New East Digital Archive

Uncovering the Balkan stories left untold

11 June 2021

Bertan Selim has long recognised the need for inclusivity in the arts. Born in Skopje, he has spent the past decade working as a curator, mentor, and grant-making specialist in the Netherlands, opening doors for documentary photographers from outside the Western world. Then, in 2020, he decided to pull together his contacts and funding expertise to launch the VID Foundation: an organisation designed to support photographers in the Balkans and challenge stereotypical narratives about the region. “There is amazing talent in the Balkans,” he says with pride, “but there is little opportunity for photographers to pursue long-term, personal, creative, and analytical work.”

Read more Dive into personal photo archives from the Balkans with this crowdsourced Instagram account

Besides financial support, artists need feedback and mentorship, as well as platforms to show their work. “The local photography industry remains dominated by the mainstream media, which does not reflect alternative points of view,” Selim says. At the same time, the representation of the Balkans in international media is steeped in visual cliches, leaving “strong, insightful, and inspiring” voices unheard.

Selim’s own background proves why these stories matter. “I grew up in the Balkans in the turbulent 90s. I was gay, I was of mixed ethnic origin, and I was born with a visual impairment. I could not see, so I grew up with the stories that were told to me.” After having life-altering surgery to restore some of his sight, he forged a path in the photo industry to promote unheard and untold stories. He describes VID as “a way for me to give back to a region that has made me who I am today.”

This year, the foundation introduced its inaugural VID Grant to help photographers share stories from their communities. Out of 85 submissions, three winning projects were chosen for 2021, with Serbian photographer Marija Mandić taking home a cash prize of €2,000. Two mentorship prizes were also awarded to Matej Jurčević (Croatia) and Vera Hadzhiyska (Bulgaria).

Keep reading to learn more about their winning projects.

Marija Mandić

The White Bee

Serbian artist Marija Mandić works with family photo archives and stories passed down from her grandparents. Often she visits and photographs the places that they described to her when she was still a child. “I grew up with six instead of four grandparents,” she told The Calvert Journal, “since my mother was raised by her father’s sister and her husband.” Her project July 32 was taken across an area that now encompasses Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia, and Croatia — where her respective grandparents were born. Besides mapping her ancestry, Mandić’s projects explore recollection as a creative process: distortions of memory or the way we use our imagination to fill the gaps of history.

The series she will be developing with the VID Grant, Bela Pčela (White Bee), centers on a mysterious female figure who was erased from Mandić’s family history. The photographer only found out about the existence of this long-lost relative through a letter unearthed at her grandmother Desa’s house. “Either [my family] forgot about her, or nobody ever paid enough attention to mention her,” Mandić explains.

Throughout the project, this long-lost matriarch is referred to as “the white bee” (bela pčela). As the artist explains: “In the Serbian language, the white eagle stands for our “last” male ancestor, while the white bee is the name given to the foremother — the queen bee of the kinship.” Mandić says this failure to care about women’s legacies is common across the Balkans, where men carry the family lineage. Her aim is to shine a light on how women are erased from ancestral stories. Both archival and speculative, the VID jury lauded Mandić’s “poetic” reconstruction of her own family records. In addition to photos and historical documents, Mandić plans to include digital images, making this a multi-disciplinary project.

Matej Jurčević

Looking for Hope

At the age of 25, Matej Jurčević is the youngest winner of VID Grant. His project, Looking for Hope, is a touching tribute to the village of Tenja in eastern Croatia where the photographer grew up. As most teenagers will tell you, his happiest memories there were spent with friends in playgrounds, listening to music, or riding their bikes until 4am while they talked about the future. The only difference is that Jurčević’s memories of the 90s are also entangled with the aftermath of the Yugoslavian wars. As he describes it: “When you grow up right after a tragedy like a war, you inherit a lot of that pain and grief, even if you have never experienced it yourself.”
“There’s an unwritten rule about places like Tenja,” cites Jurčević, “that the only way to succeed is to leave.” He himself moved to the Croatian capital of Zagreb, in 2015 to study cinematography. Now he resides in Antwerp, where he is finishing his MA at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts. “While studying in Zagreb, I tried to make my photography assignments about Tenja,” he says. The project he submitted to VID imagines a life where he never left his hometown.

Photographing his friends and family, Jurčević offers an intimate look at Tenja that elicit feelings of deep familiarity. Crucially, he wanted to make his peers feel comfortable. “It’s one thing to return home; it’s a whole other thing to return with your camera,” he says.

He’s looking forward to developing his portraits into a longform project. “I didn’t think I’d have the opportunity to do so at this stage of my life,” he admits. “It’s been five years since I had a chance to stay in Tenja longer than a few weeks, so I am most excited about seeing everybody and reconnecting with them.”

Vera Hadzhiyska

With the Name of a Flower

Growing up in Bulgaria, Vera Hadzhiyska was never told that her family was Muslim, or that her relatives had once borne Muslim names. She knew that she had been named after her grandmother, who passed away a year after she was born. But she had no idea that this was the Slavic name her grandmother took in the 1980s, when Bulgaria’s Muslim population were forced to adopt new names. In a 2019 interview in The Calvert Journal, she revealed that her father and uncle were part of the last generation to be given Muslim names at birth.

“This part of history is not taught in schools,” says the UK-based artist, “Many of the people who came to my exhibition already knew about the name changes, either from personal experiences or through friends and acquaintances who had been affected by them. Others, especially younger people, were finding out about it for the first time.” Many of her exhibitions in Bulgaria have been emotional as a result, she says. With the Name of a Flower is an ambitious and evolving project, consisting of several strands: a self-portrait series entitled Vera, two performance pieces Black Board and Against Evil, a four-channel sound installation called Whisper, and archival installations made from documents relating to the name changes in Bulgaria.

“A big part of my research involved photographing family members and talking to them about their personal experiences of changing their name, as well as other injustices they suffered during the communist regime. That material has not yet found its place in the project so far,” she explains. While Covid-19 stalled her plans to travel to Bulgaria, she is excited to have the opportunity to open up the project and include other voices. The project so far focuses on my family, and I want to expand it to include the experiences of the wider Muslim community.”

Hadzhiyska also says that the project made her realise that many people had different experiences and opinions on these name changes. “I don’t want my work to present a one-dimensional view. I’m genuinely curious to talk to people and hear their stories. I want to present that multitude of opinions and experiences, and study the impact on their religious, cultural, and national identity,” she says.

For now, Hadzhiyska is taking inspiration from peers who celebrate and elevate Muslim voices in Bulgaria. Among these is Bayryam Bayryamali, a visual researcher and an art activist, whose project The Big Homecoming focuses on the lives of the Bulgarian-Turkish community during the 1980s. Another, Velislav Radev, directed the documentary Mountain Republic to tell the story of a small Bulgarian village where locals refused to give up their Muslim names. “I also want to mention Shaista Chishty and Rania Matar, artists who are not related to Bulgaria, but who create work about the Muslim community abroad,” she says.

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