Mirjana Vrbaški was 16 when she left her home in Belgrade, two years after what was then Yugoslavia disintegrated into chaos. “The whole system was crumbling,” says Vrbaški of the early 90s in Serbia, when society “became marred by corruption, inflation, and sanctions”. By going to live in Canada with her older brother, she left behind her parents, her country, her culture, and her language. Soon after, her mother and father divorced.
Vrbaški says her situation couldn’t be compared to that of people who directly experienced conflict and war in former Yugoslavia, but it was still a kind of Year Zero that few of us ever encounter — let alone at such a critical age. “At the time, I just moved forward. I had a chance at a new life and, being a teenager, I embraced it.” she says. “Now, looking back, I see the challenges more clearly.”
“I started with the question: what makes an image of a regular person ‘larger’ than the person on it?”
Vrbaški studied English Literature in Canada, then found photography. She moved to The Netherlands to take a photography BA at the prestigious Royal Academy in The Hague, met her partner, moved to Berlin, and had a child, picking up a new language in each new country. She has settled in Germany, sort of, though she says she also feels stateless and nostalgic for a country that no longer exists. Just over a decade ago, she started to take portraits of young women, a series she’s called Verses of Emptiness and which she says is ongoing.
She finds her subjects on the street but photographs them against a backdrop, asking them to wear plain clothes that avoid obvious markers like brand names or logos. She can’t quite articulate why she chooses these women, other than that something about them resonates, that they seem like kindred spirits because they’re all around her age and don’t look dissimilar. After starting the project in The Netherlands, she continued making portraits in Germany and, later on, in Serbia, because, after a decade, she thought that “maybe what I’m looking for is easier to find back home”.
“My process may seem controlled, but it isn’t,” she says. “I don’t work conceptually. It all started with Flemish Primitives and religious icons for me. I grew up with Byzantine imagery and it always fascinated me — icons are made anonymously and according to a strict set of rules. The depicted is visually minimal. I started with the question: what makes an image of a regular person ‘larger’ than the person on it? I became interested in the idea of reaching beyond the person I am photographing, not telling their story but using them as a gate to something greater.”
In her new publication, Odd Time, a selection of these portraits are presented as a kind of book within the book, combined with a series of landscapes shot in a Croatian forest. Like the portraits, these images — titled 7/8 — were shot from impulse or compulsion, and show tangled scenes that aren’t obviously picturesque. Vrbaški was on holiday when she took them, visiting a Croatian island with her husband and son and remembering similar holidays she’d taken as a child, when the islands were Yugoslavian.
“I hadn’t consciously decided, ‘I will make this work and it will be political’,” she explains. “There was a sense of familiarity to my surroundings, I intuitively knew my way around. Just as with the women I photographed, I had a sense of being at home. I only grasped this years after the images had been made. It seemed as though I started to understand them, though never completely.”
In fact, Vrbaški says her reading is just one possible interpretation, that other viewers’ understandings of the work are just as valid. The design of her book, by Hannah Feldmeier, emphasises this, allowing viewers to create their own pathways and correspondences. It includes an essay by writer and photographer Koen Potgieter, which is printed on a separate sheet — allowing readers to engage with it if they want, but not offering anything too prescriptive. Vrbaški says she increasingly prefers to take this open-ended approach, to let viewers have their own interpretations, and that’s something she also traces back to Yugoslavia. While the country was falling apart, propaganda and the media offered simplistic readings of something so complicated and vast, she says, something so hard to grasp or understand.
The title of Vrbaški’s book, Odd Time, seems to fit as a description of living through this collapse, of finding echoes of a lost home in the present day, or even just the present experience of the Covid-19 pandemic and ongoing environmental crisis. Actually it’s a reference to a style of music which is common in Macedonia and Southern Europe. The songs are played in 7/8 time, and therefore have a sense of being off-balance. “It is not called odd time there,” Vrbaški laughs. “Because it is not odd in the Macedonian tradition.”
Odd Time by Mirjana Vrbaški is available for purchase here.