John Palmer: Dignity In Tragedy In Black-And-White

John Palmer, born in Yorkshire, England, currently lives in Serbia. An accomplished master photographer, he documented the aftermath of the devastating 2014 floods in Serbia, and reveals the indomitable resilience and kindness of the Serbian people.

Q: What camera equipment do you generally use?

A: A Leica M6 currently, but I also have an M9P and I used to have a pair of M4-2s.

Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?

A: In May of 2014 Serbia was hit by terrible flooding and three quarters of the country was under water.
 Thousands of people lost their homes and all their possessions, and many were evacuated to stadiums in and around Belgrade.

When I heard about the floods I knew that I had to go and make pictures, not of the flooding itself, but of the people who were made homeless by the tragedy. I don’t know why, but it was a feeling from deep inside of me that made me come and try to help and make the world aware of how the people were, and still are, suffering.

When I arrived I was overwhelmed by what had happened, and as I made pictures I was struck by the dignity and friendliness of the people. Without exception they were very happy that I had come to make pictures.
 The houses were all empty, all furniture, appliances, personal belongings and clothes were gone; all lost in the water.

There was no electricity or water, and the only water they had was bottled water that was distributed to them by the Red Cross and the army. 
At every house I visited, I was offered drinks, coffee, or Slivovitz. Coffee made with their precious bottled water on a camping stove in the garden. In the face of such great tragedy everyone was gracious and very friendly and offered to share what little they had. This is the Serbian people, and I am proud to say my heart belongs to Serbia!!

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?

A: Documentary, portraits, tragedy, and dignity.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?

A: Photography is my life. I eat, sleep, and dream about photography, even after all these years. My approach is to get the job done in the best way possible.

Q: Clearly your documentary portfolio on the 2014 flooding in Serbia “helped to make the world aware of how the people were, and still are, suffering” but you also mentioned that there was “a feeling from deep inside of me that made me come and try to help.” How were you able to help, and how did you manage to be of assistance to the people while still shooting a large number of pictures.

A: When I heard about the flooding in Serbia there was no question about it, I had to go. I have a special connection to the Serbian people and feelings deep inside me that I cannot explain. Prince Vladimir Karadjordjevic is a personal friend of mine and so I already had good contacts there, making access easier.

The help I gave people was not of a physical nature, but I gave them the hope that someone does care. I am not interested in photographing the damage as many people do; it is the suffering of the people that concerns me. Without exception everyone I made pictures of was very happy that I cared enough to come to them. It is an ongoing project that I will do for as long as I am physically able.

Q: What were some of the physical constraints you encountered while documenting a monumental flood and all the consequent devastation, washed out roads, etc., and what precautions did you take to keep your equipment dry and functioning properly?

A: The situation was of course very bad with three quarters of the country under water, but I focused on the town of Obrenovac which was one of the worst hit towns with the whole center of the town under 2.8 meters of water. The smell was terrible with the sewers and dead animals all mixed with the floodwater. As I have a Press Pass. access was granted to me without problems everywhere I went. The Police and Army were very helpful.

Access to some of the small villages in the mountains was difficult where the roads, even when I returned in November, were still not repaired and I was driven up rivers and across country as bridges were destroyed.

I must say that before I went to Serbia, I asked through my friends for someone willing to drive me around, and I had over 100 people who wanted to help me. For Obrenovac and the stadiums in Belgrade, where some of the homeless people were living, top Serbian fashion designer Maja Milosevic drove me around and translated for me, and in Valjevo, where I currently have an exhibition of my photographs, Filip Maksimovic and his team drove me all around the area and showed me places I would never have found on my own.

Keeping my equipment dry was no problem at all; just one M6 with 35 and 50 mm lenses and films. I kept it all in my pockets underneath my jacket.

Q You declared that you were profoundly impressed with the graciousness, friendliness and dignity of the Serbian people under very trying circumstances and proclaimed, “I am proud to say my heart belongs to Serbia!!” As a guy born and raised in England what made you decide to move to Serbia, and do you now feel such an integral part of Serbian society that you were able to document the floods from the perspective of an insider rather than an outsider?

A: I first visited Serbia as a guest of Prince Vladimir Karadjordjevic, and as I toured the country with him I fell in love with the country and the people.

I have been traveling all my life to many different places in the world, and this is the only country that I feel like this about. Everyone has a place that they just feel at home in, and for me this is Serbia.

The Serbian people are very open and very friendly and though they are very poor they treat guests like kings, and share whatever they have, even if they go short themselves.

I felt this very much when I was making photographs of the flood victims. The people had lost everything, and the only water they had was given by the Red Cross and the Army, but still everyone I visited offered coffee made from their precious water on a camping stove in the garden. I have never felt like a stranger in Serbia; the people accept me for what I am.

Here is a link to an interview that Serbian TV did with me about my work.

I photographed the flood victims as a photographer with a powerful feeling for the people I made photographs of, neither as an outsider nor an insider.

Q: There is something wonderfully calm and assertive about the beautiful portrait of an elderly woman in a print dress or smock standing erect in front of a devastated landscape. The lighting is gorgeous and it is clear that the woman and her indomitable spirit are more important and enduring than the temporary chaos in which she finds herself. Am I reading too much into this, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release? Please also provide the tech data for this image including lens, film, and exposure you used?

A: This lady is standing in front of the ruins of her house in the village of Rebelj. The whole village slipped ten meters down the mountain because of landslides caused by the heavy rain. This lady, as all the people I photographed, has an indomitable spirit, calm, friendly and proud.

I used a Leica M4-2 with 35 mm lens and Tri-X film to make this photograph. Exposure was probably around 1/125 sec at f8 but I can’t be certain since it’s film. When I took the picture I wasn’t consciously thinking about it, but subconsciously I was very affected by what I was seeing. When I am taking pictures in these situations the camera is a kind of a shield. It is only afterwards that you really think about what was going on. Here is a picture of her when I first saw her. She was sorting through the ruins of her house.

Q: This image of a sad old man wearing a beautiful traditional knit sweater standing in front of what is evidently his ruined house, conveys an almost wry sense of irony, but also the feeling of “yes this stinks, but we’ll get through it”. Who is this person, is that actually his house, and did he tell you anything about his reaction to the flood disaster?

A: This person is Mr Milorad Pirgić, also from Rebelj, and he is standing in front of his ruined house. He said the disaster happened very quickly and their first thoughts were to get to safety. There was a common feeling among all the people I photographed that ‘we will get over this, build new houses and start again.’ These houses had been in the families for generations, and now they are gone and the people have to find new land to build new ones since  it’s too dangerous to build in the same place.

Q: This image is of a beautifully composed, almost surreal picture of a man wearing a mask, evidently a disaster relief or cleanup person. What really makes this picture is the asymmetrical composition, the lighting, and the dark doorway that suggests the foreboding and indefinite nature of the challenges he faces. Does this idea resonate with you, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?

A: Actually this gentleman is a lawyer and this is his office. There was 2.8 meters of water in this part of Obrenvac, and he lost all his papers, computers, everything. Still he had the attitude that life goes on and we will win.

Q: The image labeled JohnPalmer-106.jpg is, on one level, a simple straightforward portrait of a beautiful young woman looking at something outside the frame on her right, but it really comes across as an inward gaze and she appears to be in a state of reverie a kind of sublime acceptance without judgment. Who is this lovely woman, how do you interpret her expression, and what does this image mean for you personally?

A: This lovely young lady and her family lost their house and all possessions in a landslide and they were living in a barn with an open front covered by plastic sheeting, and here you see her  as she stood inside the barn, lost in her own thoughts. The plastic sheet behind her was dividing the barn in two. The family had no beds, no heating except an old Aga style cooker and no proper toilet facilities. The floor you can see in the picture below is just concrete with no covering at all. They slept on a couch with a fold- out bed, and the young children slept in an old caravan also without heating. They lived like this throughout the winter and I can only imagine the hardships they suffered.

Thank you for your time, John!

– Leica Internet Team

If you’d like to learn more or get involved, contact him on his website and Facebook

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