The Balkans — expressions of a grim past, & impressions of a bright future

For my photography class, we were instructed to draw inspiration from a famous artist and reinvent their style into a personal project.

When I first opened Jim Goldberg’s Open See I certainly felt his power of storytelling, connections with people and ties to a geographic location. With more research, his art opened to a greater expanse; it’s a sort of misconstrued journalism. The subjects of his photos were not necessarily relating to the story told. Quotes were transferred, photos manipulated. While his stories were true nonetheless, it’s about presenting them in the most emotionally powerful way possible. His outlook on his subjects really spoke to me.

The grim, heavy and humbling histories of the Balkans affected me deeply. Witnessing the physical damage with my own eyes, hearing people’s stories, it all draped clouds of melancholy in the air.

I only felt only a tiny snippet of war’s tragedy.

For this series I combined pictures I took last summer with old Soviet relics from my heritage to give across the dark sensations I experienced.


Those are the feet of my father and grandmother on the first day of school


In Mostar, at the hostel Majdas (really really recommend staying there, the tour is incredible), the owner told me about how he was on the verge of being sent to a concentration camp. This was 1991


The little boy is my dad — who was in no way involved in the Balkan wars, but the photo gelled with my concept


The man from Mostar left Herzegovina by paying someone to smuggle him in the trunk of an ambulance, and later inside of a sailboat headed to Italy


I burnt up pieces of paper and realized they resembled the flowers in the photo– the tones of this photo showcase it as the emotional climax of the series.


To my non-Russian friends the cassette plays fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson.


I still feel shivers remembering the first time I saw the military poster in the top of this image. It’s draped along a massive partially destroyed building (the ministry of defense) in Belgrade, Serbia. Certainly sends a strong message.


Here is the building itself. Unbelievable to see it like this in 2018. The politics of the region are still affected by the events of the past decade. I pieced together that 6 11 2012 is November 6th – the day Obama was elected.

Speaking of American presidents in the Balkans, nothing humors more than the Kosovars love for Clinton. During my first 10 minutes in Kosovo, I was greeted with incredible warmth, doubly so when my bus neighbor founded out I was American, “Ahh the great land of the Clinton’s”. I thought it was a comment about the most recent election and didn’t think much of it.

I realized I was very wrong once I arrived in Prishtina, the capital.


Yes, that’s Clinton spelled with a K,  because the C letter makes a different sound in their language (as a side note I think the makers of the statue could use some practice with hands)


It doesn’t end there! Across the street you can find some Hillary Clinton apparel which thankfully looks nothing like her wardrobe (because who would wanna wear that?).

For many individuals, Kosovo seems to yield images of war, ethnic tensions, and such a backwards part of Europe it’s barely even Europe anymore. Granted the continent’s youngest country did undergo a devastating recent history, I found it to be one of the most beautifully optimistic destinations.


It’s one of the few corners of nearly completely untouched by tourism, especially in Prizren (pictured above) many locals were very eager to talk to me and explain their political situation.

Around town, I remember encountering an old schoolmaster taking his kids out on a walk. He greeted me in english when we crossed paths, and once he recognized my American accent, his face erupted with warmth. “Thank you for visiting my country, you are always welcome here.” The little kids encircled, yelling “hello, hello’ with abundance of enthusiasm.


Kosovo inspired hopefulness – in recovery, through people, towards the future. The individuals I met appeared thrilled to move forward from tumultuous recent history. Nevertheless, perfection is far from being achieved. The country’s dreams rest upon induction into the European Union, something which may not happen for quite a few years. Tensions with Serbia still exist, and recognition of independence is not universal.


A beautiful Ottoman style home in Prishtina.

Alas there are always two sides to every story. To the Serbs, Kosovo is an unfair dissension, an example of unwarranted nationalism.


In the center of Kosovo stands a derelict Orthodox church, deliberately in ruins and encircled with cow shit.

A powerful message, the Kosovar Muslims seek to remind who is in control.

Besides tumultuous history, there is another thing that unifies all of the Balkans –  Rakjia.

Basically various flavors of moonshine, the ubiquitous liquor can never be purchased, and is always found in either wine or plastic bottles.

In many ways it’s a symbol of Balkan hospitality, a warmth I encountered on my 20th birthday.

I was hiking to one of the tallest peaks surrounding Sarajevo, Bosnia. Climbing the hills out of the city, I encountered an abundance of derelict buildings, shelled out residences from the war.


The destruction continued, as I reached the first landmark- the abandoned bobsled track used during the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics.


Continuing upwards, I reached the summit of the mountain, from which I took in views of the whole Sarajevo. My 4 hours of hiking were certainly rewarded.


I didn’t want to use the same trail to get down, and had heard about an alternate route.

Unaware at the time, my life would intersect with the stranger building the cabin pictured on the ridge.

In the hut, I was treated to rakjia (served in a wine bottle) from a Croatian mountain man and his dog. Upon learning that it was my birthday, the shots only continued pouring. He told me about his life, fleeing Croatia during the wars to become a ski instructor in Norway. He continues to work there in the winters, and the income is enough to sustain himself in the Bosnian mountains.

He described his daughter, who was getting married. Upon learning it was my 20th birthday, he decided to call her, as we were the same age. She was completely disinterested.

He’s a jovial man, and told me to come back and visit.

Most intensely, I’ll never forget the look in his eyes when he exclaimed “War is for stupid, look at beauty around” as he pointed out the window.

(some miserable phone photos below)

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From the Serbian grit, new felt optimism in Kosovo, and the Bosnian hospitality, the Balkans offered a variety of cultural experiences. Shaped by a tumultuous past, and moving ahead in the European environment, it’s all a fascinating testament to human resistance.