On the afternoon of 11 July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces claimed the town of Srebrenica, where tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims sought refuge. In the following days, more than 8,000 men and boys were killed, thousands of girls and women were raped, and over 20,000 people were deported. The massacre is the worst mass killing to take place on European soil since the Second World War and part of what the UN calls a “campaign of genocide”.
In the years following the war, forensic photographers from across Europe aided the mammoth task of identifying the thousands of bodies buried in mass graves across the Bosnian countryside. At the time, Daniel J Norwood was working as a photographer for London’s Metropolitan Police — a job he kept for 10 years — but he was new to the department and was not assigned the post. Still, “the thought that I could have been involved is an incentive to be involved now,” he says.
In March 2019, Norwood visited the region for the first time. The trip entailed a memorial walk to significant sites, museums, and communities still affected by the war. He returned for the second time in July 2019 to take part in the annual Peace March, with the intention of producing a larger body of photographic work, but, “I wasn’t sure what form it would take,” he says. “I made a commitment to myself then that I would produce something of use, a way of contributing to the act of remembering”.
Back at home, an image from the stairwell of his hotel in Srebrenica haunted him. A woman’s face, scratched out, distorted, erased, by a sharp utensil. “I don’t know why, but I was moved by the image,” says Norwood, who began to do the same to his own images from the memorial walk. “There was a need to engage, on some level, with the idea of violence, and this was my way of interpreting what happened,” he says. “I’m no expert on the psychology of extreme violence, but my experience tells me there’s a detachment needed in order to carry out an atrocity, on whatever scale.”
With a desire to engage with the event on a more personal level, Norwood accessed an online archive of victims of the massacre — which logged their names, date of birth, and portrait — and searched for those born in the same year as him, 1974. The 12 victims listed were killed when they were 21 — “a significant and symbolic year in anyone’s life”. “This became a way to construct a kind of ‘virtual classroom’ of my Balkan contemporaries,” he says. “At this point the project became personal, and all those learned layers of detachment fell away.”
The resulting series, titled 21, presents 12 triptychs, each made up of a part of Norwood’s engagement with the atrocity: the journey, the memorial walk, and the victims. In a world where human deaths are so often lumped into statistics, as we have seen in the recent months of the coronavirus pandemic, Norwood’s work offers an opportunity to connect with the individual lives that were lost.
Though the project is conceptual, evidence of Norwood’s experience as a forensic photographer manifests in many aspects of it: the act of revisiting and recording, and the element of ritual. “When photographing a crime scene, you record it in a systematic way, trying not to deviate from a precise methodology. In a sense, my decision-making processes were defined by my role as a ‘dispassionate observer’,” he says. “I can’t help but be influenced by my former career, no matter how much I’d sometimes like to move on. I think it’s a question of making use of one’s experience, whatever that might be, in order to make work of meaning.”
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