My last article discussed the difficulties and problems of outsiders photographing a place that isn’t their own. This article will take the opposite approach and focus on photographers whose work is primarily about where they come from, and why that is important to the rest of us.
The Balkans are a fascinating region which has endured violence and conflict over the past 500 years. In many Balkan capitals and cities, life appears to have been caught in time, or at least exists liminally, partly progressive, partly antiquated. The beauty of these places is unique, distinctive from their Western European counterparts. That character is wrapped up in the history of war and regime shifts that have been dominant throughout the different countries that made up Yugoslavia and its neighbors. So now the region is at a critical turning point, and much of the art being produced from natives of Southeastern Europe is not so visible to “the West”. At this juncture, it seems important to know and understand the artwork emerging from there, because (to be reductive and brief) artwork produced from any sort of struggle is often some of the best. Here are 5 photographers whose work allows us Westerners (me, as a Dutch-American) into an artistic vision of the Balkans and gives us a taste of the landscapes, identities, and cultures to be found there.
Michał Korta, Polish – Okay, so with this photographer I am breaking my word a bit in terms of origin. Korta is from Poland, not Southeastern Europe, but his photography project called “Balkan Playground” is a good introduction to the visual language of a place, namely, the Balkans. Korta has a strong eye, and an authoritative approach to photography which makes his work simultaneously easy to view, but complex to think about, like a good novel. This project takes us on a brief road trip through 8 Balkan countries, and shows us the beauty, contradiction, and humor that exists in everyday life in these different places. He captures a certain idiosyncrasy in an abandoned trailer in the middle of a forest, a handmade shack labelled “castle”, an unfinished house in naked cement, and two red chairs, one broken, one whole.
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Enri Canaj, Albanian – This photographer, through high contrast, black and white, moody images, shows both life in Albania where he has his origins, and the difficulties of living in neighboring Greece as an outsider. This perspective does not necessarily include his own experience as an Albanian living there; he chooses instead to focus on other fringe members of Greek society, and their struggles. He creates intense and charged portraits of drug addicts and sex workers in Athens, as well as immigrants from Pakistan and Afghanistan living in deplorable conditions. The overall feeling from these photographic essays is that these subsets of Greek society are not accepted in terms of social equality or government support. His latest work is on the influx of Syrian refugees in Greece. His particular window into the lives of these people looks like one of sympathy and journalistic exposition.
Some of my favorite of his projects is called “Albania – A Homecoming”, where he describes the culture and place where he grew up as a small child. In this collection of images, he shows a group of five women at what appears to be a funeral. They are dressed in black, and holding each other in grief, support and solidarity. This is the first image, an introduction to the project, which goes on to highlight the significance of family relationships in a country that looks, in his images, to be pretty bleak.
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Eugenia Maximova, Bulgarian – This photographer’s style could almost be classified as halfway between collage and photography. She contrasts vibrant and high resolution patterns with everyday objects, and highlights the culture of kitsch that existed in the second half of the 1900’s in Bulgaria. Within these constructions, she interrogates concepts of memory, the general taste and aesthetic of her country during this time, and her own emotional connection to objects and patterns. Her latest project up on her website, called “Associated Nostalgia” is her most sophisticated and concise work that brings together strengths existing in her previous projects to create a dreamy, exaggerated, hyper-reality where her imagination seems to play.
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Ivan Blažev, Macedonian – Blažev’s work “Macedonia Dreaming” is photojournalistic, and mostly concerned with the everyday experience of people in Macedonia. It is lucid and humorous, creating contrasts and disconnects between the people and the background, but provides a realistic and clever look at the life and culture in a post-Yugoslav country. This includes the sense of a general lack of infrastructure, leaving people to fend for themselves. But in this type of abandonment, he finds peace and camaraderie between people, and shows how the society functions based on them rather than focus on the government. In many ways he seems to be a photographer still finding his eye, but is most at ease and fluid around people and their stories.
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Samir Karahodzha, Kosovar – More than any of the other photographers on this list, Karahodzha plays with the viewer’s sense of temporality, and illustrates the timelessness of the Balkans. His images are cinematic, unfocused, and dreamlike, leading the viewer down a mysterious path. Little information or work is available about him via his website, but what is available is worth getting acquainted with.
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I should mention that this list is not at all exhaustive or comprehensive, and during my research for the article I came across tons of artists and photographers whose work astounded me. Below, find a few links to recommended pages for deeper examination and also, please check out this article on photography of Yugoslavian punks in the ‘80’s (incredible!).
- Bulgarian Photography Now
- Calvert Journal on women photographers in the near East
- Dazed and Confused on Post-Soviet photographers and the female gaze