could get out of my mouth I was so fucking scared. “Okay, I’ll have one of the ground crew escort you out in a few minutes,” Officer ‘Edward’ says.
I sat there waiting to be escorted out to the cargo plane, shaking like a leaf, I could not believe what I had just done. I sat there hoping to God one officer didn’t call the other to verify anything. If they did I would not be getting on a UN flight anywhere for the duration of this war, that’s for damn sure. Once I had time to think it all through I realized I was going to be in some deep shit when it came time for me to fly out of Sarajevo. Sooner or later the Officer blah, blah, blah in Zagreb was going to see a flight manifest containing the names of journalists that were flown in and out of Sarajevo. When he sees mine with no accreditation number assigned to it he is going to call Ancona to ask why in the fuck was I allowed to board a flight. Fuck it I thought, that’s weeks away – I’ll deal with that shit when when I have to. “Who knows maybe he won’t notice,” I thought. I was wrong…oh, how he noticed.
I got on the plane in Ancona and landed in Sarajevo. The airport was busy with flights coming in and going out, trucks being loaded, ground crew everywhere. This place had been busy as hell now that the siege of Sarajevo was headed into its second year. The Serbs couldn’t take the city in that first year despite having far better armament. They just didn’t have the numbers, which were estimated to be around 14k men and that was not going to be enough to take Sarajevo. The Sarajevo Defense Force on the other hand, fuck, what they didn’t have in weapons they made up for in bodies. They had the numbers until the cows came home – they were estimated to be somewhere around 70,000 men and women. They didn’t have shit for weapons throughout much of the war, but they were never going to let their city fall to the monsters sitting on the ridge line shelling the shit out of civilian neighborhoods and sniping women and children. No fucking way was this city going to be taken by the Serbs. So the Serbs recognized that pretty early on and went with another option – starve the city residents to death or to defeat. No food or water in or out. No medicine, no fuel, no weapons. They would wait on the high-ground lobbying in shells indiscriminately and murdering innocent children using snipers who were intentionally targeting them. It was a heinous war and the UN, the US, and Europe let it drag on for four years. Even after it was made public that ethnic serbs were committing genocide, such as the massacre of Srebrenica three years into the war in 1995. Srebrenica, a UN controlled, UN declared, “Safe Haven” for Bosnian refugees. A city where the UN, the US, and Europe stood by as ethnic Serbs walked in and took over without a shot fired and began separating the men and boys from the women while UN soldiers sat in the safety of their headquarters within the city as Bosnian people begged for their protection. All the while Serbs outside the UN HQ raped women and girls and killed infant children. Not to mention the some 8,000-10,000 men and fighting age boys they bussed to different locations around the country and then executed, dumping their bodies into various mass graves.
When I arrived in Sarajevo I once again was too broke to stay at the Holiday Inn which had now been fully established as the world wide holdout for international journalists. Rather, I stayed with the family whose daughter had served as John Downing’s translator the previous Summer when I had first met John. I had been to her home with John several times in 1992. I had met her older sister, her mother who had such a warm smile – big and beautiful so kind. I also had met and knew her father. He was a very respectable, well dressed thin man who was as funny and kind as one could hope for under the circumstances. I figured not only would I save money, which allowed me to stay on my trip longer, but If I need translation I could just ask her. I had decided not to have her accompany me when I went out to shoot because I couldn’t afford to pay her and I would never forgive myself if anything happened to her. I knew she would fight me on it, but I refused to budge. Also, I thought it better that I was staying among the people of Sarajevo day in and day out. I would have the opportunity to get to know them and see them in ways I would never get to if I was at some hotel. No, if I’m living with them I have the chance to learn in ways that had to be better than waiting in the plush purple chairs in the Holiday Inn lobby, hoping someone who was someone would talk to me, let alone invite me to ride along with them. I knew how fortunate I was to have met John and for him to offer to let me shadow him the previous year and I was not counting on lightning striking twice in that regard.
So here I am trying to explain to you the why and how I came to find my most loved/favorite photograph I’ve ever taken, but here comes the point I need you to really understand. A year later, I might have looked somewhat like a photojournalist, but I still didn’t know shit about photojournalism. I had no idea about how to compose a picture, to anticipate moments, what a good or compelling situation looked like that made it worth shooting. The rules of thirds or techniques like panning, or quick-zoom. I didn’t know about lighting – what was good lighting, what was shit lighting. I didn’t know how to see the picture before you even raised the viewfinder to your face. I knew NOTHING. I knew how to put film in the camera, how to point my camera at people, put everyone in the center of the frame, wait until everyone was looking directly into the camera then take one MAYBE two pictures and then move on and do the exact same thing again. I didn’t think to get their names, or try and learn a little about who they were or what their story was. All I did for some 2 or 3 weeks was wake up, eat something that the family gave me, and go walk around the city taking pictures of anything, everything, and nothing. Point, shoot, advance film and then do it all over again. I did take pictures of people…I knew I was supposed to do that, but everyone is in the center of the frame looking into the camera. I did this day after day week after week. In the almost 20 years I was a professional photographer I never had a single image from 1992 or 1993 in my portfolio. By the standards of documentary photography, photojournalism, conflict photography – everything I shot was poor, maybe mediocre and unless my mom owned her own newspaper none of these pictures would be worth publishing.
If you know nothing about documentary photography, but want to learn how to, DON’T…
- Overshoot people looking into the camera.
- Overshoot people obviously striking a pose because they want to show off the best side of themselves to you.
- Overshoot kids because it’s way too easy and no one is going to see you as skilled in the art of documentary photography.
There are lots of others don’ts, but these are some pretty basic fundamentals you want to avoid. Did I avoid these when I’m in Sarajevo in 1993? Nope, I don’t even know that I shouldn’t avoid them. In fact, I think that is how it’s supposed to be done. You might be asking, I wonder which one of these three mistakes did Thomas make the most? The answer; ALL OF THEM. In just about every photo I took I had children, posing, and looking into the camera…over and over and over again. When I walked around the besieged city, I saw kids playing or hanging outside so I took their picture. If my goal was to make some images that I could build a portfolio with, or submit for possible publication, I had not one picture.
FAST FORWARD: In April 2020, I got a message from someone on Facebook named “Sniper Alley.” It was a FB page I had stumbled across a while ago and I followed it because Sniper Alley is directly related to the Siege of Sarajevo. It was a name given a deadly stretch of road back in 1992. The long stretch of road was exposed to Serb snipers and a lot of people got killed or maimed on it. So naturally, I was curious about the page. So when I get a message from them back in April of 2020, I’m surprised and curious so I respond. Me and some guy named Dzemil who runs the page start a conversation and he asks me if I’m the same person who knew John Downing etc. I confirm it’s me and he asks if I would want to submit some of my photographs to the page and be part of some project he oversees. I’m flattered to be asked and thought it was cool despite not truly understanding what the purpose of the project was, but I say sure, and like photographers often do, with the best of intentions, I tell him I’ll dig some pictures out and send them and never do. It turns out there somewhere in the attic, the majority of what I have are developed negs – I don’t have contact sheets and I don’t own a negative scanner and I’m not about to buy one. So it turns out that the chances of me sending this guy pictures is probably never going to happen.
FAST FORWARD AGAIN: In February 2021, I’m sitting in Kirkland, Washington drinking a coffee and I’m thumbing through pictures on my iPhone. It seems pointless really, but I start deleting pictures of shit on my phone I either know I will never need or want or pictures on my phone I know I have backed up on a hard drive somewhere. I came across a picture of my very first fake press pass, the one I made to get into Sarajevo 29 years ago. I had it in my phone for whatever reason, but I don’t need it in my phone I have a backup copy somewhere and I still have the actually press pass so I am about to delete the picture, but then I have the idea of posting it in this group called “OldSchoolCool” group on something I started looking at on my phone called Reddit. The only two things I look at on Reddit are this group, OldSchoolCool and some combat footage group. That’s it. I like the nostalgia of the oldschoolcool group because it’s shit I can relate to. I decided to post the fake press picture there before I delete it because the photo in the press badge was the one time in my life I had long hair. It was shoulder length and it was my attempt to fit within the Grunge scene back in 1991-92. I post the pick, putting giving context to the dumb press badge and it blows up – 30k upvotes, 1,500 comments, cross-shared to other groups where its getting another 2-3k in upvotes and hundred of more comments. People start asking me to share more about the press badge and my sneaking into Sarajevo so I answer a few questions tell a little snippet of the story and people keep wanting to hear more and more so suddenly I’m writing longer responses, then actually posts, then it becomes post that I have to label Part 6 or Part 11 and I just keep writing and people keep responding and then finally I’m fuck it I’m just going to write a book. As I start writing it with the intention of a published book, I figure I should go find the negatives in the attic because they’ll have some use now. I dig them out of the attic, by the negative scanner I was never going to buy and start scanning pictures. I find pictures I never even knew I had. Pictures of a young and brash Christiane Amanpour from his early days at CNN and famed New York Times’ journalist, John Burns. Whom I met over dinner one evening at the Holiday Inn in 1992. I would meet John again in Sarajevo in 1993 and then not again until the war in Iraq some 10 years later and I’ll be damned if he didn’t remember me from way back then. I also had a picture of the always memorable French journalist, Paul Marchand. Paul was someone you just couldn’t help watch and listen to. To this day, I’ve not met a crazier Frenchman. Paul was someone whose personality was larger than life. He was known for doing crazy shit like roping room, several floors up, down to the hotel lobby of the Holiday Inn using the mountaineering equipment he thought he should have with him. Or when he painted a bullseye on the car he drove around Sarajevo, not armored of course, just to antagonize Serb snipers that plagued the city. Or probably the most famous of all, when he wrote “Don’t waste your bullets, I’m immortal” on the side of that same car. While Paul was outlandish, he was dedicated to doing good journalism and doing it with the utmost respect for the people of Sarajevo and the conditions they suffered through for so many years.
Of all my images of remarkable journalist from Sarajevo I did not know I even possessed, was one single frame of very meaningful picture of someone I held in high regard, Kurt Schork. Kurt was an incredible war correspondent for Reuters whom I met during my first trip to Sarajevo in 1992. He and I worked together to help a man shot by a sniper as he made the long sprint across an open field to the backside of the Holiday Inn. My mentor, photographer John Downing immortalized that moment through his pictures of Kurt and I working to bandage the elderly man up so that he could be transported to the hospital.
Sadly, Kurt was killed, alongside Associated Press cameraman Miguel Gil Moreno de Mora of Spain, in an ambush in Sierra Leone in May of 2000. I had met and become friends with Miguel the year before covering the war in Kosovo in 1999. In different, but very special ways, both Kurt and Miguel were people who I deeply admired and wanted to emulate. Kurt for his ability to stay calm and collected under fire and for getting the story right and for Miguel’s Spanish free spirit. The two men could not appear to be more different and yet they shared in their dedication and passion to tell the story of others. Both men shared enormous, compassionate hearts for the people who’s stories they told. While I knew of Kurt’s love for Sarajevo and the people he spent so many years among as he covered the Bosnian War, it was only recently, in the writing of this book, that I came to understand how deeply he love Sarajevo and the people there. Following Kurt’s death, he had half of his ashes buried at “Groblje Lav” (The Lion Cemetery) in Sarajevo. They were buried next to the grave of Boško and Admira – a young couple, one a Bosnian and the other a Serb, who died together trying to escape the war and who were buried together after they were killed by a sniper. Kurt’s acclaimed story the two lovers can be read here.
The pictures are mostly pictures I shot strolling around Sarajevo as if I was on holiday. As I explained earlier, I mostly just shot pictures of children staring back at me. Which is what caused me to remember that guy from Sniper Alley on Facebook messenger so I sent him a message to provide me with an email address and that I would send him some of my pictures. I mean hell, I figure I might as well follow through on what I promised almost a year earlier.
It wasn’t long before Dzemil responded and along with an email address, he also sent me a link to the Sniper Alley website he runs. I checked it out and started to read a section called My Story and this is what I read;
“My name is Dzemil and I was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1983
This is my story.
The story of growing up during war time.
I remember how life was, a simple, worriless and carefree adventure, it was as if nothing really mattered. My brother and I would walk to school and come back home, eat, go out, play and do the things every child does. Play till you collapse, sometimes skipping meals because of a child’s hyper-euphoric adrenalin rush. We didn’t want to miss anything. Being outside was our food, days were too short, endless happiness.
But in 1992 my childhood dramatically changed – the war started. My life and that of my family was suddenly interrupted, without any warning. One moment it was peace, the next, it was war. Life would never be the same again. Not that I knew that back then, maybe it was better I had lived in a child’s parallel universe. I wasn’t clueless, just a happy optimistic kid.
I was almost nine years old when the war started and about to finish year three of primary school. I remember celebrating my ninth birthday in a made-up bomb shelter with my family and my friends, all of us hiding from the shelling.
Even though there was a war on, for us kids, it was fun. We played, pretending to be soldiers, hiding in shelters, ducking down like we were on the frontline. It was entertaining because we didn’t have to go to school and we could play outdoors, unaware of the very real dangers all around us. We would often wake up to the sound of gunfire and explosions. What for others seemed chaotic and bizarre, for us it was normal. It was part of everyday life back then. I remember seeing the bright red search flares light up the sky before the firing would start. The flares would then fall to the ground by a small parachute. We would chase after the flares and play with the parachutes, free toys we thought, but we all knew what they used it for, its purpose was to expose and see who to kill next. When the war intensified, many families had already left Bosnia, neighbours and friends moved away – mine remained.
My father had joined the Bosnian army to defend our country from the Serbian aggressors. He was a proud man and considered it dishonorable to leave his motherland. My mother worked full time as a nurse in the local hospital throughout the war. Even though she saw people die every day, mortuary she would say – she never brought it home to us. I never felt the pain, depression or any kind of misery that she had witnessed in the hospital. I worked out that with my father’s army deployments and my mother’s night shifts, during three years of war they were away for one full year. My brother and I were home alone, most of the time. Upon hearing the warning sirens, we wouldn’t go to school, it would be too dangerous. But for us the sound of the sirens meant play time and we would rebel and not go to the shelter. Bizarrely, in the middle of a war zone we would go out and play, all day long. No homework, no parents to nag us, it was every child’s dream. That sounds crazy from today’s perspective, but as a child in 1995, even though there was a war only a stone’s throw from my home I felt liberated, happy and free.
Almost at the end of the war, in May 1995, during a truce between both sides, if something like that was possible in the minds of the beasts who tortured us for 3 years, my life changed forever. We were playing outdoors; my older brother was playing tennis and I was playing marbles with my gang. Suddenly a sniper started shooting at us. My brother was shot in his chest, he started walking towards home, holding his wound. He was the only one shot. Tallest amongst us, the oldest, in a couple of years time, a potential soldier. Kids screaming, crying, mother’s calling out names, total chaos. While he was trying to get home, still standing, his wound bleeding, I rushed to get help and tell my mother, who was making us lunch after her night shift in hospital. As she was trying to help him I grabbed blanket to wrap him, I phoned the ambulance and went out to witness what would be the last moments of my brother. He died on my mother’s lap while she tried her best to bring him back to life.
Those moments, that day, I will never forget. I remember our last meal, the last chocolate we shared and the clothes he was wearing, his watch stained with his blood. I took the watch for myself, wouldn’t wash it for days after that, still don’t know why. How come I remember breakfast from that day, how is that possible? So many details are in my head. He was killed from an infamous ‘Špicasta Stijena’. I was 12 and he was 16 the day he was killed. Since then I see life before and after his death while others see it before and after the war. 3rd of May 1995 is the date forever ingrained in my memory. It was the day my childhood ended. Truce they said, no such thing existed in the Serbian war manual.
Unfortunately, I do not have any photos growing up in Sarajevo during the war, as we didn’t have the means nor any of my family and that’s something that I think of all the time. It bothers me that I don’t have any school, birthday or family photos from that period. A single photo from that time would make my day. Looking at the kids growing up today with all the gadgets and possibilities, it feels as if I grew up in a large prison, I have memories and I can remember most of the things, they are so vivid, bad and good ones. We’ve all heard the line before, “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.”
The only photo of myself I have is from my brother’s funeral which I don’t consider wartime. It doesn’t count. For me, the bloody war was finished the day he was killed. It must be something psychological, some kind of a blockade or denial.
Photos from before his funeral is what I need.
I would love to find photos of my brother, maybe his classmates or some friends have them and they are not even aware of it. I wonder how many unpublished photos there are.
I remember, when he was killed, we needed his photo for newspapers and funeral services. We had only photos from his early age and then my late father remembered that my brother received some scholarship and they had taken a photo of him. That’s the last photo we have of him, one of the most precious possessions we own.
There are other kids and families who have similar and maybe worse tragedies that happened to them. Perhaps someone else is looking for a photo or a person from those unfortunate times. There are many photographers who visited Bosnia during the war, maybe they have some unshared archive. Something that the world needs to see.
That’s one of the reasons we made this website.
The aim is to find, locate and archive photos taken in Sarajevo, Bosnia during the war from the period 1992 – 1996. This website will document the war from people like myself and my family who went through it. We would like to credit and acknowledge the brave and courageous photographers who lived it with us and bore witness to our suffering. Some of whom tragically lost their lives in the process. This website will honour those brave war photographers whose work allowed the world to see what was happening to us.
This is my way of finding out about other photographers from the album. I wonder if they are alive, covering other war zones, do they have more photos, do they have stories to share.
At least 6 of them were there.
Writing this wasn’t easy, it took me more than 20 years. Lots of stops and starts. I hope this will help me and help all other kids who lived through the war.
Our website is open to all, contact us, share your story, ask a question, and send us photos.
As much as it is my story it is more about all of us, children. It is about war photographers.
It is about my brother.
His name is Amel Hodzic, born 08.03.1979.
This year he would have been 40 years old.
He was attending ‘Arts High School’ in Sarajevo, he was Year 2 in 1995 when he was killed.
16 years and 55 days old.
Just in case someone who knew him is reading this.
Maybe somebody has his photo, a memory, a story to share with me.
When I read that and I was like holy shit! This is something is what Sniper Alley is about?! This is powerful – yeah, it’s a brother searching for a picture(s) of his murdered brother, but it’s so much more than even that, as if that wasn’t powerful enough. This is about remembering, educating, creating a historical record so that future generations can know what took place and find a different path so as not to repeat the mistakes of the past.
When I finally understood what the story and mission of Dzemils was I realized that it didn’t matter how visually compelling my images were or weren’t. It didn’t matter if they held to documentary traditions or styles. The only thing that mattered was any visual record of the people, the children, who I met during my time in Sarajevo. Shit, if anyone should have a picture of Dzemil’s brother you’d think it would be the guy who didn’t know how to do anything else but take pictures of kids posing and looking at me. Suddenly the pictures I spent years thinking were at best an example of what not to do when trying to become a war photographer, had more meaning, purpose and value than anything else I had ever shot.
I cranked the high-end film scanner I bought and began scanning anything even remotely relevant. I sent the first batch of pictures to Dzemil via email one night last week and then stayed up until 2 a.m. scanning more and more. In my gut I knew I had a picture of his brother. I had no idea who he was or what he looked like, but I knew I would be the one to have it. With only a few hours sleep, I emailed another batch of images to Dzemil. A few minutes later I get an email, the subject line read;
YOU FOUND HIM!!!
I can’t stop crying. I’m speechless.
You found the photo of my brother and me.
These emotions are not possible to explain.
I owe you so much!
Thanks a million.
Sending you photo of me and a group photo where my brother is (hi is the one in the middle in teal shirt, I am on the far right)
I just can’t believe all of this…
I’ve posted the picture I shot that has Dzemil and his brother here. His brother is in the center of the photograph wearing a teal colored shirt and Dzemil is the boy at the far right of the group. I had taken a picture of this group of kids in 1993 – a group of kids, posing, looking into the camera. And it is beyond a shadow of a doubt my favorite picture that I have ever taken.
When I read Dzemil’s email telling me I had a picture of him and his brother I began sobbing. As I sat there thinking through how this exact moment had come to be, I was astounded at all the elements that had to happen for Dzemil and I to be brought together. Looking at the image on my screen and thinking that for several years Dzemil had been searching and searching for a picture of his brother alive and here I sit with the image he so desperately wanted to have. When I thought about it even more, I realized that had I better understood documentary photography as I would come to after my time in Bosnia, I would have NEVER taken the picture that Dzemil and his brother were in. Once I had learned the difference between a good, publishable photograph and a ‘bad, don’t even bother taking it’ picture, I would have never taken this important photograph. I bet if you went through thousands of rolls of film from all the other wars and conflicts I would go on to photograph you’d be hard pressed to find anything remotely like the pictures I shot that Summer of ‘93. If I had known what it was to be a real documentary photographer in 1993 I would NEVER EVER EVER taken this picture. It was because I knew nothing that I made the picture and 29 years later two men on two different sides of the world are crying because of the power of a picture of a photograph I was given the honor and responsibility of taking. I am still sending Dzemil images of children and people I took pictures of that Summer. Despite having found what he was looking for, he knows there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of others who don’t have an image of their loved ones who would give anything to have just one single image. Suddenly I have come to see photography in an entirely new way. It has changed everything for me. I will share how another time.
If you want to help others become aware of Sniper Alley and it’s mission then go to their Facebook page and start following and sharing what they post – you can help by getting the word out to other people who may not have been photographers, but were there and took pictures – aid workers, military, NGO’s, contractors – they can all help and if they weren’t there maybe they know someone who was! Do this please!
Follow them on Instagram and Twitter , comment and share their posts. If they ever need financial support considering helping in that way – what Dzemil is doing with no funding is important to all of us.To contact Dzemil you can email email@example.com