This is the first in an occasional interview series exploring the intersection of art, culture and creativity in Serbia. Over the next several months, I’ll talk to the artists and thinkers shaping the future of Serbian art to not only discover the vibrant Serbian cultural scene, but to find the shared creative ground of artists the world over.
Darko Stanimirović is a thirty-one-year-old photographer and a founding member of the Belgrade Raw. He lives in Belgrade, Serbia, where he studied photography at the Faculty of Applied Arts. He also works as a web and mobile app designer.
Darko, with five other photographers, founded Belgrade Raw in 2009 to explore and share a side of Belgrade most outsiders never see. Belgrade Raw’s mission is: “exploring social and urban aspects of life in the city, as well as our personal perceptions, using photography. We look at the streets, ordinary and extraordinary people, places and events that, in our belief, reflect the true look and feel of our city.”
Belgrade Raw’s work is a visceral, honest and unflinching look at life in Belgrade, full of humanity and compassion. Belgrade Raw is an antidote to the polished, sanitized version of Belgrade presented by tourism agencies and Google, as well as the news images of the 90s war and bombings that many Westerners still conjure at the word Serbia.
Their Belgrade is a complex place of decay and growth, vitality and failure, isolation and intimacy–in other words, Belgrade Raw’s work contains all the mysteries and contradictions of life in a dynamic city. Belgrade Raw moves beyond stereotypes and capture the small moments of joy, frustration, connection and distance that come with living in any city.
Belgrade Raw is also at the forefront of fostering a photography community in Belgrade with workshops, exhibitions and a blog. They published a book of their work edited by renowned photographer Donald Weber in 2013.
I spoke to Darko over a few beers at the bar of the Hotel Bristol in Belgrade about his work, the photography scene in Belgrade, and where outsiders can learn more about Belgrade.
How would you explain what your work is about to a new audience?
First, I never find myself working with one style or single approach. I’m most active in Belgrade Raw, as a photographer and as someone dealing with the photography scene here, but I can’t say I am a documentary photographer. I am always working around the broad subject of documentary. That’s probably the closest to what I do, but I can’t say that I shoot stories about events or people.
I can’t label myself because my interests change over time. I am attracted by things indicative of a social or historical process; I am more inspired by themes or ideas than events. I plan themes and ideas I want to explore much more than I want to react to situations.
I work best when I am depressed; I’m not a guy who is happy and takes photos of beautiful things. When I am happy, I prefer to cook.
When you started this project, were there things you wanted to tell the world about Belgrade?
The initial thought was quite basic. If you Googled Belgrade, you would only see a couple of motifs- St. Sava Temple, Skadarlija and Kalemegdan. When I looked at those pictures I didn’t see Belgrade, I saw propaganda for tourists.
There were photographers here in Belgrade who actively photographed the city and the streets and the life. I thought it was important to present their pictures of the city to everyone.
I also realized that there was no place to find a complete picture of Belgrade. You could find photos on FLICKR or on hidden forums but no one had all these photos in one place. So, I spoke to a couple of photographers whose work I liked and together, we came up with an initial group of six.
The primary vision was to show foreigners what Belgrade life really looks like. We wanted to give a picture different from what you see on touristic and officials channels, where essentially everything is great and it’s all smiling and positive. We wanted to show things like back streets or private parties or portraits of real people on the streets. We thought this was much more authentic than something official. We quickly outgrew our vision and very quickly grew past that non-tourist idea. It became a platform to develop and promote photography in Belgrade. Our primary audience is now people interested in art more than people from the media.
People saw our work was more direct, more honest. It was more about subject, the places, and the atmosphere than it was about our skill as photographers or even photography as a medium. We thought that showing this to locals wouldn’t be interesting for them, but it turns out that our biggest audience is here in Belgrade.
I remember one comment where a guy said, “Finally, someone to show that life, that atmosphere of Belgrade that no one really cared about before has value.” You don’t really see that as something interesting to photograph, but once you see the photos, you realize it’s worth documenting, that daily life. That’s the value, that ordinary life you really wouldn’t think is all that special. Now, I think that is very special. And it will be as the years go by.
How do you see the work of Belgrade Raw as part of the historical record of Belgrade, particularly as the city itself seems to be changing very fast?
I don’t think we have the best format to see some kind of historical change. You probably can if you look through all the photos, but I think [a website] is not the right format to present change. We also don’t have a clear message that something is changing in Belgrade.
Right now we don’t work as a group in the sense that we have a mission and photo like we have assignments. We just photograph things around us and publish those images.
But you have a book.
We do have a book but I think it doesn’t show any kind of transition. It shows Don Weber’s, our editor’s, impression of Belgrade and Belgrade Raw. Specifically for historical work, we have a lot of ideas we haven’t explored yet, but we have plans to be more direct in edits of photos that speak to a certain theme, for example the changing visual landscape of Belgrade.
A lot of things are changing and we can’t stay passive observers who just publish random photos. That’s not who we are now, so we are working on ways to be clearer with our audience that we see things changing, and we have things that we are creating in response to these developments.
For example, on this street, next to the bus station, there is a small kafana that’s closing. It’s not a place you would visit often, but I went a number of times and I have a bunch of photos from there.
The scenes and experiences you have there are really special. I don’t see that once it closes that experience can be replicated because it is such a unique place. The photos that recreate places like that have a significant place in the history of the city. Anyone photos, I’m not just talking about our photos.
I am also interested in how those photos will be seen after twenty or thirty years because right now I would really want to see photos from the 90s Belgrade street life.
Is there something special about Belgrade that makes this kind of photography work here or is this something that can be done in any city?
This kind of photography can be found anywhere. All places have all kinds of stories and things happening that you can’t really see in any way except for living in the place. It’s about every place and it’s really about how we represent ourselves through mainstream channels.
For example, there was a campaign from the tourist organization of Serbia called “Lifestyle Serbia.” It’s an interesting idea, but the photos were quite the opposite of what a lot people thought should represent Serbian people and Serbian life style. There were a lot of clichés that no one would identify as Serbian or as Belgrade. There were pictures of people sitting on a splav in the middle of the afternoon drinking cocktails and we couldn’t ignore the message that sends about our values.
From a project perspective it sounds like a good idea to hire fashion photographers to come up with something visually beautiful about Serbia, but drinking a cocktail with an iPhone and expensive clothes is just not something I see when I go out. It’s not my experience. I know that tourism needs to selectively present things for rich people to come and spend money, but it just didn’t fit our experience of life in Serbia.
So, we created a response campaign and called our version “Lifestyle Belgrade.” I don’t see our project as mocking–it is a mocking a little–but I think our photos are actually what “Lifestyle Serbia” or “Lifestyle Belgrade” is; scenes you might actually see in the street. It was a bunch of photos that were funny or a bit sad. Even if you haven’t seen these exact scenes, you can identify with them. [With this project] We can say that life can be beautiful, cruel or nice. That’s one of the ways that we participate in the scene.
Has your collaboration with the other members of Belgrade Raw changed your perceptions of Belgrade?
I don’t think so. These things don’t change easily. I certainly discover Belgrade through other people’s work. I discover not so much Belgrade as a city but an approach to looking at it. That’s the value of visual art:you learn how other people look at things. It’s more about changing perspective than discovering new things. Sadly, most of us just go the same paths in Belgrade all the time. Most people just go A to B; they don’t really see Belgrade. You can photograph some neighborhoods in Belgrade and people won’t believe you that it’s in the city; they’ll think it is a hundred kilometers away.
People should actually explore their city. You know, just take a bus to the last stop. That’s what we are trying to do with Belgrade Raw, not on that geographic scale, but to record things people might not believe are in Belgrade. That’s one side of it, to really show people what Belgrade is and that any city is a lot of things. It’s like undiscovered country, only you’re not discovering a country but your own neighborhood. That’s what we enjoy: documenting things that may seem not so relevant but, when you look at them, you realize that you didn’t know these things exist or that you could look at them in such a way.
How do you see the difference between documentary photography and photojournalism, or do you see a difference?
That’s a broad discussion, documentary versus photojournalism. I think of photojournalism as something directed from the classic media–television, newspaper or magazines–while I use documentary as something more broad and doesn’t need to have the structure that journalism has, but is again about recording things, people and events.
Documentary mostly implies it is factual, that you don’t have any layer of subjectivity; it’s a document of things that have happened. Of course, we all know that there is probably no document that’s truly objective. Documentary is in territory that is really not defined–it doesn’t have the standards of journalism–so you can actually define what documenting is to you.
We don’t work by journalist’s standards. We are also media even though we are not really journalists.
In the end, I would use “documentary” and this is how I use it: as recording, in your own medium, things that are worth recording around you. There’s always a lot of subjectivity, personal reasons and conclusions. I see documenting as a purely subjective process that is, of course, transparent. You record the visual aspect. Clearly, it’s just one aspect of that event or process. Maybe it turns out that documentary can be more subjective because journalism implies some standards and some codes that you have to have in mind when you work. However, it should be obvious to the observer that it came from a subjective point of view.
Where would you send an American audience to learn more about Serbian photography and culture?
If possible, I would direct them to Serbia. I would definitely direct them to another photo collective Kamerades. They are great photographers. Especially if someone is interested in a political approach to daily lives. They don’t shoot just political motifs, but they are focused on what’s happening politically.
I also recommend that people Google Serbia. They would probably see generic images, like any place on the planet, but I’m not so against images that tourist organizations may give you. I think those images should just be looked at from some kind of distance. I wouldn’t look for the atmosphere, mentality or energy of Serbia in those photos. I would look at them, and this is an ironic point I know, more like a documentary. But when they start dealing with who we are and what we are like, the effect of those kinds of images can be very wrong.
To see how things look, I would rather go to images posted by people online than to an official or commercial place. But, it’s like any other place in the world, you need to come here and experience it and get lost in the city.
This interview has been edited and re-sequenced for clarity.