How I took the photo of the year in Serbia

The summer 2020 in Belgrade was marked by a one-week July protests provoked by the announced reintroduction of drastic isolation measures to prevent the spread of the Corona virus pandemic. Since late February Serbian Authorities have been implementing inconsistent, incomprehensible and contradictory anti-pandemic measures that have resulted in the loss of trust in the government and its Crisis Center. In the beginning of the pandemic, the government underplayed the seriousness of the threat labeling Corona “the most laughable virus in the history of mankind“. However, only two weeks later, the authorities made a U-turn, and, unconstitutionally, bypassing the Parliament, declared almost a two-month long state of emergency. A countrywide curfew with frequent changes of duration was declared, instilling confusion among citizens. The curfew lasted until the end of the state of emergency. Senior citizens, those over the age of 65, faced the toughest restrictions: for a month and a half they were forbidden from leaving their homes, except for buying groceries once a week from 4a.m. until 7a.m.

Such restrictive and inconsistent measures, which were among the toughest in the world, provoked dissatisfaction and anger with many citizens which culminated in July 2020 when outraged people poured out onto the streets and violent clashes with the police occurred in front of the Serbian. Parliament. The cause of these protests was far deeper than just a reaction to yet another lockdown - it was rather a result of the accumulated citizens’ dissatisfaction with the long-term rule of the President Aleksandar Vučić and his Serbian Progressive Party. 

The protests began peacefully, but it did not take long before they turned into riots, similar to those from 2000, when the regime of Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown. Since I was too young when several major anti-government protests took place in the 1990s, and a novice photographer in 2000, this time I decided to document the history of Serbia, which is written in such situations.

I started taking photos on July 8, the second day of the protest, when I inexperiencedly went to cover the event without a gas mask and a helmet. Consequently, I was exposed to a high concentration of tear gas provoking severe choking, thrown by the police at the protester. Barely breeding, I found rescue in one of the buildings next to the park across the Parliament. I met there a group of young people helping each other by offering a bottle of milk, which was used to ease the pain in the eyes caused by tear gas. I took there a few photos that illustrated an atmosphere of solidarity.

The following morning, I got a new gas mask and a helmet. In the afternoon, I went to the protest in full gear, but this time there was no unrest. Protesters expressed their dissatisfaction by dancing and singing to the music coming from the speakers. At same time some individuals (claiming that they were coming from Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina) were turning off the music, shouting and trying to provoke people to riot. At that time, it became obvious what many citizens already suspected, that "state structures" deliberately insert people with the aim of sabotaging the peaceful protest and provoking the riots, in order to present the opposition-minded citizens as thugs. Although these protests were not organized by the political parties, the authorities continued with their practice of falsely informing the citizens about the events, especially the population throughout Serbia, to whom news is available only through the pro-regime media.

Since my children were very little at the time (two and less than 4 years old), a good family organization was needed so that I could cover these events. My husband, who also wanted to attend the protests as a citizen, would leave first and stay there for about an hour, (usually until 8pm), while I looked after the children. My husband would then return home by car to pick up me and my kids and make a circle again, driving the whole family to the protest, where I would go out to work. After taking me to the protest, they would return home immediately.

It was July 10th, the fourth day of the protest. I arrived at the protests sometime at dusk, around half past nine, and the riots began almost immediately. I was angry at my husband since he drove me later that day, but the protesters were also angry, so I quickly forgot about my “problems”. Protesters from the front lines (provocateurs, presumably football fans) constantly threatened journalists lives and equipment for taking photos of them. Because of that, the photographers withdrew to a safe distance from where they occasionally took photos with telephoto lenses. Although I was in a group with all the other photographers and journalists, I didn't do it, for the simple reason that I only photographed these protests with a 35mm lens, which is why I had to be close to the scene I was photographing. In the moments when the protesters "played” with the police cordon too much, forgetting about us photographers, I would jump over the fence set as a barrier, approach the cordon, and take photos. I would quickly retreat after that. I remember vividly the words of a colleague of mine commenting my behavior: “Sanja, what are you doing, shoot with a telephoto!" I thought to myself "Oh, yeah!", remembering the famous sentence of Robert Kapa that if one wants to take good photos one has to be close enough. Therefore, I continued as before, carried by adrenaline and feeling safe wearing a helmet and a gas mask. Among the demonstrators there were some "dangerous girls”. One of these girls stood out by brazenly and primitively insulting the police in the front lines of the cordon and also occasionally threatening the photographers. Those girls and boys were certainly in the lineup of the inserted provocateurs, and the policemen were like clay pigeons. Stones, large broken pieces of pavement, and torches began to fly towards the police. Not only some police officers were seriously injured, but also a number of photojournalists and journalists who did not wear helmets ended up in the emergency center mostly due to head injuries. 

Faced with such a situation, the police threw a tear gas, and in a cloud of thick fog, the protesters began to flee, including the previously mentioned hooligan girl who, trying to catch her breath, with her head down, walked down the nearby street. A police cordon dispersed the protesters and positioned itself at the main crossroads in front of the Parliament.

At 10.37 pm, I was standing in a quiet street close to the Parliament, still wearing a gas mask and a helmet, not in a hurry to change the card in the camera, even though I knew that I only had a few shots left. I thought that the protests ended for that day.

Suddenly, a call for help came from the darkness of the park located between the Parliament and the Presidential Palace. While running there, only one thought was running through my mind - I had room for just a few more shots in my camera. On the spot, I saw a disturbing scene in which, apparently an undercover policeman, surrounded by his colleagues, strongly, putting pressure with his body, held a young protester on the ground while several gathered citizens shouted to let him go. The scene was incredibly reminiscent of the tragic event from the U.S., which happened just month and a half earlier, when a police officer killed the African-American George Floyd, using a similar arrest technique.

As I explored the scene, I sparingly took a few shots and positioned myself lying quietly on the grass, right in front of the face of the captured guy, intending to portray the situation as he experienced it, not me as an observer. I had to be very patient trying to capture the decisive moment because I had a space for just a few more shots. They were low light conditions for taking photos because the people who were standing and shouting around me were creating shadows, not allowing the street lights to light up the scene. 

At one point, the guy started shouting "HHHEEEELP!" loudly, the undercover policeman entered my frame with his eyes looking up, moving his head to the right, and the light from the street lamps broke through, illuminating the scene that I noticed in a split second. It was at 10.38 pm.

Trapped Sanja Knezevic

Fear and despair were visible not only in the eyes of the young man who was laying almost motionless on the grass, but also in the eyes of the policeman, because he was also trapped by the surrounding citizens and journalists. The next moment, the journalist who was filming the video of this scene tripped over me and shook my hand, but luckily the photo was already in my camera. After that, the captured young man started communicating with me, asking me if I was filming - I nodded my head affirmatively wearing a gas mask. Thinking that I was recording a video, he started telling to the camera that he had done nothing wrong. The boy mentioned that he was going to take water when the policeman caught him, and was addressing his father trying to justify his behaviour in case he would not stay alive. The reason behind the misunderstanding was the fact that in Serbian both cameramen and photographers use the same term - filming. After this short episode, I took another shot and the message "full card" appeared.

Fortunately, it did not take long before the young man was released under the citizens’ pressure.

Here you can see the video when a journalist filming stumbled on me.

To see photo reportage from protests, please click here.