The Renaissance Man: Serbian Photographer Srdjan Veljovic

 

I’m going to be honest, when I walked into the gallery, I didn’t understand the point. I can safely say that I was almost underwhelmed by the exhibit. I whispered to my friend, “this wasn’t the ’90s.” Where were the pictures of children with bloody noses, crying to the sounds of cascading bombs? Where were the photos of the corpses, their ripped clothes covered in blood and dirt with limbs dangling over one another? That’s the ’90s. That’s the ’90s I sat watching on CNN. As the people poured into the gallery, I felt they were also expecting the same. They were waiting to be shown what they remembered, the nostalgia they can’t forget. However, Srdjan Veljovic, a photographer and cultural worker, showed the other side of the ’90s. The side which people did forget about; the moments of normalcy.

Veljovic spent most of his life photographing and documenting the social, cultural and urban life of Belgrade, Serbia and the region. This exhibit focused on photography covering the period between 1987 and 2000, which was under Slobodan Milosevic. It’s through his photos that you see the inevitable collapse of Yugoslavia and what society looked like during a major political and dramatic shift. His photographs were poetically and symbolically displayed to narrate this period of time. Though it was not what people expected, it’s what they needed to see.

 

Natasa: What made you present these photos of the ’90s now? Why not earlier or in a couple years?

Srdjan: It was pretty hard for me to do. I started to really focus on this project seven years ago. I had to go through my archives, talk to people and magazines that researched the ’90s and also find my narrative while doing this exhibit for myself. But it was just the right occasion – the gallery is new and this project is supported by Forum zfd, which is a German foundation dealing with the West Balkans and reconciliation. So, it’s not just acting as an exhibition.

But also as a photographer, I’m pretty slow and I have to let some years pass so I can realize what it is. Maybe too many years passed in this case, but this project was tricky because it is my personal view on the ’90s and not some sort of general truth. I wanted to be sure that I know what I’m doing.

N: ’90s culture for me was Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, it was American mainstream pop culture. What was ’90s culture in Serbia?

S: Here in Serbia, well, it was the legacy of the ’80s, this is the late period of socialism and I think the culture scene was very interesting, very alive and very contemporary. And, then you know, for the rest of the world it was the period of Britney Spears and no economic crisis. But here, there was a series of wars and in terms of culture, it was divided into two: pop/rock music from the beginning of the ’90s and then there was turbo-folk music. This is the line that divides people culturally. Techno was also very important, Industrija [the techno club in Belgrade], was the connection to the normal world. Foreign DJs would come to play and it was this type of exotic place for us. This was why people were pushed into this [music] – because people’s lives were empty. There was poverty, inflation, no jobs, no anything. People being drafted to the army, young people hiding and these places [clubs] were a kind of cocoon, where you could make your own world. Specifically, the techno scene was important to me during the ’90s.

But at the same time, all these places [clubs] were alive and maybe too much alive. You had this amplitude of very high and very low moments and some small average value, but it’s mostly very extreme. And that was the situation in Serbian culture: highs and lows and nothing in between.

N: How were the politics of the ’90s seen through your work?

S: With society and politics, you can see it through this divide as I mentioned. It was easy to see because I realized, just like my circle of friends and people I knew, that everything normal was on our side and everything was against them. Them, when you have elections, then you can see who “them” are. It’s seen very simply through my work because back then it was like a comic book. You knew exactly who your enemy was. This divide, it was simply shown.

N: Do you feel that there’s a link between the ’90s and today’s current circumstances?

S: Well, there are a couple crucial things, I think from the ’90s, that generation is grown up, that was 15-20 years ago. Now, you have a whole new generation that is very conservative. They’re much more closed which is very depressing for me. Again, I see that they’re seeing enemies and not neighbours and I’m sick to see that this opinion is present again. It’s dull, however, potentially very dangerous. You have now a generation of kids with no jobs or bad jobs and their anger can be raised through nationalism and I’m afraid it’s not impossible to use these people and energy to push in that direction.

N: How did you photograph your work? Were you actively searching for scenes or did you photograph what naturally occurred in front of you?

S: I think the second way is my style. There are some photos where I was the actor in them, but it’s a slow and deliberate process and you need time. But for the most part, these photos were just a part of my life when I was in the army or whatever, and meanwhile, I was taking some pictures.

N: How you do expect your audience, a majority of them who lived in Serbia through the ’90s, to interpret your exhibit?

S: I really don’t know. I was so involved in the project so I didn’t really think about how the people would react. I didn’t show any tough scenes or poverty in my photos which is what, I think, people expected.

N: Well, it wasn’t all bloodshed.

S: Yeah, exactly. There were highs and bad times but I wanted to show moments of everyday life.

N: How did these photos in your exhibit personally make you feel?

S: Well, photography is very important to me. I started very young and it was my communication tool and I think for the first fifteen years of photography, it was just my personal thing. I didn’t do an exhibit, it was very rare that I went out publicly, this was just for me. This project is more of a sentimental exhibit to me. This may not be good, I don’t want to spoil the project with my sentimentality, but it’s personal. This isn’t just about my past, this is about facts, as you can see in my photos. This is a memory of my life and these photos are the pleasant times in my past.