The Power of a Good Heart

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.

Aleksandar Mijušković, Serbia Darkness that becomes light, rebirth, resurrection. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes and becoming living fire, that is how addicts in the psychotherapeutic community “The Land of Living” transform into new people. Faith in God and returning to nature as the answer to meaninglessness of addiction. Struggle within yourself, here it’s everyday life… “God did not make people for death but for salvation” Mr. Nikolaj Velimirović (A story about a commune for recovering drug addicts.)
Reborn by Aleksandar Mijušković, Serbia
Darkness that becomes light, rebirth, resurrection.
Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes and becoming living fire, that is how addicts in the psychotherapeutic community “The Land of Living” transform into new people.
Faith in God and returning to nature as the answer to meaninglessness of addiction. Struggle within yourself, here it’s everyday life…
“God did not make people for death but for salvation” Mr. Nikolaj Velimirović
(A story about a commune for recovering drug addicts.)

 

Arizona Addiction by Ana Florentina Pogangeanu, Romania Confident, strong, and funny; these are the 3 words which describe him perfectly... and he is so much more! He is religious and respectful... while his colleagues were eating, he was saying his prayers. He is a family guy; he has his parents' initials tattooed on his arms and specific numbers that remind him of his grandmother. She is the reason why he is in the rehab center, she is the one who suggested this place in Novi Sad. He is 26 years old and his story is about trucks, pleasure, and money. He used to be a drug dealer. His name is Mladen and he is an ex drug addict.
Arizona Addiction by Ana Florentina Pogangeanu, Romania
Confident, strong, and funny; these are the 3 words which describe him perfectly… and he is so much more! He is religious and respectful… while his colleagues were eating, he was saying his prayers.
He is a family guy; he has his parents’ initials tattooed on his arms and specific numbers that remind him of his grandmother. She is the reason why he is in the rehab center, she is the one who suggested this place in Novi Sad.
He is 26 years old and his story is about trucks, pleasure, and money. He used to be a drug dealer.
His name is Mladen and he is an ex drug addict.

 

"Mom's The Word" by Deborah Kelly, Ireland This is Sara, she is 25 years old. She is bright, funny, intelligent, inquisitive, caring and beautiful. Sara is Autisitic. Her best friend is probably her mom Ivana, who in turn is also her taxi driver, nurse, schedule keeper, her alarm clock, companion, her go-to for most things, but above all - her primary caregiver. Sara and her mum both live in Belgrade, Serbia. And whilst they are happy in their lives and content, Ivana’s fear is what happens to Sara when she’s gone? Who then becomes all these vital things in Sara’s life when her mom is no longer here? This fear is one that rules Ivana’s head. Through these photos I hope to highlight the intimacy and importance of this relationship to both Sara and Ivana and how beautifully it flows. These were taken on a typical Sunday afternoon, one like many before it, and I can only hope that there will be many more after it.
“Mom’s The Word” by Deborah Kelly, Northern Ireland
This is Sara, she is 25 years old. She is bright, funny, intelligent, inquisitive, caring and beautiful. Sara is Autisitic. Her best friend is probably her mom Ivana, who in turn is also her taxi driver, nurse, schedule keeper, her alarm clock, companion, her go-to for most things, but above all – her primary caregiver.
Sara and her mum both live in Belgrade, Serbia. And whilst they are happy in their lives and content, Ivana’s fear is what happens to Sara when she’s gone? Who then becomes all these vital things in Sara’s life when her mom is no longer here? This fear is one that rules Ivana’s head.
Through these photos I hope to highlight the intimacy and importance of this relationship to both Sara and Ivana and how beautifully it flows. These were taken on a typical Sunday afternoon, one like many before it, and I can only hope that there will be many more after it.

 

A Spaceship of Secrets by Emanuele Donazza, Italy Uroš is a boy with autism, he is now 15 years old. I tried to tell this story by entering his space that it is made of gestures, smiles, and routines. I saw many colored things just by standing in a corner of his mind. For people with autism there are no physical places in which they can be included. They are also not provided with the attention they need. As Uroš grows up he and his family will face this lack of social identity. Still, I’ve learnt so many things in such a short time, thanks to this amazing boy. I believe that all of us could be better human beings by exploring and knowing new planets.
A Spaceship of Secrets by Emanuele Donazza, Italy
Uroš is a boy with autism, he is now 15 years old. I tried to tell this story by entering his space that it is made of gestures, smiles, and routines. I saw many colored things just by standing in a corner of his mind.
For people with autism there are no physical places in which they can be included. They are also not provided with the attention they need. As Uroš grows up he and his family will face this lack of social identity. Still, I’ve learnt so many things in such a short time, thanks to this amazing boy.
I believe that all of us could be better human beings by exploring and knowing new planets.

 

Belgrade on the Crossroads of Past and Future by Emir Vrazalica, Serbia „A plan to pour €3.5 billion into an exclusive waterside development has some locals praising the modernisation of their long-troubled city, while others cry foul“ was the first sentence in „The Guardian“ story, named „Belgrade Waterfront: an unlikely place for Gulf petrodollars to settle. Belgrade is painfully divided over the development. Some see a prosperous future in it, others are aghast at the project’s projected alien cityscape, not convinced by the promises of economic or social benefits, and suspicious of Serbia’s relationship with Eagle Hills. The political and media struggle is between those who are supportive of, or against the project. The project itself overshadows real human stories and problems local families face after the eviction from their homes, eminent upon commencement of the construction project.
Belgrade on the Crossroads of Past and Future by Emir Vrazalica, Serbia
„A plan to pour €3.5 billion into an exclusive waterside development has some locals praising the modernisation of their long-troubled city, while others cry foul“ was the first sentence in „The Guardian“ story, named „Belgrade Waterfront: an unlikely place for Gulf petrodollars to settle.
Belgrade is painfully divided over the development. Some see a prosperous future in it, others are aghast at the project’s projected alien cityscape, not convinced by the promises of economic or social benefits, and suspicious of Serbia’s relationship with Eagle Hills.
The political and media struggle is between those who are supportive of, or against the project. The project itself overshadows real human stories and problems local families face after the eviction from their homes, eminent upon commencement of the construction project.

The Guy Inside by Jana Janaite, Latvia Aleksandar is a 23 year-old guy who was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia. He lives with his father in the house he grew up in. In the morning he wakes up with his girlfriend by his side, and Eva Brown and Lord Maksimilian – their two beautiful young cats. Aleksandar has many different interests. Every day he takes photos, and he tries to travel as much as possible.  He is young, happy, and very smart, but more importantly Aleksandar has a story to tell. There is one thing you would never know when meeting him - he wasn’t Aleksandar all his years on earth - he was born in a female body and had had a  gender correction surgery.  Aleksandar is a transsexual man.
The Guy Inside by Jana Janaite, Latvia
Aleksandar is a 23 year-old guy who was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia. He lives with his father in the house he grew up in. In the morning he wakes up with his girlfriend by his side, and Eva Brown and Lord Maksimilian – their two beautiful young cats. Aleksandar has many different interests. Every day he takes photos, and he tries to travel as much as possible.
He is young, happy, and very smart, but more importantly Aleksandar has a story to tell. There is one thing you would never know when meeting him – he wasn’t Aleksandar all his years on earth – he was born in a female body and had had a gender correction surgery.
Aleksandar is a transsexual man.

 

A Man on The Move by Jasna Rajnar Petrović, Slovenia He feels useless just staying at home doing nothing, he says he feels the need to be on the move. Retired in the 90s, he adds to his meager pension cheques by selling the newspaper ‘Liceulice’ to passers by in Belgrade, keeping half of the profit for himself; his record is selling for 16 days in a row. He says his life consists of two parts, the first 25 years being ‘rock’n’roll’ and, the second 25 in connection with God. His passion for music is evident. He spontaneously and randomly bursts into song and enjoys many genres, from rock to punk, jazz, and ethno. Through the association ‘Duša’, he discovered his love for acting and he has been a part of several theatre productions. You will be in for a pleasant surprise when you talk to him and hear the wisdoms that come from his vast life experiences which are almost always delivered with a smile so nice it lights up his face. His good humour and laughter is definitely infectious and spreads to everyone around him. Milutin, or as his friends call him, Milutko, is 50 years old and diagnosed with schizophrenia.
A Man on The Move by Jasna Rajnar Petrović, Slovenia
He feels useless just staying at home doing nothing, he says he feels the need to be on the move. Retired in the 90s, he adds to his meager pension cheques by selling the newspaper ‘Liceulice’ to passers by in Belgrade, keeping half of the profit for himself; his record is selling for 16 days in a row. He says his life consists of two parts, the first 25 years being ‘rock’n’roll’ and, the second 25 in connection with God. His passion for music is evident. He spontaneously and randomly bursts into song and enjoys many genres, from rock to punk, jazz, and ethno.
Through the association ‘Duša’, he discovered his love for acting and he has been a part of several theatre productions. You will be in for a pleasant surprise when you talk to him and hear the wisdoms that come from his vast life experiences which are almost always delivered with a smile so nice it lights up his face. His good humour and laughter is definitely infectious and spreads to everyone around him.
Milutin, or as his friends call him, Milutko, is 50 years old and diagnosed with schizophrenia.

 

Portrait of a Woman by Louisa Guenin, France "I chose to share the story about Milena, a 64 year-old woman who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008. Through these pictures I want to show how she is first and foremost an active woman, not just someone with an illness." Multiple sclerosis is an auto immune disease which causes difficulty in communication between various parts of the neurological system, leading to physical and mental issues. Milena is a retired lawyer living in Belgrade with her mother and daughter. She started feeling the first symptoms when she was on vacation in 2008. It took two years and several appointments with different doctors to find out what was going on. She kept working as long as she could when the disease was not too severe. She started to practice yoga with a former Serbian athlete, Danijela, who become her spiritual daughter. Now she practices daily on her own, she leads an active life in order to fight the illness. It took a long time for Milena to accept her disease but now she is ready to tackle it and meet other people in Belgrade who also suffer from multiple sclerosis.
Portrait of a Woman by Louisa Guenin, France
“I chose to share the story about Milena, a 64 year-old woman who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2008. Through these pictures I want to show how she is first and foremost an active woman, not just someone with an illness.”
Multiple sclerosis is an auto immune disease which causes difficulty in communication between various parts of the neurological system, leading to physical and mental issues.
Milena is a retired lawyer living in Belgrade with her mother and daughter. She started feeling the first symptoms when she was on vacation in 2008. It took two years and several appointments with different doctors to find out what was going on. She kept working as long as she could when the disease was not too severe. She started to practice yoga with a former Serbian athlete, Danijela, who become her spiritual daughter. Now she practices daily on her own, she leads an active life in order to fight the illness. It took a long time for Milena to accept her disease but now she is ready to tackle it and meet other people in Belgrade who also suffer from multiple sclerosis.

 

Beyond The Silence by Nino Bektashashvili, Slovenia Stojan was raised in both the hearing world and the deaf world simultaneously. Early in childhood he chose music as a way of self-expression; music as the passage between two very diverse spaces. Feeling the vibes from the ground, he connects to his inner rhythm. This is the energy force for the deaf. This is how he can harmonise with his surroundings, welcoming any movement without prejudice. It involves self exploration of his deepest emotions, each of which can be a doorway to an expanse of internal energy, and lets himself move with the sound of Silence. The intention of his movements is hidden in every single muscle, every single bone, gesture, and even the pores of his skin. He lets himself feel the sensation of music and surrenders to its beats.
Beyond The Silence by Nino Bektashashvili, Slovenia
Stojan was raised in both the hearing world and the deaf world simultaneously.
Early in childhood he chose music as a way of self-expression; music as the passage between two very diverse spaces. Feeling the vibes from the ground, he connects to his inner rhythm. This is the energy force for the deaf. This is how he can harmonise with his surroundings, welcoming any movement without prejudice. It involves self exploration of his deepest emotions, each of which can be a doorway to an expanse of internal energy, and lets himself move with the sound of Silence. The intention of his movements is hidden in every single muscle, every single bone, gesture, and even the pores of his skin. He lets himself feel the sensation of music and surrenders to its beats.

 

Imagine Life in Dancing Steps by Roberto Mesir, Croatia Stojan is different from most of us! He goes after what he loves, not afraid to take chances, while we play safe! Stojan has the courage to face any obstacles that comes his way, while we are safe in our comfort zone. Stojan lives every day, every moment, positively influencing everybody around him, while we waste our days waiting for the weekend or holidays. Every life is a gift, and we should learn to count our blessings! Stojan Simić is young Serbian passionate dancer… And yes, he is also deaf!
Imagine Life in Dancing Steps by Roberto Mesir, Croatia
Stojan is different from most of us! He goes after what he loves, not afraid to take chances, while we play safe! Stojan has the courage to face any obstacles that comes his way, while we are safe in our comfort zone. Stojan lives every day, every moment, positively influencing everybody around him, while we waste our days waiting for the weekend or holidays.
Every life is a gift, and we should learn to count our blessings!
Stojan Simić is young Serbian passionate dancer… And yes, he is also deaf!

 

Silent Dreams by Safet Imamović, Bosnia and Herzegovina Roma, homeless and mute in Serbia, that’s Memet’s life, but being cheerful, happy, and strong despite this is a big challenge. His name is Memet Berisha, he has no documents here in Serbia although it is believed that he is 17. He lives alone on the street, he moved here from Macedonia with his father after his parents divorce. His mother lives far away, and he hasn't heard from her in a very long time. Mute, but his shining eyes say it all. Homeless, but his smile is magical. Different, but a part of every heart that he encounters. Memet sells magazines on the street to survive, and he calls an old car his bed.
Silent Dreams by Safet Imamović, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Roma, homeless and mute in Serbia, that’s Memet’s life, but being cheerful, happy, and strong despite this is a big challenge.
His name is Memet Berisha, he has no documents here in Serbia although it is believed that he is 17. He lives alone on the street, he moved here from Macedonia with his father after his parents divorce. His mother lives far away, and he hasn’t heard from her in a very long time.
Mute, but his shining eyes say it all.
Homeless, but his smile is magical.
Different, but a part of every heart that he encounters.
Memet sells magazines on the street to survive, and he calls an old car his bed.

 

Belegiš - The Proud by Sara Pereira Brando Albino, Portugal I found in Belegiš a story of present and future expectations sustained in a rich past. When I arrived, at the beginning it seemed to me an isolated place surrounded by an intense silence. However, I found a place where the silence is part of nature because it’s community is very much alive. Belegiš became a city scape for Belgraders and enthusiasts of its annual festival. But I could not stop thinking, how are these new dwellers contributing to the rural development of the area? They just come during weekends, but the village integrity is maintained by it’s permanent families. Today, the more I think about the concept of rural development, I find it’s foundations are the permanent inhabitants, like Zoran, that strive to keep the rural territory alive and hand down knowledge to future generations. Contributions are also made by the dreams of the town’s dwellers like Vesna. She believes that Serbia’s identity is made from the respect and knowledge of the archeological past, traditions and war heroes of the village. She has the dream of bringing more young people and outsiders to stir up Belegiš daily life and to raise the feeling of local pride amongst the villagers.
Belegiš – The Proud by Sara Pereira Brando Albino, Portugal
“I found in Belegiš a story of present and future expectations sustained in a rich past. When I arrived, at the beginning it seemed to me an isolated place surrounded by an intense silence. However, I found a place where the silence is part of nature because it’s community is very much alive.
Belegiš became a city scape for Belgraders and enthusiasts of its annual festival. But I could not stop thinking, how are these new dwellers contributing to the rural development of the area? They just come during weekends, but the village integrity is maintained by it’s permanent families.
Today, the more I think about the concept of rural development, I find it’s foundations are the permanent inhabitants, like Zoran, that strive to keep the rural territory alive and hand down knowledge to future generations. Contributions are also made by the dreams of the town’s dwellers like Vesna. She believes that Serbia’s identity is made from the respect and knowledge of the archeological past, traditions and war heroes of the village. She has the dream of bringing more young people and outsiders to stir up Belegiš daily life and to raise the feeling of local pride amongst the villagers.”

 

One Day at a Time by Ioana Pinzariu, Romania Ivan (41) moved to his new apartment only a week ago. In the last 6 years, he has spent 5 in prison. Due to the post penalty fund money from the state being delayed when he was released, he was homeless for three weeks before he found a place to live. Ivan used to live with his girlfriend, her mother, and their two cats. Heroin addiction was part of their everyday life for many years. Frequent arguments, fights, and agony over the shortage of heroin, led the family to a tragic end. His girlfriend’s mother overdosed, and soon after Ivan was imprisoned, while his girlfriend remained alone. This whole experience made him change for the better, and get himself clean. After he was released, he went back home only to find that no one was living there. Here he learned of his girlfriend’s death, she was 27 years old. A neighbor told him she left behind a 4 year-old daughter, who is now living with her relatives. His one wish is to know if he is this child’s father. This is now his motivation to fight for the future, unfortunately he can’t afford the paternity test. Today, Ivan is looking for a job as a welder, otherwise he could lose the apartment he is living in and end up back on the streets. Aside from cleaning his studio, he spends his time writing and meditating in Kalemegdan near the Victory monument, where he creates plans for the future.
One Day at a Time by Ioana Pinzariu, Romania
Ivan (41) moved to his new apartment only a week ago. In the last 6 years, he has spent 5 in prison. Due to the post penalty fund money from the state being delayed when he was released, he was homeless for three weeks before he found a place to live.
Ivan used to live with his girlfriend, her mother, and their two cats. Heroin addiction was part of their everyday life for many years. Frequent arguments, fights, and agony over the shortage of heroin, led the family to a tragic end. His girlfriend’s mother overdosed, and soon after Ivan was imprisoned, while his girlfriend remained alone.
This whole experience made him change for the better, and get himself clean. After he was released, he went back home only to find that no one was living there. Here he learned of his girlfriend’s death, she was 27 years old. A neighbor told him she left behind a 4 year-old daughter, who is now living with her relatives. His one wish is to know if he is this child’s father. This is now his motivation to fight for the future, unfortunately he can’t afford the paternity test.
Today, Ivan is looking for a job as a welder, otherwise he could lose the apartment he is living in and end up back on the streets. Aside from cleaning his studio, he spends his time writing and meditating in Kalemegdan near the Victory monument, where he creates plans for the future.

 

A Man With a Big Heart by Zozan Kotan Bayraktar, Turkey Every human has come face to face with numerous challenges, Mirko is able to fight through all the conditions he has had imposed on him trough no fault of his own. He had to drop out of primary school and at 12 years old, found himself out on the streets. The challenges and troubles he has been forced to endure, are the reason for his brilliant, infectious smile. He supports himself and his family by meagre earnings from selling magazines on the street. However, to the people, he sells more than just a magazine… He sells them love and energy too. Meeting him, it is easy to see an endless space full of love in his heart. Mirko establishes such a strong bond with others, and in doing so he never judges anyone. The bonds he builds with others keep him strong, and pull him through life. He is always free… He is free in the street, he is free at home, he is a self made man.
A Man With a Big Heart by Zozan Kotan Bayraktar, Turkey
Every human has come face to face with numerous challenges, Mirko is able to fight through all the conditions he has had imposed on him trough no fault of his own. He had to drop out of primary school and at 12 years old, found himself out on the streets. The challenges and troubles he has been forced to endure, are the reason for his brilliant, infectious smile. He supports himself and his family by meagre earnings from selling magazines on the street. However, to the people, he sells more than just a magazine… He sells them love and energy too. Meeting him, it is easy to see an endless space full of love in his heart. Mirko establishes such a strong bond with others, and in doing so he never judges anyone. The bonds he builds with others keep him strong, and pull him through life.
He is always free…
He is free in the street, he is free at home, he is a self made man.

THANK YOU Aleksandar, Ana, Debs, Emanuele, Emir, Jana, Jasna, Louisa, Nino, Roberto, Safet, Sara, Zamfi and Zozan! You rock!

 

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