Telling everyone at the opening of a group photo exhibition in Belgrade and the press that you don’t need a lot of skill and expensive equipment to be a great photographer, that you only need a good heart, may sound like a play on human emotions, a soundbyte that I’ve invented, but I was being totally honest. I meant it and for me it is still the number one lesson that I’ve learned.
Here’s the whole story. Read until the end, you won’t be sorry.
The Balkan Initiative for Tolerance from Serbia and the Apis Institute from Slovenia organized a digital storytelling workshop in Belgrade from February 2 to February 8. A week of photo and video workshops. I was mentoring 14 participants set to produce a compelling, socially engaged photo story. Heavily supported by an incredible team of organizers from the Balkan Initiative for Tolerance and Apis, we pulled off something I never thought was possible in such a short time. But with the energy they had, everything was possible. And bytheway, if you ever need a really good fixer in this area, I now know a couple of really good ones.
The participants of the photo workshop came from eleven countries and had a very diverse photography skills. Most of them had no experience in documentary photography, some have never really tried photography at all. But they were big-hearted people working with NGO’s on helping vulnerable groups in their countries. They understand them and feel with them. Our time was scarce, but their wish to use photography as means of empowering vulnerable groups is so heartfelt, that they’ve taken to the heart everything that I told them about building a story. We had one day to go through theory, examples etc., and I kept worrying that it was too much for one day, but they kept telling me that they understood and that it wasn’t too much. It turned out they really did memorize everything. And not just memorize, but internalized by their strong will to make use of photography in their work with vulnerable groups.
We went through story development after each one of them had decided for a story. I gave guidelines for each one of them and off they went. They spent the next day in the field, coming back in the evening to show me their work. And I was blown away.
It was an absolute pleasure to edit their stories with them the next day. With them at my side so I could listen to their suggestions and explanations I edited all the stories (except one) in one afternoon and evening, and boy, did I enjoy it! I already knew they don’t need another day of photographing if it cannot be arranged or if there is no time, because the work they brought back was more than enough for a story of 6 photos that was going to be displayed in an exhibition in Parobrod cultural center in Belgrade. When going through the photos and selecting them, editing them down towards six, all of the participants understood why I am selecting certain photos and not others. All of them also knew that sometimes you need to “kill your darlings”, because they just don’t fit into a story. All of them knew the final edit is all about the perfection of a story, the message it sends across and the feelings it evokes.
When we were done at the end of the day, I was in a state of shock, hardly believing the quality of edits that in no way whatsoever, not in a million years, not even viewing from an airplane at cruising altitude, reflected their little experiences with documentary photography. To me, this exhibition is pure phenomenon. They didn’t use expensive equipment and did use only one lens. Some of them used a phone or a compact camera. But like I said, it doesn’t matter. They had my guidelines and the sensibility to recognize powerful scenes, gestures etc.
If anyone asks me which exhibition I am most proud of, I’d say this one. It’s not my own, but it’s more than that. It’s something I would never think is possible. Stories made primarily from the heart. A testimony to what great lengths – to what ranges of quality human sensibility, a good heart can take you. And that is a gift for me. To survive in my own country I had to abandon working with my heart and submerged into the sewers of impersonal photography serving the world of capitalism. I sold my soul to make it through the month. But seeing what a heart can do gave me hope.
The opening of the exhibition was on February 8 in Parobrod and it was packed. So many people came, including the protagonists of the stories, which was really great! And not only did the photographers do an amazing job, but the video team aced it as well. That makes me happy. I think this, giving a voice to groups and individuals that have none, is the true purpose of storytelling.
Enough talk. Here are the final edits as they were exhibited in Belgrade and the descriptions that participants added . Don’t forget, the stories were made in one day.😉 Be amazed.
THANK YOU Aleksandar, Ana, Debs, Emanuele, Emir, Jana, Jasna, Louisa, Nino, Roberto, Safet, Sara, Zamfi and Zozan! You rock!
Although I don’t live far from the picturesque town of Bled, Slovenia, I never visited the Okarina Festival before. It is three weeks of musical performances, not pop, but ethnographic and folk music. I went to see Cara Dillon from Northern Ireland and on my arrival I was impressed by the magical setting by the lake with the castle and the island in the background. The open air concert was great. People sat in chairs and on a grassy incline in front of the stage. Here are some photos from the concert.
The 18th annual international street arts festival Ana desetnica in Slovenia ran from June 26 to July 8 in various towns across the country, but it had its biggest repertoar in its “home town” of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia.
For the past five years I am one of two official photographers. Here are just some of the photos from this year’s festival in Ljubljana (from shows that I was assigned to document).
Eventually, it’s the money that will make you or brake you. In a failing economy of utter devaluation of photography, especially documentary photography, the ones swimming up to the surface and making it big are the ones with strong external financial support from the start, e.g. the Slovenia’s front-runner: well-off parents.
The following two stories are what I sent to WPP. They say it’s wise to send something in even if you don’t stand a chance. Your name gets seen. All right.
The first story is hot and the second one is cold. :) The first was actually an award, paid in half; the other half was my debt. That’s how you do it, if you’re not a son by profession. The second one was self initiated and produced on scraps of money I am left with.
And a portrait from a different category…
The cold one. It’s from the 2014 ice storm in Slovenia. No captions needed. In the words of late Michael Jackson: “This is it.”
About three months ago, I decided to try something new. I got myself a Yashica twin lens reflex camera and got back to the roots. Film photography. It’s how I started and I still like it for quite a few characteristics. You think before taking the shot. You rely on your knowledge of the light. The suspense in waiting for the film to be developed. In my case, either Kodak Tri-X 400 Professional or T-Max 400 Professional. I went out on the streets and here are the first results.
2014 done, let’s recap. Here are the best photos of 2014. Not many, because I’m not working as much as before. In fact, you know what, no more sugarcoating, let’s just say it as it is. In recent months, I’ve somehow become indifferent with everything. So much so that I can let go of everything and screw it all without any bitterness and anger. I’m kind of realxed now, but I still love to tell the truth. Everything written here applies to Slovenia. I do a maximum of four to five bigger gigs a year, and some smaller paid things, while everything else just doesn’t pay the bills, not even covers production costs. It’s a meager existence, but I’ve learned to live from one job to another. In a market that favors slavery and (speaking of photography) mostly un/wellunderpaid work, I’m working with the clients that know how to go beyond family ties and friendly favors, value quality and work ethics, and have no capitalist extremist tendencies that keep photographers here struggling to survive despite the loads of work they’re getting. Oh, yes, they are getting work. That work just never reaches my ears or mailbox or whatever. I understand. It’s a dog eat dog world and popularity is the only thing (not quality) that’ll keep you on the radar. But shit, hey, I’m not a cool-looking, Indiana Jones kind of hotshot wielding a camera like a gun through some war zone – I don’t work on my sensationalist image, hence the ignorance. And I don’t have my mommy and daddy providing me with money for exotic travel and storytelling in far-off places that eventually get me noticed in some big magazines that would publish a story on a small lake in Taiwan, but not a huge conservation story and an international eco project from an unknown country like Slovenia. We’re the speck no-one notices on a map, 70% of the world is ignorant of this place and 30% know Lake Bled. Anyway, I don’t do stuff that’s been done a thousand times and that everyone does, if it means doing it solely for reference. I could, but I won’t go to Gaza that’s becoming the #1 photojournalist tourist destination unless I have a very very unique story to tell. Or any other such place. But that doesn’t even matter, because general public and general media (not so much anymore in other countries I’ve noticed) is jerking off on “popular” sensational international news (should look like an action movie if possible). Sure, it’s not easy and it’s dangerous to go there, and most international photojournalists working for big or important outlets are doing an important job there, but if you’re not working with VII, Noor, Time, New York Times, Washington Post, Reuters and other media outlets that pay you for daily coverage of the region, what are you doing? Being unpaid and in the entire flood of images coming from those regions, what the hell are you doing there, if you’re not covering a unique angle or a never before seen story? Are you building an image for yourself or are you telling stories?
It’s fairly easy to take a good picture in some exotic place or a war zone (this one not so much really, depends on what kind of picture), because (and I’m still referring to the country I live in) even a single photo of a beautiful archipelago or a totally destroyed street will make people hail it as fantastic and awesome and amazing. But this country? In a way, even Slovenians are like the 30% of foreigners who see only this country’s natural beauty worth of any praise. Everything else is like “cool, whatever”. So when debating what’s easier to do, here’s my take. If you’ve been provided with the foundations and financial support for your exotic work, if you’re covered and well equipped, it’s f***ing easy. So if you’re such a hotshot, do an amazing story in a country that’s totally boring (in your opinion) – here, in your back yard. The landscapes and exotic people won’t help you here. You’ll need content and you’ll need to notice it, package it, present it, build a story from start to finish, and please, do it without any big budget funding!
But why do it? I get it. Look at me; I did most of my stories at home. Where did that get me? The interest in what I do is pretty grim, the lectures I had this year were a good proof. It’s so funny to see what it did to me now that I don’t give a rat’s ass anymore. Why is it that whatever I do is almost completely ignored by professional photographic community in my country, while that same work got so much constructive favorable opinions from the biggest editorial and photography names in the world? The answer is quite a thesis, but you know what, I don’t care anymore. It’s Slovenia. In the words of Mary Anne Golon (Washington Post): “How is it possible, that with this kind of work, you’re not working anywhere?” Wrong address! From what I can see, quality counts for nothing here. I’ve won seven Slovenia Press Photo awards in just two years. Three in 2011 and four in 2013. The contest is anonymous, I sent in unpublished work, but won almost everything including overall story. Guess what: the jury was made of foreign photo editors and photojournalists. Those weren’t the only awards I got, and again it doesn’t even matter to me, because I’m not working for awards. Awards, given to me by the biggest names in photography, were my only confirmation that I’m good at it, and means of convincing employers that I’m worth hiring (of course it didn’t exactly happen ). They were also the only means of covering my expenses producing these stories (most of the stories weren’t done for a client). And in 2011 when the competition ended, I was broke and almost forced to quit this. The money from the awards saved me. I invested it in further important stories; I actually swung into even higher gear and produced a story that for me represents the absolute ideal of what I want from photography. I told the story about Barbara, the girl with cerebral palsy and her family, struggling with life in this failing country. When I sent the stories to the contest and won in three categories and overall, I was broke again. Winning Slovenia Press Photo was the only way to get enough exposure of Barbara’s story to push it forward and use it to help her family. People raised over 20,000 euros for them and we changed their lives. It was two months later that I realized there were no money prizes at Slovenia Press Photo 2013. I just didn’t care about it before. And that’s where it left me. No savior this time, but surely, now people (who need to know) will know how good I am at what I do, haha! And my situation only got worse. Upside down world.
Something amazing happened next. An awesome study in Slovenian mentality. People who know me and actually wish me well couldn’t comprehend why I don’t get work even if I suggest it to someone or why nothing ever comes my way through regular channels (photographer colleagues), so they had a wonderful idea. And I don’t mean it sarcastically. I really think it was a great idea, because it produced results that would ultimately bring me to terms with the way things work around here. They told me to be open about it. So I started speaking up. No more blowing smoke when someone asked how I’m doing. Sure I’m doing fine – around a month a year. I still didn’t spill all the beans, because that would be too much, but I did show a hint of what kind of life I’m leading. Here, you see, I discovered a strange feature of Slovenian mentality. First of, taking all of what needed to be said into account means taking responsibility – at least mental – to remember this when a job comes your way. I know because I was in the same spot and I did relay the job to a friend who really needed it back then, and it picked him up. I was happy to help. But that’s me. The thing is that responsibility is a fairly foreign concept in this country. So it’s easier to listen to what I have to say and shun it as simple wining, because that exonerates you of the responsibility, and even saves you from actual listening. There’s plenty of that running around this country. It’s not necessarily because one wouldn’t want to help, but can also be because they can’t. Needless to say, being open about it didn’t really do the trick, but I did it anyway just to say I did everything I could. However, there’s another ideology feature. Most people don’t even comprehend or even grasp the notion of not having money. They don’t understand what “I don’t have money” means and this is probably universal. You’d hear someone say: “Even if I didn’t have money, I bought a plane ticket and went travelling.” Alright, then you did have money.😉 So consequently they don’t understand that I wasn’t able to take any risks anymore (the kind I did take years ago), no risky investments or new turns in my career that would involve financial investments. So all those suggestions about starting something new have to be weighed against my financial abilities, and it amounts to very little. That doesn’t mean I’m not brainstorming though, but I’m very limited. To illustrate how this works, I told someone once that I had 120 euro/month (now I have less), and he just said: “Well, why don’t you move to London and find a job there?” Soooo, what part of 120 euro/month you don’t understand? London? 2nd most expensive city in the world? Really? See, perspectives are hard to match.
A year ago I’d be mad and bitter. Today, I laugh at it, because I accept this society as regressive and waaaaay behind markets of actually developed countries. I shed all my ambitions and I’m taking my life, although much like the teenage life dependent on my parents, as it is. I don’t give a shit anymore, and I don’t care if anyone looks at my work or not, I don’t even beat myself over not being able to produce new stories. It’s not my fault. I’ve spent 15 years investing in nothing but my work in Slovenia,the last four or five to promoting my work, and here I am. Some would say that I let them win, that I let all the ignorance defeat me. No, I didn’t. It’s not about them and me; we’re in this together. Maybe I’m just not the same kind of person. And besides, it didn’t break me. I’m totally fine. No work, no expenses. And the work that I actually do is the work that I absolutely love doing. My long-lasting cooperation with National Geographic Junior is priceless. Even in the wake of a strong financial sweep, I would never leave them. The work I do for them is scarce of course, because it is a licensed magazine and we’re limited to feature stories, but it’s still a lot of fun. Ana Monro theatre is another such client. Ana Desetnica, Ana Mraz and Ana Plamenita street arts festivals are some of the highlights of my year, awesome and funny and great to photograph. In recent years, I’ve also covered a fairytale or better yet storytelling festival and I like it a lot. There were many things that also came out of my cooperation with my editor at NG Junior, again a very rewarding experiences, which is why I am grateful for all of it. Still, most of my year, I’m jobless, but some things do come my way. Most of those (well, 99%) from Slovenia are jobs where they would like to have me working practically for free. Filtering has become a skill. The one percent this year came from Finland and that was fair and professional, and the story was great. I’m still with Demotix and Imago, but although the editors are great, I can hardly still afford covering stories for them.
There’s people who stay with you through hard times and understand you, and there are those who’d just hate to have their fun bubble burst, and do not care. The clients mentioned above value having me around and I am thankful for that. In fact there are people who continue their undying support for my work and who I am. Like my New York ‘sister from another mister’ as I call her. I do get help, although not job-wise, but in terms of promotion. Unfortunately, I still have to see the effects of all my self-promotion. But I am very very grateful for all the interest and care of all these people, and in 2014 it was also Vanja from Tednik, a show on our national TV, and Ron Haviv who’s been supporting me for all these years when I also tried to get to New York through grants here and abroad. After all of that, I think it’s time to just embrace the situation and work inside the available maneuvering space, and taking none of it to the heart anymore. It feels better. I don’t see my 2014 as a failure. I see it as optimal. Sure, yes, in the light of what others did in photography it’s nothing, but there’s no way comparing such different financial and social circumstances. Once you accept that, things get a lot easier. 2015 will be a lot different. It needs to be. It’s time for new endeavours and challenges, not neccessarily in the field of photography itself, although perhaps some of the best things in photography are just starting to happen. Like my quest into street photography with a twin lens reflex camera. Like perhaps a photo book finally. We’ll see.
It’s one of those experiences where you come back to Slovenia and you literally want to sit back in the car and drive another 1100 km back to where you came from.
The Girl Inside story was a finalist among the 20 multimedia stories shown at the Lumix festival in Hanover, Germany, so I decided to go and see this biggest photojournalism festival in Germany. It took ages to get people to come with me, but eventually three of us went. We booked an apartment, although a little late which caused some worries, but everything turned out excellent. I drove all the way to Hanover. It’s just over 1000 km, but German highways are a joy to drive on. In fact, they’re so great that I don’t even blame them for so many construction sites. They’re so smooth that the car is flying off the hook without adding much gas, and therefore the consumption is pretty low. Much lower than in Slovenia. Or maybe even my car doesn’t like Slovenia. After realizing my old demented Garmin hasn’t got a clue again, I had my copilot Nina navigate the highways perfectly. It wasn’t complicated either, because Hanover is almost straight up north. A 1000 km of highways.
After 13 hours we got to the outskirts of Hanover and drove past the design center of the Expo Park with a huge poster of the festival over a great part of its front facade. Our apartment was just 5 minutes away by car. A nice man showed us the apartment that was beautifully furnished, comfortable, Wi-Fi, TV (all channels were in German, but soccer is universal!) and a balcony. Pizza and ice cream on the ground floor. Bakery behind the building. A supermarket two minutes away by foot. That’s what I call perfect. A quiet and calm neighborhood, hardly any people anywhere, just a lot of German flags (they’re crazy about football). The supermarket was about the size of a Spar in my neighborhood at home, but was stocked up better than the biggest shopping mall grocery stores in Ljubljana. We proved that old belief that you shouldn’t go grocery shopping when you’re hungry, but when we got the bill for only 20 eur, we couldn’t believe it. Interestingly, pretty much everything in Hanover was cheaper than in Slovenia. Parking for the entire day in the Expo Park: 6 eur. Or none if you had polio as a child and a handicapped card is now paying for all you had to go through.
That first night something seemed a bit off. It kind of felt we’re going to sleep before the sun went down. And getting up for the toilet at 4 a. m. and seeing light outside was also creepy. But we soon realized that we’re so far north that the sun sets at around 22:30 and starts creeping up again at around 4:00. For someone who falls asleep when it’s pitch dark and wakes up if the room lights up (the door to the balcony had no blinds) and the birds start singing, this might be a problem. But I got used to it quick.
On the day of the opening of the festival we took a stroll through the old city center of Hanover, which is two small streets big, basically the same as my hometown. But it’s cozy, no crowd, no heavy traffic, no traffic jams, no idiots on the road, free parking for two and a half hours, handicapped parking spaces everywhere – and unoccupied, unlike in the Balkan countries, where nobody gives a damn where they park.
In the afternoon, the whole festival experience started. Boy, what a venue! The Expo Park where the Expo 2000 exhibition was located with all the architectural wonders hosted 60 photo exhibitions from young photojournalists from all over the world. And after visiting Visa pour l’Image for 6 years, I can honestly say the quality of work here strongly competes with its French big brother. The main venue was the Design center, which is in fact a faculty for media studies, photojournalism and documentary photography, and design. A square-shaped glass building with an open space in the middle and classrooms and workshops on the left and right. Under the open space middle platform there was an auditorium where all the lectures and the opening took place. Next to it was a photo studio transformed into a screening room for watching the multimedia stories. The place in front of these two rooms was a bookstore during the festival and a place where you could watch multimedia stories on the computer as well.
The front and the back sides of the design center building were just balconies with a railing. The students of the school designed a wooden mount to place the exhibitions on the railings in four levels on both sides. In fact the entire festival is run by students under the leadership of their professor Rolf Nobel. It made me wonder if such a things would even be possible in my country with the popular mentality and all.
We were blown away at seeing the inside of the design center upon our arrival. We got our accreditations at the info point, then walked through the Sigma, GoPro, Freelens, Panasonic etc. stands on the middle platform and after listening to only a few talks at the opening down in the auditorium decided to start with the exhibitions. We had roughly 4 days to see 60 exhibitions.😀 And no, we couldn’t do without fooling around with a fisheye lens.😉
There were lectures in the auditorium of the Design center every day at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. You had to buy a ticket for three eur for each one, or if you were an exhibitor at the festival, you could go in for free. But if it was sold out, you had a chance to go “next door” to the photo studio where you could watch the lecture on the big screen live. They actually had two big cameras set up on those big TV studio rigs with hydraulic handling and apparently also a director, because someone was switching between two angles and the lecturers computer feed. All lectures were simultaneously translated into English as well. By far the best lecture was by Zed Nelson who made it quite amusing as well showing photos and talking about his books Gun Nation and Love Me. By far the most shocking, but gripping lecture was by Alixandra Fazzina from Noor who jumped in instead of Kadir van Lohuizen who couldn’t make it. We’ve also seen a lot of cold places in the images of Justin Jin (Russian Far North) and Ragnar Axelsson (Iceland), a lot of Russia in the images of Rob Hornstra (The Sochi Project), Maxim Dondyuk (Protests in Ukraine) and Gerd Ludwig (The Long Shadow of Chernobyl), and some pretty unusual photos (including nudists) from Michael von Graffenried.
The festival started with “Meet the photographer” at 11:00 each day. Authors of exhibitions presented their work in front of their exhibitions. We haven’t attended many, because we decided to see all the exhibitions and we didn’t have time. But we did attend the one by Mustafah Abdulaziz, an American working on a worldwide project on the topic of water. The exhibitions were placed in eight venues of the south end of the Expo Park. One of them was outside in the gardens, that’s where 14 exhibitions were. The weather in Hanover is “northern” so it was cold and it rained a bit, so we saw those exhibitions in two parts – one was just before we hit the road to go back home. One of the exhibitions that were really hard to watch was in the BMW center. Hard to watch because some of us couldn’t decide whether to watch those 200 30,000+ eur BMW’s in the salon or the photos. (There was another BMW salon next door, with motorcycles as well, and a Ferrari salon nearby). Most awesome venue (besides the Design center) was the Skywalk, a tube with a moving walkway (a travellator) in the middle that is usually used for quick transport of visitors from one end of the Expo Park to the other. Now there were 18 exhibitions set up in the middle on the travellator. I’ve seen some of the best images there like Ryan Spencer Reed’s photos of American soldiers in Afghanistan, Rahul Talukder’s images of the collapse of Rana Plaza etc. It took as two hours to see everything. Then we headed over to Ikea for lunch. Although there were food stands in front of the Design center. The story that won the prestigious Freelens award of 10,000 eur and a statuette of a photographer was about female circumcisions in Kenya, an illegal practice still carried out, “because it’s tradition”, photographed by Finish photographer Meeri Koutaniemi, a freelancer who already photographed in over 30 countries😉. Talk about a different category. People’s Choice award went to Andrea Gjestvang for her portraits of Utoya massacre survivors. The Lammerhuber Photography Award that recognizes the story that depicts daily life in the most impressive way went to Fara Phoebe Zetsche for her story about Stray Kids on the streets of Berlin.
On Friday, I had a portfolio review with Pall Stefansson, an Icelander who calls himself a bit crazy, but was quite a good guy to talk to. An hour later there was a Q&A in the photo studio where the multimedia stories were screened all throughout the festival. 20 multimedia stories were chosen out of nearly 200 submitted to the competition. There were seven of us answering questions from the audience that day. I had a feeling that the story of Barbara made quite an impact. And I liked the questions from the audience. They were very intelligent, things I was never asked, things that not many people think of in terms of how we do these stories…
Photos by Nina Blaž
I was glad authors of some of the best multimedia stories were there. Chris Capozziello with his absolutely amazing story of addiction “A State of Mind”, Emanuele Satolli with his horrifying story about the drug Krokodil, Cristina Cassotto with an intimate look at an elderly couple Vibeke and Knud and Patrick Slesiona multimedia team behind a story about a man who led a double life, had a wife and a fiancée, then tried to kill his fiancée, ended up in jail, and eventually returned to his wife who forgave him. As I spoke with Chris about his story I immediately knew it’s by far the most intimate, difficult, a bit shocking, but eventually positive story. It’s in how close he followed the girl fighting with addiction, getting out and relapsing, and getting pregnant and using while pregnant and how that little baby changed everything and turned the story into a positive one. Four years and still going, the story won the multimedia prize of 5,000 eur along with Slesiona’s story about the guy with a double life. Very well deserved!
Our schedule for the last two days was quite tight. The award ceremony was in the evening of the 21st June and we were leaving the next morning. Considering it was the longest day of the year, a late ending of the ceremony, and an early wake up, I wasn’t really sure how I’ll manage to drive 13 hours back home. But I loved it. There were way too much traffic jams at construction sites, but they didn’t really bother me much or made me tired. It took us more than 13 hours to get back, but I could’ve driven at least 500 km more. From my experience coming from a country without much future, where everything is more or less “a black hole” as I call it, life reserved for the chosen, corruption, favoring crime and immorality etc. I realized there’s no better energy boost than LIFE. But just as an energy drink would leave you empty and wasted in the morning, so does coming back to this country. It was an awesome time in Hanover and I honestly can’t wait to go back next year.