The Bearable Heaviness of Coexistence: Interview with Photojournalist Marko Risović

 

If travel holds any potential, then the most promising hope for it is the ability to realize everyone is equally bored of their own home as you are bored of yours. Despite a constant impulse for climaxes and crescendos, the monotony of normality plagues all of our lives. It is particularly so for those areas that are currently in conflict, or recently were. Attempts to reduce these lives into ponds within a high stakes political chess match, based upon the superficiality of nationality/race/religion, grossly overestimates the significance of those identities. The realization that one makes is that all people showcase fluid multi-faceted complex identities, with no exact center.

Belgrade-based photojournalist Marko Risović’s project The Bearable Heaviness of Coexistence demonstrates this perfectly. Risović’s project depicts both Serbians and Kosovars in their monotonous moments of living. While the predominant depiction of both groups looks to maximize the illustration of their difference and national identity, Risović aims to showcase the fluidity and amazing complexity of individuals that populate this territory. They coexist, they trade together, sometimes they are even friends. There are multiple stories occurring simultaneously, all offering an impossible array of reflections and emotions. What is significant is that coexistence exists, and it is not an impossible future. It can be bearable.

 


Within the first sentence of your artist’s statement you
specify the limitation of your work. You place the caveat that this story is only told from one perspective, and it is not intended to add momentum to any specific nationalist agenda. This project is about presenting the idea that without tolerance and an urge for peace, coexistence is impossible. How did you want to convey that through your work?

Kosovo is a very complicated, sensitive, and multi-layered story. Taking into account all the recent events, and the whole history of the region, it is very hard to explain this through a single, time-limited photo project. The very mentioning of the word ‘Kosovo’ bursts all kinds of highlighted emotions amongst people, both Serbian and Albanian. I really wanted to avoid a possibility of attributing any non-existent ideas to this piece of work, especially those regularly expressed around these kinds of stories: based on nationalism and chauvinism. This is why I distanced myself from it in my statement.

My idea was to show everyday life of regular people, with challenges and strong symbolism, through these simple human stories in which Kosovo exists today. My opinion is that all people living there are hostages of daily politics and retrograde ideas implemented by policy makers. People of Kosovo, ignoring all the imposed divisions, just want a normal life, good economy, and predictable future. Without tolerance and sustainable coexistence, this is obviously impossible. Aware of the limitations of the medium of exploration, and the fact that this time I had only one ‘side’ in front of my lens, I tried to present part of the hardship and some of the hope while heading in this direction.


Whenever the area is reported on
by major news outlets, it tends to be as a result of a conflict. However, your work showcases the monotonous aspects of life. The moments of inconsequence profoundly are showcasing that life is not defined by political rhetoric. Do you think focusing on these small moments helps cultivate some hope for peace?

Media outlets, while being commercially oriented in today’s crazy world, are by default searching for sensationalism. That is what sells. It is the same story with all the areas of tension around the world. When the main part of the ‘show’ is over, the interest turns to the next highlighted spot.

I am more interested in the reasons and consequences of the events than in the peaks of conflict. It’s always about regular people, and the long-term influences that conflicts and tensions have on their lives. Since I’ve been living in this tumultuous region all my life, I felt the consequences of the conflicts surrounding me from the beginning. I never actually felt a real war situation personally, though, except maybe during the NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999.

Still today, all the conflicts we had here are deeply influencing our lives as individuals and nations. So I was able to make this kind of comparison, while feeling the personal aspect of the story. If you add all the complex reasons contributing to the instability of Kosovo, the historic layers, and the current political agendas to the story, you get a very rich and hot Balkan soup. But I do want to believe in the strength of the ordinary little man and his common sense. I don’t think there are too many people today in Kosovo urging for war. They had enough in the recent past, and they are aware that it didn’t bring any good to anyone. But the inflammatory rhetoric and conflicting interests around this region could potentially turn the story the other way.

In my essay I tried to somehow present both possibilities, although I am not too pretentious about the idea that I really succeeded. But if you make a connection between all these regular little moments of existence, the stalks of life developing amongst rocks, it certainly does give a sense of hope.


The very concept of Kosovo is imbued in history. Whether it is
1389 or words like NATO or Velika Kruša, they all recall a specific trauma. The idiom “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” is rather dangerous in Kosovo. Do you believe that part of the process of reconciliation will have to involve some degree of forgetting?

Maybe I already partially answered this question. Of course, the Kosovo conflict is connected to some deeply traumatic experiences and tragic events from the past. The wounds are still fresh. I am not trying to be a demagogue

and to idealize the situation in any way. Responsible people from every side, in every conflict, should be ready to deal with the past. They should learn lessons from it in order not to ever repeat it in such a tragic way.

I don’t see real honesty with politicians about this nowadays. It is just an irresponsible approach of playing with fire around a very large and flammable area. But again, I did see a spark of hope among regular people living in Kosovo. It is only a spark now, but it could turn into an eternal flame of a different kind – the flame of coexistence and reconciliation. Again, it’s very hard even to talk about these subjects in front of someone who lost a loved one, or had to move in order to save his life and those of his family members during the war. The majority of the people of Kosovo actually had this kind of experience. It’s very thin ice to walk on, but these are small steps in the positive direction.

The story looks really different when you are looking at it from the side of the general political agenda and the overall situation about the unresolved status of Kosovo, compared to when you actually live there. In everyday life, Serbs and Albanians are neighbours sharing the same territory. They have to learn, which they partially already did, how to live next to each other while accepting all the differences. This process will have to involve a great deal of forgetting, or at least some kind of amortization of the past, in order to build an acceptable future.


You working as a Serbian photographer operating in Kosovo brings about an incalculable amount of philosophical dilemmas. Your nationality and religion is utilized so regularly to reduce you to one group. You’re either this or that. To break from that reduction is to contradict yourself, or at worse betray a nation/ethnicity. Do you find it is difficult not to play into these cheap nationalist narratives?

This kind of agenda is often used here as an argument. We belong to very collectively oriented nations, generally speaking, and very controlled ones as well. So the concept of ‘if you are not with us, you are an enemy’ has been implemented here throughout history, for different reasons. When we had the wars during the 90s, every different opinion that embellished an anti-war agenda, or which at least tended to be independent and objective, was considered a betrayal. People were loosing their lives for this reason.

On the other hand, any kind of reporting about Kosovo today, if you are the representative of one side, could easily be seen as ethically problematic. And with good reason. Our mainstream media, regionally speaking, are completely c

ontrolled. This is even up to point of making them advertisers of various interest groups – usually the state from which they originate. There is very little chance that you’ll read an independent, deeply investigative, and realistic article about Kosovo in Serbian or Albanian (Kosovo) newspapers. Even if it’s not so obviously dictated, most of the reporting is very self-controlled, because most media depend on state funding.

The third thing, the most personal and hardest to deal with, is that you as a member of certain nation are inevitably confronted with conflicted feelings when you actually arrive to Kosovo. For Albanians, you are just one more Serb who came there to fight for the ’cause of your people’. For Serbs, you are a member of their nation. You are a friend, and the one who needs to ‘hold the side’ and to understand all the problems. You need to participate in the pain they feel. You ought to look at the world through glasses with red, blue, and white gradation, which are the colours of the Serbian flag. It is very hard to deal with these influences within yourself. This leaves very limited space for objectivity, even if a person doesn’t have any ethical dilemmas. The final result will always be judged and passed through filters of very different structures.

As a successor of grandparents and parents who believed in the ideas of former great Yugoslavia, the concept of ‘brotherhood and unity’, and whose ethnic origin is very mixed, I don’t have any dilemma in the objectivity of my approach to even the most complex subjects from the recent past of the region. I honestly care about human beings despite their nation and religion, and I am always trying to find the balance within myself and in the stories that I try to interpret. But generally speaking, I don’t think that any human being is immune to this kind of influences and various interpretations of his thoughts. So the personal dilemma is permanent, and something I have to deal with on a regular basis.

As for the danger of being misused for nationalistic propaganda of any kind, this is unfortunately part of our reality here. I do not bother too much with this, because the kind of work I do is in large part connected with self-exploration. It is my own attempt to understand the world around me. In this closed world of mine, there is no place for any kind of division, by any criteria. Of course, idealization stops immediately when I try to communicate some of the thoughts to the general public. Then I have to be more careful, in an attempt to protect the very idea and the subjects I used to communicate it from the wrong interpretations.

 

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