Two photographers born in former Yugoslavia and living abroad, Olja Triaška Stefanović (Novi Sad, Serbia / Bratislava, Slovakia) and Dragana Jurišić (Slavonski Brod, Croatia / Dublin, Ireland) have (re)claimed the memory of their disappeared homeland through their art. Their photographs speak of searching, deep loss, fragmentary memory, and, in a way, closure.

Bogdan Bogdanović, Rebecca West, and little Eskimos also make an appearance.

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Episode Transcript (and More)

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[JINGLE]

PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.

Susan Sontag, in On Photography, wrote, “photographs are a way of imprisoning reality…One can’t possess reality, one can possess images–one can’t possess the present but one can possess the past.”

This is the case for Olja Triaška Stefanović and Dragana Jurišić, photographers born in former Yugoslavia, who have claimed, or re-claimed, their past in that disappeared country, their memories of it through their art. In other words, through photography they attempted “to appropriate the thing photographed,” as Susan Sontag would say.

Olja was born in Novi Sad, now Serbia; Dragana in Slavonski Brod, now Croatia. They both captured or re-captured their disappeared homeland in photographs that speak of searching, of deep loss, of fragmentary memory, and, in a way, of closure.

Dragana published her book of photographs YU: The Lost Country in 2015; Olja’s Brotherhood and Unity came out last fall. Dragana lives in Dublin, Ireland; Olja lives in Bratislava, Slovakia. They both teach photography in their adopted cities and countries. And the recordings of both their stories came out in less than ideal audio quality. Perhaps the universe was telling me to get the stories from the photographs themselves…

In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: photography of Yugoslavia’s memory.

Before we get to it, a quick shout-out. This episode, like all the past and upcoming episodes of Remembering Yugoslavia, is brought to you by…you. Thank you to everyone who has signed up to support me and Remembering Yugoslavia on Patreon.

Today I welcome new patrons Carlos, Nick, and Tomislav. If you like the show and would like to support it with your hard-earned cash in 2021 and beyond, join these and other generous people at Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia.

Bogdan Bogdanović, Rebecca West, and little Eskimos also make an appearance.

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[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

PETER KORCHNAK: Because she lives in my homeland and her project is more recent (and her book still available for purchase), I will have Olja Triaška Stefanović share her story first.

Olja moved from Serbia to Slovakia’s capital at the time I was halfway through my university studies. We overlapped in Bratislava for a few years but never met.

[02:36]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: I was born in Yugoslavia in the late 70s. And then, in ‘97, I decided to move, after I finished my high school. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, and all this situation that was going on in Serbia, I decided that I would like to live another life and to try something new because it was really hard to grow up in the country under the war. I ended up in Slovakia, in Bratislava, where I am still now.

It was not [a] bad decision, it was [a] hard decision. It was close, but so far away from Serbia in this time. It was a very, very strange situation also in [the] political system here in the late 90s in Slovakia. But I found it now very important for me that I also learned how it’s to struggle for democracy in another country. And I’m happy that I came here and I’m still here.

I’m fluent in Slovak and with Slovak I learned Czech and I can understand Polish and Vienna and Budapest and Prague are so close, so I really feel like a Central Eastern European woman now.

[03:47]

PETER KORCHNAK: How did you get into photography? And teaching it at a college in Slovakia?

[03:51]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: Actually I wanted to be [a] photographer already in elementary school, like in the last year of my elementary school I started to talk to my parents that I want to have a photo camera and that I want to take pictures and it’s something really magical for me—and still it is.

And then, actually, also the motivation to move from Serbia, to have some goal in front of me, it was to study art and to study photography. And I learned that in Bratislava, there is [an] Academy of Fine Arts and Design, and I started to study there. I finished my bachelor and master’s degree[s] and my doctoral studies and now I teach there and I’m the head of the Department of Photography and New Media.

[04:35]

PETER KORCHNAK: You’re a photographer but you’re also an instructor and a head of an academic department. How do you find the time for your art?

[04:41]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: That is actually very good when you are a teacher in [the] Academy and then you have this pedagogical background that you have actually time for your art practice. I needed to have adrenaline and to have every day to be different. So in this way, this work is giving me that and also I have free time for my visual research and to be [a] art full time artist, not to be like weekend artist. That is important.

[05:14]

PETER KORCHNAK: We met on Instagram, where I had discovered your work. How do you use Instagram as a photographer?

[05:19]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: I’m a visual artist in the field of photography. So I’m [a] photographer and I’m making the [sic] visual researches [sic] about the places and space around us and I’m looking for the metaphors inside of the space and the connections with it with people. What is [the] connection between actually a space and in people. And then I’m very interesting [sic] in of course in the architecture, it was kind of my first place what I’m dealing in my everyday photography, it’s architecture, this modernistic [sic] architecture and socialistic [sic] architecture.

Instagram is for me [a] great platform to make kind of my visual diary or to put my sketches. So I’m not using Instagram like for everyday images, but they’re really sketches and my visual diary, so people can introduce [sic] with my work on the Instagram. It’s a lot of images and my thoughts about the places and how I, I know, I’m feeling in this moment I now I feel really, in the society, like I can feel really, this isolation, and what is happening now in the world and that we are closed and with all this Covid pandemic situation. So everything is there on my Instagram, and Instagram is just my name so people can find me.

[06:44]

PETER KORCHNAK: You explore your memories of Yugoslavia in your latest project, Brotherhood and Unity. How and why did it come about?

[06:51]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: It is my latest project but actually, everything started seven years ago. I started to realize that I didn’t know who I am actually anymore, who is Olja. And I started to ask myself, “Who am I?” And from that question that I couldn’t actually answer because I was just 18 years when I came to live in another country all alone without family. I was completely alone, I couldn’t speak any more of Slovak or, or I didn’t know any people here. So it was really like, really going from the zero point, you know, to come somewhere.

Yeah, so I actually realized that I was born in Yugoslavia and raised there and my old childhood memories are there in all this big country. And then this war trauma, and all the social and political issues, that was a really big part in our lives. And then, after this 18 years, when I was— when I came to live here, I realized that I actually became a woman and became, you know, like a grown up in Slovakia by myself in another country under different influences from another cultural heritage, than it’s from Balkans, for example. And I wanted to make this research about my personal history and about my childhood.

So, seven years ago, I started to work on different chapters. So [the] first chapter, was about [the] relay race of youth, štafeta mladosti.

And so I made a small, like small research where I started to make the journeys and traveling back to the ex-Yugoslavia, geographical place. I started with Slovenia and then I moved to Bosnia and to Croatia and I started to make contacts with the people and with my colleagues from academies or artist friends. So it was [a] really, really good experience.

And then I had another chapter where I was dealing just with this moment of myself growing up in Serbia under the dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević. He was [a] really bad politician and he ruined our lives. So I started to make the project as if it never happened, because I started dealing with our history, but also what is happening now with the situation in Serbia and how are people dealing with the 90s and how and what is happening now in the society.

[09:26]

PETER KORCHNAK: Why Brotherhood and Unity, the slogan of Yugoslavia?

[09:29]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: Brotherhood and Unity was a slogan combining and putting together all different nations in the fight for freedom during the Second World War and based on which Tito, former Yugoslavian president, made the country Yugoslavia, combined all these different nations into the one.

And also, in the same way, it is completely of divergenence [sic] of those nations in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s when those nations started to fight against each other and it was the biggest tragedy after the Second World War in the geographical place of Eastern Europe. So it was really hard to watch this war. So that’s why I choose Brotherhood and Unity, because it is a really strong slogan, and it describes all these layers what we have in our history.

[10:26]

PETER KORCHNAK: So you assembled all these photographs in an eponymous exhibition and book.

[10:29]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: Actually [the] exhibition was supposed to be in March, but due to [the] Covid situation, it was postponed. So in June, I opened in the city gallery of Bratislava, my exhibition, “Brotherhood and Unity,” where I presented one part of this project.

And then 11 of September, it was really a strong date for the book launch I presented my photography book, Brotherhood and Unity.

It is [a] photographic essay. And I combined in the book photography with a short text, with a family archive photos, and, for example, archive newspapers.

The book is kind of divided into two parts because I wanted to make the interdisciplinary book. I wanted to make the story about myself, about my identity, about remembrance and forgetting, about brotherhood and unity and I wanted to make the book about the political situation and changes in the Eastern Europe after ’89 because now it’s 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and it’s really important especially for the Eastern Europe. So I wanted to see like where we are now.

And when I was preparing this, my essay, visual research, I made it into the three chapters, and I made a photo story. So you are going through the book and you are watching the first part is a childhood stories so you’ll see what a little girl growing up in Yugoslavia and you can see all this different architecture and you’re going more into the stories where you come to the war and with this archive materials and you’re coming into the story.

[12:14]
PETER KORCHNAK: For someone born in the 70s, the first part of the book, about your childhood, coincides with Yugoslavia. What does Yugoslavia mean to you?

[12:22]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: It’s really my childhood. So it means all these essential layers that I have in myself, it’s coming from Yugoslavia, so all the senses, smells and food and people and love and love and hate and everything. Also it’s for me the example of trauma, so it’s kind of connecting with the trauma.

[12:47]

PETER KORCHNAK: What’s in the rest of the book?

[12:49]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: [The] second chapter is the presence of the past. There I’m dealing [with] our connection or how we are related to the history of the Second World War because I think that we forgot all that and that is very bad because all those people who fell for a fight for the freedom.

So I made a huge photography essay about the monuments in the places of ex-Yugoslavia, different kind[s] of monuments, but with the biggest focus on the architect and the professor of architecture, really special and unique one, Bogdan Bogdanović. That is a second chapter where I’m telling the story about the history through the empty places around the monuments in ex-Yugoslavia.

And the third chapter is remembrance and forgetting, and it tells a story about how, in a visual way, in a visual sense, what we are forgetting and what we can remember and what is the memory. So it is also through the architecture. And you can see that this leftovers of the war.

And in all those chapters, I’m putting my words into it. I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s kind of the way of urban poetry or visual poetry. So it’s not essays, it’s just my way of telling the emotions on the pages.

And then the second part of the book, and it’s also divided with a different paper, so I invited four different authors to make the essay, to write the essay for me.

[14:24]

PETER KORCHNAK: The essay authors are well-known writers and scholars from Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

[14:28]

OLJA TRIAŠKA STEFANOVIĆ: And then in the end you have a register with all places that I mention in my photography essay, so be the name of [the] architect and with the year when it was built. It can also in a way be kind of guide when you want to travel through the ex-Yugoslavia so you can take my book and go around and then you can find the places.

[14:51]

PETER KORCHNAK: Olja’s book Brotherhood and Unity is available for purchase directly from her, at the Slovak National Gallery shop, and at her website oljastefanovic.com.

I’ve embedded some of the Brotherhood and Unity photos from Olja’s Instagram in the episode blog post at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

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[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]

[15:15]

PETER KORCHNAK: Hi there, it’s me, Peter Korchnak, the creator and producer of Remembering Yugoslavia, with a quick peek at the making of the podcast.

I interview people across former Yugoslavia and beyond and spend a good amount of time and energy researching, writing, recording, and editing to bring you these stories, interviews, and analysis two to four times a month.

It is your support that makes this reporting possible. Ensure I can cover the next important story and keep the memory of the country that no longer exists alive by following the example of my latest supporter on Patreon, Tomislav, who added this note to his pledge: “Thank you, Peter, for your terrific work on exploring and documenting Yugoslavia as a country, idea, and a contemporary point of reference. I really enjoy your podcast and appreciate and thank you for the incredible time and effort you are putting into it.”

Please go to Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia and donate today.

Alright, back to the photographs.

[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]

[MUSICAL INTERLUDE]

[16:20]

PETER KORCHNAK: Dragana Jurišić is from Croatia and lives in Ireland.

What you’ll hear are excerpts from Dragana’s online talk about the exhibition YU: The Lost Country, held at the Malmo gallery Format in August and September. Dragana spoke to the world from Dublin, where she lives and teaches at Dublin City University. I am using these excerpts with her and Galleri Format’s kind permission.

 

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[16:42]

DRAGANA JURIŠIĆ: I grew up in Slavonski Brod. This is a small town on the border of Bosnia and Croatia, not so far from the Serbia border as well. So due to its geographical positioning, it was really hammered during the war, the civil war in the early 90s. And I come also from a mixed family: my mother is Serbian Orthodox, and my father is Croatian.

I consider myself a Yugoslav all my life. So it was very interesting in the 1990s when the [sic] Croatia proclaimed independence, they decided that this nationality doesn’t exist anymore. They just kind of bureaucratically obliterated 1.5 million people.

I remember the day actually when my father opened the door to the census keeper, and they asked him like, “What are you?” And my dad said, “I’m Croatian and I’m atheist.” And they asked, “What is your wife?” and he said, like, “She’s a Serbian Orthodox.” And then they asked, “What are your children?” And my dad said, “Well, they’re Yugoslavs.” And the guy said, “Well, this can’t be because Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore” So, they had an argument about what, you know, what to put down on the form. And in the end my dad was patients and he just shouted like, “Can they be fucking Eskimos?” And the guy said okay, so he put myself and my brother down as Eskimos.

[18:09]

PETER KORCHNAK: Dragana left Croatia at about the same time Olja left Serbia, in the late 90s. She ended up in Ireland where a new friend introduced her to Rebecca West’s 1941 book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia, which in turn ended up changing Dragana’s life.

An Englishwoman, Rebecca West traveled to the then Kingdom of Yugoslavia in the late 1930’s. After three trips, she wrote her magnum opus, some say a masterpiece, and what is still considered to be the most authoritative book of travel writing on that former country. Half a million words, or about eleven-twelve hundred pages will do that.

 

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[18:43]

DRAGANA JURIŠIĆ: I was really attracted to this book because it was a vast memory repository of the country that does not exist anymore. My former country. So Rebecca West’s descriptions of Yugoslavia, I find them so vivid and they were kind of almost photographic in nature.

So when I was in Ireland, late 90s, beginning of 2000s, I was kind of scrambling to find or to figure out what happened, what is my national identity and I wanted to do something about it. But at that time I was a psychologist, I didn’t really have tools to do it.

So, later on I went and I studied photography and this book just kept reappearing and reappearing. And then I decided actually to use Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as a map onto which [to] base my travel. So because this book is so vast, she tells you, you know, from the moment when she gets up what she does every day. So I started my journey 75 years to a [sic] day that she started her journey and I follow this ritualistically. You know, I would get up at the same, time go to the same places if I had money or if these places still existed but try to stay in the same places.

It was kind of crazy to base my travel and photographic journey on [the] itinerary of a writer, because a writer can come to any place and maybe have a look for five minutes and then sit down somewhere and write pages and pages of material. But I needed kind of structure, so I needed to be really faithful to her itinerary, which was kind of maddening at some point because sometimes I would arrive in a place that was visually so fascinating and I wanted to stay there for days and explore but you know, she would move off in a like couple of hours. And then there are places like for example, in Skopje in Macedonia, where she stays for two weeks and after three days I was going like, “Okay, I would like to move on now.”

From the beginning it was a disaster really, because I thought like, “Oh my god, I’m going on a road trip, I have some money, I’m going to reconnect with my people. I’m going back to a place where I’ll be understood.” And it was a disaster. I don’t think ever in my life I felt so lonely and so displaced, like neither here nor there. I was constantly feeling this kind of uprooted, and it was difficult.

And maybe only in the process of editing the book I felt for the first time like, okay, now I know why I did it. Because actually doing it and dwelling on it for so long, maybe like Rebecca West for five years of my life I gave to this, I realized that I was suddenly freed from the need of having a national identity. I felt really free in exile. I thought about things like, how roots are very important for us humans, and it’s like we are not trees, why are roots important to us? Why are the people kind of tying their identity to this kind of manmade structures like national identity. And, you know, why should we attach our identities to this? Why not attempt to kind of find similarities and common structures between all of us. You know, why we don’t concentrate more to learn about our true nature and maybe like interconnectedness of everything and everyone.

 

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[22:28]

PETER KORCHNAK: Dragana thinks of herself as an exile.

[22:30]

DRAGANA JURIŠIĆ: I feel like first of all I was a refugee in my own country which is funny, you know like, during the war in Yugoslavia because we were burned out of our apartments and I was sent to school somewhere else I was a refugee in Croatia. But you know to Ireland I came not as a refugee. It was a kind of willing exile. But willing is kind of under quotation marks because I wasn’t. That country I left or my home didn’t exist anymore. So there’s nowhere to return to. So yeah exile is [a] very purposeful word that I use it for myself.

We are constantly in process, we are constantly changing. I’m a different person, I have a probably different body, different cells from a person in 2011 who started working on the project. My thoughts couldn’t be still the same. I think that is something what is wonderful about exile. That’s one thing that will stay with me forever, is that when you [are] in this state, you learn that nothing is safe, nothing is stable. Like this idea of looking for stability, I have given up.

[23:41]

PETER KORCHNAK: The photographs Dragana took on her travels appear in the now-sold out book YU: The Lost Country, published in 2015. Quoting Galleri Format: The book “was originally conceived as a recreation of a homeland that was lost. It was a journey in which the artist would somehow draw a magical circle around the country that was once hers and in doing so, resurrect it, following Roland Barthes’ assertion that photography is more akin to magic than to art. Instead, it turned out to be a journey of rejection. Her experience was one of displacement and a sense of exile that was stronger back ‘home’ than in the foreign place where she had chosen to live.” End quote.

While Olja has yet to see the response in former Yugoslavia to her hot-off-the-presses book, the reaction to Dragana’s volume was quite dramatic.

[24:26]

DRAGANA JURIŠIĆ: When the book YU: The Lost Country was published actually, I was not thinking anything of it, the photo book world is so tiny. I didn’t really think that this book would get any kind of publicity or get into hands of people who I maybe didn’t intend to target.

And I remember for some reason BBC World picked up on the book first. I was in New York at the time, I had the interview in the offices there. And I just remember coming out of the studio and as soon as I came out when the thing was aired, like the torrent of abuse that started. YU: the Lost Country is [a] very personal project. I’m not talking for everybody. I’m just talking about my personal experience of what happened to me. But as soon as the word Yugoslavia is mentioned, you get [an] incredible amount of abuse.

And then it got even worse. When The Guardian published the review of the book, maybe three months after that happened, I met the writer Sean O’Hagan in Paris by chance. I never met him before. And I asked him like, “It was interesting to me that that was the only Culture and Art article but I didn’t see the comments section underneath.” And because I was really like, curious at the time, because I was so green, like what the people commented. And he said, “Oh, yeah, there was a comment section for about an hour, and then we switched it off.” Like you can’t believe it’s something so small, what I thought like a small thing, can really fire people so much.

And then that continued, you know, that continued when the first articles came up in Croatia like in Jutarnji list. And now I was already experienced so I said to my father, “Please just buy the paper, do not go online.” Of course my dad went online and all this, like, horrendous abuse, “You Serbian whore,” “You should be raped.” My dad responded to everyone in the capital letters, defending my honor. It was really sweet and embarrassing at the same time.

It’s a puzzling situation that a word can be so explosive.

 

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[26:43]

PETER KORCHNAK: Five years ago, when Dragana’s book first came out, Yugonostalgia was a much hotter topic, so to speak, than it is today.

[26:49]

DRAGANA JURIŠIĆ: I read a lot of Svetlana Boym, and she writes about nostalgia and she kind of goes into breaking down what the word means. And she kind of says that nostalgia a kind of sentiment of loss and displacement, but also romance with its own fantasy, basically. And she said, you can only have nostalgic love that is long distance. You need to be apart to have this sense but in Yugoslavia this word is so loaded, Yugonostalgia. I don’t know why this word suddenly became so dirty.

I mean, there is nothing, as I said, wrong with nostalgia. I see nostalgia as a kind of an enemy to forgetting. I don’t believe that memory is accurate. There is something very present in everyone’s psyche which is called optimism of memory and how we only remember good things about the places because that’s a survival mechanism. That’s how we get by from day to day.

 

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[BACKGROUND MUSIC]

[28:04]

PETER KORCHNAK: Neither Olja’s nor Dragana’s photographs elicit optimism. Even nostalgia isn’t among the initial emotional responses to them. More than anything, to me what these photographs bring to mind is loss. Both photographers undertook their respective projects in order to figure out their identity, who they were, born and raised as they had been in a country that no longer exists and living abroad as they do. All they could capture was vestiges that in some way or another match what’s etched in their memory. A wild goose chase it ain’t but catching what they seek is impossible too. How do you retrieve what’s lost in time? How do you document the fiction that’s memory?

“People robbed of their past seem to make the most fervent picture takers,” says Susan Sontag. If, as she claims, “photographs furnish evidence” and if they are “piece of the world, miniatures of reality,” both Olja and Dragana essentially say, the country truly existed, it wasn’t just a dream; I exist and my own life wasn’t just a dream either. Sontag again: “The photographer both loots and preserves, denounces and consecrates.”

As documents of the artefacts that remain in the physical world of the idea of brotherhood and unity, of the lost country, these photographs are but proverbial tips of the iceberg, one that, in fact, isn’t even there, below the surface. Because how do you photograph something that no longer exists? How do you transfer memory to film? To words, even? The answer is, of course, that you can’t. But that doesn’t mean you won’t die trying.

 

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[BACKGROUND MUSIC]

[30:02]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia.

BRIAN HALL: So being alone in Bosnia, just in the middle of nowhere, 1991 was a bad idea.

MARIJA KRIVOKAPIĆ: You know, this region has been so much written about, then [sic] it’s very difficult to say something else, something different.

PETER KORCHNAK: Post-Yugoslav travelogues focus on the 90s wars and their aftermath. But is that all there is to write about? In the next episode: travel writing about former Yugoslavia.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure you don’t miss out.

[OUTRO MUSIC]

[30:42]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find photos, transcript, and other resources mentioned in this episode in the blog post at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Nosens, Puh, and Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Special thanks to Galleri Format.

I am Peter Korchňak.

Ćao!