In January I received an email from out of the blue. Although I recognized the name, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was from a man I’ve never met, but admire immensely.
“Thank you for your words of appreciation about the photographs,
and for what you have written here about Sarajevo.”
I was gobsmacked – and thrilled. He was referring to my post Indomitable: The Kids of Sarajevo, written last August after we returned from Bosnia and Herzegovina. What you may not know is that Christian Maréchal was responsible for helping me bring the story to life.
I wanted to write about the incredible spirit of the children who survived the 1,425 day Siege of Sarajevo; I had the words, but no photos from the war. So I headed to my favorite source for fascinating photography, Wikimedia Commons, an online repository of free-use images. That’s where I discovered the powerful moments captured by Christian’s keen eye. Although I was unfamiliar with his work, I was amazed by his talent. I used three of his compelling photos of Sarajevo’s children to tell the story.
It turns out that Christian is a former London Ad Executive who decided to change his life. We’ve all read about top-level folks who ditch the rat race, quit their lucrative jobs, and trade their high-profile lives for anonymity in parts unknown. But not Christian.
He headed to war-torn Sarajevo to become a photojournalist documenting the Bosnian War, placing himself in snipers’ sights to capture amazing images that would bring attention to the conflict. It’s been said that being in advertising is like constantly dodging bullets: Christian took that saying to a new level. In his 2010 photo exhibit in Monterey, California, the caption on this photo says it all.
I opened a dialog with Christian and he told me the backstory behind each of the photographs I’d used in the post, providing a rare, firsthand account of life under siege. Here are his words.
“The children created the snow shot. I was walking a street, they were playing in the snow, and when they saw my camera they spontaneously grouped together for a photograph. I’d seen two adults on their way to collect water, the woman pulling the a sled to transport the containers; but then I focused my attention on the children for the photograph. It was only much later, when I looked at the first print, that I saw the adults had walked into the shot. They were tense because after a few more yards they’d have to cross an intersection where they’d be exposed to snipers. I don’t know what happened to the children in the pictures you have chosen.” –Christian Maréchal
Most of Christian’s photographs are in stark black and white, heightening the tension and bringing the message home, but in the next photo he chose color.
“The shot of the children playing in the wreck of the little Zastava 850 car: A slightly warmer than usual day, and they’re safe from snipers in this street. The sunlit cross street behind them (car with striped tarp) is more dangerous, and if they want to cross it they’ll have to run. Some enterprising residents, if they could afford the low-grade black market gasoline, occasionally ran electricity in their homes from the engines of their cars in the street, running the cable in through a window; enough to power some lights. Electricity was usually cut during this bitter winter. Water also. The first time I washed my hair in a friend’s apartment there, the water (it had been fetched from across town and perilously carried home by hand, often under sniper fire, in whatever containers could be mustered) was so shockingly cold I passed out.” –Christian Maréchal
And if you’re like me, you’re curious about the two boys with the dog.
“The one in the hat was shy and didn’t want his picture taken; his uninhibited older brother was keen to get himself on film. They argued briefly about it and although the older brother got his own way the younger couldn’t quite bring himself to look into the lens—which is what makes the shot, I think. They were such sweet kids, these two, so natural, and their circumstances so brutal.
They were proud of their dog. It was in good shape and obviously getting fed. (For how much longer, I never knew.) Strays roamed the streets, sometimes in packs, their owners either dead or gone from the city or simply no longer able to feed them. The starving street dogs were said to be dangerous because the ones that had dined on corpses had acquired a taste for human blood. The children (not these two) sometimes asked for cigarettes in exchange for having their photograph taken. They could sell or barter them. I always carried packs of Marlboro to smooth the way through checkpoints. Everywhere I went the men all smoked like crazy.”
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Finally, I want to thank Christian Maréchal, and all other photographers, who share their photos on Wikimedia Commons so that people like me can use them to tell a story. My words might have fallen flat without this talented assistance.
And lastly, one final photo that will leave you smiling.
“American John Jordan (right), a hero of the siege, was a Bristol, Rhode Island, volunteer fireman who took it on himself to equip the Sarajevo fire brigade with everything from boots to fire trucks that he shipped to Sarajevo from Europe and the USA. He divided his time between fund-raising in America and fighting fires with the Sarajevo brigade, whose work was made additionally hazardous by Serb snipers. Here he waits to board a C130 at the airport.” –Christian Maréchal
Photo Credits: All photos by Christian Maréchal via Wikimedia Commons