The Power of Photography: The Miracle of Survival
“Here you see the mourning family of two brothers who died…”
“This is a real mass grave…”
“In this mass grave you can see my teacher and another teacher…”
“This is a burnt corpse that we found…”
Slap, slap, slap
“Here are mourning women…”
“Another mass grave…”
Standing around a desk in the primary school of Krusha e Madhe we looked at photos of corpses piled on top of one another, skeletal remains alongside decaying clothes and personal belongings. And beside these were forensic experts clad in white jumpsuits their faces obscured by masks, and villagers with shovels in their hands, and grieving relatives. During the Kosovo War, villagers from Krusha had bravely documented the horrendous deeds committed by Serbian soldiers as they had gone about killing, maiming and destroying lives. Cameras in hand, the villagers had continued to bear witness after the war by joining international forensic teams, dispatched by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to exhume mass graves in and around the village.
Among the activists were the teachers Kadri Dellova and Refki Krasniqi. They had invited me, together with my research assistant Iliriana, to the village school to show us the photographic evidence and to evoke and tell us about the dead, the suffering, and the destruction of their village. From behind a desk in the teachers’ room, Kadri had pulled a red plastic bag filled with photos, newspaper clippings and other documents. One by one he and Refki began to place the photos on the desk in front of us. As if responding to the horror of each of the images their actions gradually became more deliberate as each photo was slapped down accompanied with a short staccato-like description:
“Here you see Refki with two pathologists…”
“This is the skull of a child in the grass…”
“This is where they exhumed the massacred bodies…”
“Here you see weeping family members of one of the killed ones…”
“This is where they bury the remains of the ones who were identified…”
Slap, slap, slap
“Here you see processions that carried coffins to the graveyard…”
“This is the distorted corpse of my best friend; we went to primary school and high school together…”
“Again, a mass grave with old men sitting around it as they are looking to see if they can identify the remains of their sons…”
The mass gravesite revealed men lying on their stomachs covered by dirt. One could only see their shoes sticking out. Pointing to the shoes, Kadri identified two of the bodies – “Here you can see Arben and this is Jeton.” Before we could hear more about the two men, Refki held up another photo portraying five men lying next to each other – they had all been shot in the head. And yet, the men seemed almost alive. I could imagine them getting up, dusting themselves off and leaving the site. The next image in Refki’s hand was of their burnt bodies that had later been found buried in a mass grave.
I could hear Iliriana choking with disgust as she turned her back from the images of horror to gaze out the window over the schoolyard with its rusty climbing frame and slide. For my part, I felt ashamed and shocked looking at these photos – the images of horror and destruction had produced an emotional response in me. Not knowing what to do as the men continued to throw more photos onto the desk, I reacted by frantically sorting them into piles according to size and topic. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like. The horror, the fear, the grief, and the survival.
Cutting through our silence, Kadri contemplated, “I simply don’t understand that fellow human beings can do such things. What is it that drives them?”
“You know Hanna, sometimes I smell the dead bodies,” Refki said after another a long pause. Shaking his head in frustration, he continued, “War is not just about killing humans” and then asked, “Where are my hopes and dreams when I was sixteen? Where did they go? They all died. Died! I can’t relive the time. Life has come to a standstill. As you can see, we survived. But what now?”
Shattered dreams. Ted Bowman, author and educator, wrote about shattered dreams as the loss of emotionally important images of oneself, of one’s family or of one’s situation – “the loss of what might have been; abandonment of plans for a particular future; the dying of dreams.” This is what war does to people; it robs them of their fellow human beings, of the things that made up their lives, and of the dreams they carried. Contemplating these losses, we gathered up the photos, slipped them carefully back into the red plastic bag, and placed it behind the desk out of sight.
Photographs of war are powerful as they bring the past into our present and future. They are as much a construction as they are real. The philosopher and photographer Susan Sonntag once described such photographs as constructions of the past and explained that they can be understood in different ways while also being “a record of the real” as they “bear witness to the real, since a person [was] there to take them.” Thus, Sontag tells us that photographs are both objective record and personal testimony with the inherent power to remind us of what is important, to tell a story about how it happened, to lock what occurred into our minds, and to make us alive to the “miracle of survival.” And so it was with the photographs that we looked at that day as they told us something about the unbearable past, about our struggles with the present, about the possibility of healing after such loss, and about our anticipation for the future. “What now?” Refki had asked. How is it possible to come to terms with all of this? What can be drawn from it? When we remember the past what is our responsibility for the future? What legacy do we want to leave behind, as we too will die?
Author: Hanna Kienzler
If you would like to read more stories about photography and memory in the context of war consider: “Portraits”, “The Photo Album”, “The Tape”
 Kadri Dellova was later to become village representative. He tragically passed away on 17 February 2020.
 Bowman, T. (1999). Shattered dreams, resiliency, and hope: “Restorying” after loss. Journal of personal & interpersonal loss, 4(2), 179-193.
 Sontag, Susan (2004). Regarding the Pain of Others. Penguin Books.
Leave A Comment