In the early morning of March 22, 2020, a 5.5 ML earthquake literally shook the people of Zagreb out of their warm beds. It was the strongest earthquake to hit the Croatian capital in 140 years and it occurred during a coronavirus-induced lockdown. It was the beginning of spring — and it was snowing.
Photojournalists immediately arrived on the scene, capturing the horror the people of Zagreb felt at 6:24 a.m. as they ran out into the cold streets in a panic. As they tried to understand what was happening and deal with the damages they saw, they were also trying to keep in mind social distancing measures.
The photojournalists — with an unmistakable sense for reportage photography — captured the immediate aftermath of the earthquake: frightened, concerned people in the streets, severely damaged historical buildings, Samaritans, and volunteers helping the people of Zagreb to deal with the initial shock.
The photographs authentically testify to the collective horrors experienced by the residents, the consequences of which are still felt and remembered more than a year later. They tell a story of the emotions, strength, and solidarity of the people of Zagreb. We wanted to share that story and thank and honour all the brave participants and heroes of that fateful day and the days that followed, which together marked one of the most challenging periods in the contemporary history of the Croatian capital.
Drawing a community together
And so we organised the largest multimedia project ever dedicated to the earthquake in Zagreb. It was the first public event put on after the lockdown and it gathered people from political, public, cultural, and social spheres of Zagreb and Croatian life, receiving support from various highly regarded institutions and partners.
The initial idea was to show photographs taken on the day of the earthquake — not in a conventional gallery space but in a public one, precisely where they were created. That meant staging the exhibit in the very heart of Zagreb, with motifs that marked not only the earthquake but also the reconstruction that symbolised a new beginning — scaffolds, cranes, toppled chimneys, and the Cathedral with its missing tower in the background.
Looking at all the photos, it was difficult to decide which of them could best summarise all the consequences of the earthquake and the huge range of emotions we all felt and what happened in the days that followed. So for the purpose of the exhibition, 34 large-format photos were mounted on scaffolding and exhibited in Zagreb’s central square. We published another 70 amazing photographs in a digital catalogue, which was thematically divided into six chapters:
- Thank you.
- The Cathedral.
- Chin up.
The cover photo features a wonderful piece of textile art — a red woollen heart, split apart and held together with blue thread, created by designer Ivona Martincic and installed on the yellow facade of a school in the city’s historical Upper Town. This image became a symbol of the solidarity we all felt in those days. Thanks to digital catalogues in both Croatian and English, the exhibition lives on and continues to share the story of the Zagreb earthquake.
Reliving the moment together
The first documentary film featuring the earthquake, Ukradeno proljeće (Stolen Spring), premiered at the opening ceremony of the exhibition and is a valuable record of a moment in time, of a painful experience, as well as of emotions and the will of citizens and institutions to show the greatness of their hearts in those most difficult moments. And finally, we organised a panel discussion on the topic of the reconstruction of Zagreb and brought together representatives from the ruling political party, the opposition, the European Commission, and experts all to the same table.
To conclude, we captured a moment. And then we shared it with our city through a story of emotion, human strength, solidarity, and unity, via comprehensive content. Judging by the incredible reactions of visitors, especially on social media, the project was a huge success.
This is not surprising, as all of us who experienced the earthquake will remember it from these photos, as will generations to come. The exhibition managed to show that the value of news photography is never purely documentary or informational. By extracting a small piece of reality, it takes us back to the time and place of its creation, and it allows us to relive an event and recall the emotions felt while it was happening.
Banner photo by Neja Markicevic/Cropix.