It’s not even a very good photo.
But as our five-day Serbia road trip neared its end, my friends and I had decided to pull over one more time when we saw her. This was one of my last frames before we noticed a small group of soldiers approaching us from the line of trees.
“What are you photographing?”
“What does it look like we’re photographing?”, my friend replied.
“There’s an army base over there.”
“What army base, I just see trees.”
“It’s beyond the trees.”
“Well, I don’t see it.”
“You’ll have to explain that to our commander, come with us.”
A couple hours later the interrogation wasn’t going anywhere. The officers had a light-bulb moment that all of my answers were being translated by my friend, who could be telling them anything. So we waited about an hour in silence, another guy showed up, and they started over with the same questions. Soon he couldn’t help showing off a little.
“Mr. Crandall, I want you to know I speak English very well, and I am listening very carefully to what you say.”
It still didn’t really go anywhere. I was a freelancer for the Washington Post, NY Times, etc at the time, was in the Balkans for my job as Photo Director of the Balkan Times news site, but was shooting for myself. They didn’t know what to make of any of that. But you could tell none of them really had the authority to call the whole thing off.
“(Sigh) Show us where you were photographing.” So we went back out to the field and recreated our angles.
“Are you sure you couldn’t see any barracks?”
“I don’t think so, how can I be sure?” I said. My friend was livid, hissing under his breath “damn it, say YES I’M SURE!”.
My slight waffling was costly. “Ok, we will take you to the police station in the nearest town, where we have a photo lab. We will develop your film and see what you were photographing.” So we followed them to Čačak in our car, already exhausted. My friend’s girlfriend, who they separated from us, said later she overheard they wanted to take us to military court if they could see '“one window of the barracks” on our film.
The police chief came out to meet us, spoke to the military guys for a couple minutes max, and made a few gestures that I interpreted as “are you guys total idiots, wasting my time with this?”. I guess he had the authority to call it off.
The translator guy, who we called Bruno because he looked like a Bruno, perked up. “Great news! Now I can show you my town!” and set off across the street still holding both of our confiscated cameras in one giant hand. What he meant was now we could sit for another two hours with him in an empty techno cafe while he practiced his English with a literally captive audience. He seemed particularly determined to zing me, his American ‘guest’.
“Mr. Crandall, you say you are interested in Eastern Europe. Americans always talk about the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tell me, what was the real beginning of the end of communism in Eastern Europe?” My friends looked at me expectantly. My head was splitting, we hadn’t eaten since morning.
“Um, I’d say the 1980 Solidarity movement in Poland, Gdansk shipyards, Lech Walesa…” They burst out cheering and high-fiving like I had scored a goal. Bruno was not amused. A bit later he tried again.
“Americans know so little about geography. For example, can you tell me what is the capital of Latvia?” Where I’d been a few years earlier, so that didn’t work either.
I excused myself to the bathroom just to get away. He came along and peed next to me and kept talking, something about Bosnian Muslims not washing their hands.
When we finally somehow made it back to our car it was dark with a five-hour drive back to Belgrade. The next day we were on the TV news by name, photographers detained on suspicion of spying. The embassy called me. My Serb colleague said everyone was asking him about me, apparently there had just been a spy scandal involving an American.
Bruno later called my Serb photographer friend, saying that he was happy to meet us, that he lived unhappily with his mother, and he hoped we’d visit again sometime.