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!