An archive in Serbia contains rare footage from the war that liberated the Balkans from Ottoman rule 110 years ago. The photographer who took the striking images has disappeared without a trace.
This image, of an Ottoman general captured during the First Balkan War of 1912-13, is one of dozens of images from the conflict taken by photographer Samson Chernov.
The First Balkan War was launched on October 8, 1912 by an alliance of the Orthodox Christian kingdoms of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro against the Muslim Ottoman Empire.
The conflict ended in disaster for the Ottoman forces. Constantinople lost about 83% of its European territory and more than 120,000 Ottoman soldiers fell in battle or died of disease.
The “Balkan League” armies of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro lost more than 52,000 men in the conflict.
High-quality photographs of war are rare, but in State Archives of Serbia in Belgrade, crystal-clear images of Chernov bring the conflict to life.
Chernov was a Jewish-Russian painter from Ryazan near Moscow who first made a name for himself in photography documenting the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
The artist arrived in Serbia at the start of the First Balkan War as a correspondent for Russian and French publications.
Chernov quickly impressed the Serbian forces he was embedded with for his bravery in battle, as well as his “hellish impertinence” in the face of wartime military regulations.
A contemporary described the photographer as a “strange and mysterious” man who caused a scandal by bringing his “fat and thoroughbred” lover with him to the front.
In addition to his work at the front, Chernov also benefited from the access the conflict gave him to daily life in the cultural bag of the Balkans.
Chernov is said to have been known to have staged some of his battlefield photos.
Such practices were commonplace among war photographers of the time, when cumbersome, slow cameras made candid photos of fast-paced conflict nearly impossible.
Most of Chernov’s photos, however, seem to capture authentic moments from the war, which reshaped southeastern Europe.
A Serbian historian called the Chernov photos “one of the most important segments of Serbian history preserved on photographic paper”.
After the First Balkan War, Chernov stayed in the Balkans and covered World War I. In 1916 he converted to Orthodox Christianity.
The last recorded information about Chernov comes from a contemporary, who described seeing him in Thessaloniki, Greece, during World War I “in a fantastic Russian-style uniform. No one has seen him since.”
With thanks to the staff of the State Archives of Serbia and Dusan Komarcevic.