On July 11th, 1995, in Srebrenica, Bosnia, 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, mostly men and boys, were killed by units of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska. This event is considered the greatest massacre of Europe since the end of the Second World War. It has been repeatedly ruled by different international institutions that it constituted genocide, a crime under international law. Between 25,000 and 30,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly were deported.

Twenty years later, relatives are still waiting for unburied bodies to be identified. Most of the deported people never came back. Michel Slomka, a French freelance photographer, went to Srebrenica on several trips between 2010 and 2015. “Retour à la terre” (“The Way Back to Srebrenica”) is a series about Sadmir, 24, who decided to move back to Srebrenica in 2006. His father’s body was never found.

LensCulture contributor Laure Andrillon spoke with Slomka to learn more about this powerfully executed photo-documentary report.

“It makes no sense today to go and tell a newspaper or a magazine that you want to go to Srebrenica because you want to document what it is like twenty years after the massacre. Most of the time, newspapers and magazines need to follow the news, and countries often disappear from the “hot-news” radar as soon as a war is over. But I believe Srebrenica stills deserve our attention.”

When you go to Srebrenica for the first time, you can’t see anything.

“I wanted to photograph people who were kids when the massacre happened, and decided to come back to their land. In their minds, different temporalities overlap. Srebrenica is where they grew up and it recalls joyful memories. But it is also a place of rupture, of fracture, that changed the direction of their entire lives. Now they are back, they have to reconcile present with past.

“When you go to Srebrenica for the first time, you can’t see anything. You need to take your time, because many places seem common while they are actually exceptional. You need to learn to read the landscape: its meaning is hidden under the guise of things. It is very hard for a photograph to show that kind of meaning. Sometimes it is easy to find photographic devices to that effect: in July, when they bury hundreds of bodies that were identified throughout the year, it is visually compelling. These pictures speak about the massacre as well as about the waiting of the relatives, twenty years later.

“But when it comes to Sadmir, who moved back to the house where he grew up, it gets much more subtle: everyday, when he goes to work, when he goes to pick his daughter up at school, even when he glances through his living room window, he sees the road where he talked to his father for the last time. This little asphalt perimeter means so much for who can read the multiple feelings it interweaves. I think I did not manage to photograph the entire thing, but I tried.”

Places can tell at least a piece of the story.

“In another series, Topography of a massacre, I understood, after a few years of travelling there, that places can tell at least a piece of the story. I chose a specific photographic device: I used an expanding camera with black and white films. I deliberately photographed the region of Srebrenica in January, because winter helps with documenting exhaustively, that kind of cold and so-called “objective” manner. It was also a means to break with the historical moment of the massacre: it happened in July, that sweltering season in Bosnia, when nature is verdant and splendid. I wanted to see the naked, pared-down sceneries, as if they were out of time.”

This very family could tell the story of Srebrenica.

“When I decided to focus on deported Bosniaks who came back to their land, I wanted to photograph a whole panel. I wanted to document everything: young and widowed people, wealthy and poor families. But I did not know how to photograph the emotions that Srebrenica meant to its residents. Then, I met a couple who I realized could embody the whole problem of going back to the land of Srebrenica. I stopped trying to see everything, to say everything, to show everything, to explain everything. It is impossible, and it is not how you manage to tell a story. I think my academic studies in ethnology and history helped me to find that out: I was often told to talk about microcosms to show macrocosms. And I felt that this very family could tell us all a bit about Srebrenica today.”

—Michel Slomka, interviewed by Laure Andrillon