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TED2014

Ziyah Gafić: Everyday objects, tragic histories

March 17, 2014

Ziyah Gafić photographs everyday objects—watches, shoes, glasses. But these images are deceptively simple; the items in them have been exhumed from the mass graves of the Bosnian War. Gafić, a TED Fellow and Sarajevo native, is photographing every item from these graves in order to create a living archive of the identities of those lost. 

Ziyah Gafić - Photographer + storyteller
To help him come to terms with the tragedy of his own homeland, Bosnian photographer Ziyah Gafić turns his camera on the aftermath of conflict, showing his images in galleries, in books and on Instagram. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
These are simple objects:
00:12
clocks, keys, combs, glasses.
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They are the things the victims of genocide in Bosnia
00:18
carried with them on their final journey.
00:20
We are all familiar with these mundane,
00:23
everyday objects.
00:26
The fact that some of the victims carried
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personal items such as
toothpaste and a toothbrush
00:29
is a clear sign they had no idea
00:32
what was about to happen to them.
00:35
Usually, they were told that they were going to be
00:37
exchanged for prisoners of war.
00:39
These items have been recovered
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from numerous mass graves across my homeland,
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and as we speak, forensics are exhuming bodies
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from newly discovered mass graves,
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20 years after the war.
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And it is quite possibly the largest ever discovered.
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During the four years of conflict
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that devastated the Bosnian nation in the early '90s,
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approximately 30,000 citizens, mainly civilians,
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went missing, presumed killed,
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and another 100,000 were killed
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during combat operations.
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Most of them were killed
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either in the early days of the war
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or towards the end of the hostilities,
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when U.N. safe zones like Srebrenica
01:16
fell into the hands of the Serb army.
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The international criminal tribunal
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delivered a number of sentences
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for crimes against humanity and genocide.
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Genocide is a systematic and deliberate
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destruction of a racial, political, religious
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or ethnic group.
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As much as genocide is about killing.
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It is also about destroying their property,
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their cultural heritage,
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and ultimately the very notion that they ever existed.
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Genocide is not only about the killing;
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it is about the denied identity.
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There are always traces —
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no such thing as a perfect crime.
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There are always remnants of the perished ones
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that are more durable than their fragile bodies
02:00
and our selective and fading memory of them.
02:02
These items are recovered
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from numerous mass graves,
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and the main goal of this collection of the items
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is a unique process
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of identifying those who disappeared in the killings,
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the first act of genocide on European soil
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since the Holocaust.
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Not a single body should remain undiscovered
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or unidentified.
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Once recovered,
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these items that the victims carried with them
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on their way to execution
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are carefully cleaned, analyzed,
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catalogued and stored.
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Thousands of artifacts are
packed in white plastic bags
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just like the ones you see on CSI.
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These objects are used as a forensic tool
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in visual identification of the victims,
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but they are also used as
very valuable forensic evidence
02:48
in the ongoing war crimes trials.
02:51
Survivors are occasionally called
02:54
to try to identify these items physically,
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but physical browsing is extremely difficult,
02:59
an ineffective and painful process.
03:02
Once the forensics and doctors and lawyers
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are done with these objects,
03:09
they become orphans of the narrative.
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Many of them get destroyed, believe it or not,
03:13
or they get simply shelved,
03:16
out of sight and out of mind.
03:17
I decided a few years ago
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to photograph every single exhumed item
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in order to create a visual archive
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that survivors could easily browse.
03:27
As a storyteller, I like to give back to the community.
03:30
I like to move beyond raising awareness.
03:34
And in this case, someone may
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recognize these items
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or at least their photographs will remain
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as a permanent, unbiased and accurate reminder
03:43
of what happened.
03:47
Photography is about empathy,
03:49
and the familiarity of these
items guarantee empathy.
03:51
In this case, I am merely a tool,
03:54
a forensic, if you like,
03:57
and the result is a photography that is as close
03:59
as possible of being a document.
04:01
Once all the missing persons are identified,
04:04
only decaying bodies in their graves
04:07
and these everyday items will remain.
04:09
In all their simplicity,
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these items are the last testament
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to the identity of the victims,
04:15
the last permanent reminder
04:17
that these people ever existed.
04:19
Thank you very much.
04:21
(Applause)
04:23

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Ziyah Gafić - Photographer + storyteller
To help him come to terms with the tragedy of his own homeland, Bosnian photographer Ziyah Gafić turns his camera on the aftermath of conflict, showing his images in galleries, in books and on Instagram.

Why you should listen

Ziyah Gafić uses his camera to capture the aftermath of war. He has traveled to Pakistan, Iraq and Chechnya to capture beautiful portraits of people carrying on with their lives in the face of destruction; he has photographed the everyday lives of children in Rwanda, a generation born from the widespread use of rape as a weapon during the Rwandan genocide. A moving question runs through his work: After war, how do people manage to keep the fabric of society together?

Gafić's interest in this subject comes from his own biography. Born in Sarajevo, he was a teenager during the Bosnian War of the 1990s. Through photography, he parses what happened in his homeland. For his book Quest for Identity, Gafić photographed the watches, keys, shoes, combs and glasses exhumed from mass graves 20 years after the Bosnian War. These objects are cleaned, catalogued and used to help identify the bodies found with them, but afterwards, they become what Gafić calls “orphans of the narrative,” either destroyed or stored away out of sight and out of mind. His quest is to keep them in view as a last testament to the fact that these people existed, preserving them as an easily accessible visual archive that tells the story of what happened—integrating an objective forensic perspective with human compassion.

The original video is available on TED.com
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