Velibor Bozovic is a Montreal-based photographer and a native of Sarajevo. He has collaborated on the Lazarus project and Nowhere Man with the writer Aleksandar Hemon. His photography has appeared in The Paris Review.
Wayne: You have been working on a collaboration called Lazarus with the writer Aleksandar Hemon. Can you talk about how you both came to work on the project? What was its genesis, and where are you taking the project? How much does it relate to the collaborative work that appeared in The Paris Review?
Velibor: The writer Aleksandar Hemon, who happens to [have been] my best friend for more than 20 years, asked me to accompany him on a research trip to Eastern Europe and document it with my camera. Hemon’s book will be partially based on the life of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant who at the age of 19 was killed by the Chicago chief of police, only months after his arrival to America in 1908. We were going back to where Lazarus came from, trying to understand the places he left behind.
The Lazarus story is very interesting and eerily familiar almost 100 years later. After the incident when he was killed under mysterious circumstances. Based on the story version by [the Chicago chief of police] the man who killed him, the press started the hype labelling dead Lazarus as an “anarchist,” emphasizing his body features (his curly hair, low forehead… his brain was taken out and examined by scientists to ‘understand’ the mind of an anarchist) and triggering hysteria among ‘decent’ citizens towards the immigrants. (Everyone who looked different, if not an anarchist/terrorist already, is a potential anarchist/terrorist and has to be closely monitored… This was in 1908. All of this is well documented in Chicago historical archives and in a book by Walter Roth and Joe Kraus “An Accidental Anarchist: How the Killing of a Humble Jewish Immigrant by Chicago’s Chief of Police Exposed the Conflict Between Law and Order and Civil Rights in Early Twentieth America.”
Lazarus Averbuch was born in Kishinev, today Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. There, as a child he survived the pogrom and escaped with his family to Chernivtsi, today in Ukraine, and then continued his journey to Chicago where he got killed. We went in the opposite direction. We were not going to solve the mystery of Lazarus’s life and death and that was not the intent behind the trip. Aleksandar needed to see, hear, sense the remaining fragments of the times and locations Lazarus went through on his journey from Chisinau to Chicago. We were not in search of the history (as historians would) but rather in search of the story. The resulting photo essay is not pretending to be an objective photo journalistic portrait of the region, it is more a personal reflection on places we visited and people we met during the trip. In retrospect, while Aleksandar was looking for his story I was looking for myself.
Wayne: You have also created The Pronek Guide to Chicago in response to Hemon’s novel Nowhere Man. How and why was that project launched?
Velibor: At the time when Nowhere Man was coming out the editor / publisher wanted to do a web-based interactive Pronek’s guide to Chicago. (Pronek is the main character in the book, and there are lots of references to contemporary Chicago). It was a great idea, but it never got completed since the editor moved to another publishing house, and the author followed, and the project stalled. But parts of it can still be seen on the author’s website.
Wayne: Your Montreal project you call a “Fiction: Life/Discreet.” You describe the project in this way: “Everyone in this city, as in any other, creates and lives in a city of their own, built on personal paths, streets, sites, realities and dreams, perhaps. We do not follow the same routes and we do not experience the same emotions, even though it might often seem as if we do. Here are the fragments of the city I build, the one I create so it could belong to me.” Why do you think there is that much separation in how each of us sees and uses (visual) space?
Velibor: I wouldn’t call it separation. Seems too harsh of a word. I am a city person and couldn’t imagine living in suburbs or anywhere outside the city. Cities bring people together. Where I live, just in that one block, there are about 150 to 200 apartments. The only thing we all (300 to 400 of us) have in common for sure is that we all hit the same traffic lights every morning when leaving the house, whether we walk or drive or bike. Beyond that point, it’s a big mystery. We work in different places, we shop at different places, we enjoy different spots in town, every day we come back home feeling one way or another, we occasionally stumble upon each other somewhere. We dream different dreams. I have places in town I visit every single day. Some I visit from time to time, and many I’ll never see. Often, I see someone, often just in passing, who provokes my interest and I think how the chances are I’ll never see this person again, as long as I live. There are a few million people in this city, even more in yours. Yet, we tend to say New Yorkers are like this, Parisians are like that, but in essence, we are all individuals. The cities do not shape people, it is the people who shape and build cities. This city didn’t embrace me when I arrived, I embraced this city.
Wayne: Your project “Soul Neighborhood” is in reaction to your first visit back to Sarajevo after you left in 1998. Can you share what it felt like emotionally to return to the city? How do we see this in the photographs of your project? How intentional was it to shoot the return in black and white?
Velibor: There was no intention. Black and white was the only way I took pictures at the time. For the longest time I could only think of photography as black and white. Only since I got my first digital camera a few months ago, I started creating color images. It’s still a struggle.
[My] return to Bosnia was emotional, and I was kind of frozen—didn’t take many pictures. I was in Sarajevo during the siege, lived with the city through its hardest times. That’s where my family still is, that’s where I have friends, there are all these places I have deep feelings for, the memories of my childhood and the memories of the war. I still have dreams set in Sarajevo, and I have nightmares. In 2005 I went back with my children for the first time, and they are the only faces you can see from that series. I almost didn’t take any photographs of people. I took photos of trees, flowers, asphalt and clouds, mostly. I guess I was pretty screwed up at the time.
Wayne: Your life has taken you from Slovenia to Bosnia-Herzegovina to Canada. How do you think these moves have colored your visual outlook? What early interests did you have in photography, what waylaid them (and sent you into a career as an engineer instead), and why do you say its only recently that you’re starting to push your work out?
Velibor: Had my parents decided to stay in Slovenia, instead of moving to Sarajevo when I was four years old—I would have been someone else now, most probably someone very different, and what would have been the chances that I would be photographing at all? The move to Sarajevo I consider the most fortunate thing in my life, since Sarajevo was the best place on the planet to grow up in. I have nothing but great memories of my childhood, I have a great group of friends and, while dispersed all over the world because of the war, we still deeply care for each other and use every opportunity to get together. The war was so terrible to send hundreds of thousands of people to death and millions [seeking] refuge, but [it] couldn’t break this circle of friendship. My visual outlook has been the product of life experience […] and that always includes experiences of others.
While I always loved looking at photographs I don’t think I had an early interest to be a photographer. My interests layered on each other, very slowly—[…] at one point my only interest was pure survival. It took more than 30 years for this photography layer to settle and for me to realize this is what I want to do in life. Some people know what they want to do at the age of six, some at the age of 15, but for me it took much longer and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Wayne: What photographic or artistic training have you had? What spurred you to promote your work more heavily, and what are you doing to promote it?
I had no formal training. When I was in high school, a good friend of mine would lock himself in the school darkroom, and it seemed to be a nice place to hide from the crowd and professors. So I would join him, and he showed me the basics of darkroom magic. It was the same friend who was doing the same thing when we were at university, so I would accompany him again. But I didn’t photograph at the time. I knew how to print, but didn’t even have a camera.
Both my photographic and artistic training came from [my] interest in music, movies and art. And literature, of course. It came from my friends, as we would share what we had discovered, and we talked and discussed and fought. We were a curious bunch. We were growing up in a communist run country but the borders were open, and people would travel, foreigners were coming. Compared to our peers in Montreal, or in London, we had to do a little bit extra to get the latest XTC or Birthday Party LP records, and we did. There was no store down the street that carried the latest punk or new wave records, or rather, there was a store but no XTC records in it. So we did that little extra effort to get what we needed. No training, just life.
I only started taking photographs once I moved to Montreal, some eight years ago. All along, I had been working as engineer in a big aerospace corporation and the photography kept me sane. But I had a very limited time for photography—only after my kids would go to bed—so I didn’t have much sleep in the last few years, which is a very familiar story to many photographers.
My discomfort with the corporate world resulted in growing internal conflicts with myself—ethical, moral, human—and finally led me to take time off from work and dedicate all my time to photography. This is a period of my life where some big decisions have to be made. I’m terrible in promoting anything, especially myself, and I make all the mistakes beginners do. But I try with some simple steps: set up the website, opened a Digital Railroad account, finally started to submit some of the stories to some magazines and getting to know people from the photography world, even if only virtual. I discovered the Lightstalkers forum from where I learn (I hope) a great deal of all the aspects of photography, including how to promote oneself.
In the photography world, I’m a complete outsider, from a different academic background, doing the type of photography that will never be of interest to popular media or the broad public. I’m 40 years old, therefore by most standards I can’t be an “emerging” photographer. (Emerging photographers can’t be more than 25 or sometimes 35 years old?! Who sets up those limits anyway? They seem to be unable to foresee the possibility of someone emerging when 40.) Well, I’m emerging, even if only from my own personal set of mind and boundaries, I’m emerging. It’s good to be an outsider.
Wayne: You have the two collaborations with Hemon; your Montreal project is called a “fiction.” How does literature otherwise influence your photography? What are your thoughts on the interplay of image and text?
Velibor: Literature is so powerful, sometimes it just blows me away together with my photography. Literature has a huge influence on everything I do, not only on my photography.
Depending on what are you trying to do with your photography the interplay of image and text can play huge importance. Photography was always about storytelling, but sometimes I think that nothing is as capable of storytelling as literature; every art medium’s story telling capability is very limited when compared to literature. The reason is that literature always leaves some space for reader’s imagination. The great photography works have the same power since, while depicting the scene in details, it’s often about what’s left out of the frame, or what has just slipped out of the frame that draws us in.
While looking at the photograph I think about what led to the scene or what happened moments after, things I anticipate further down the road or about things that can’t be photographed at all, it’s a viewer’s imagination that plays a gigantic role. I want to look at your photograph for as long as I feel like it, and I want to leave that space with this whole new world your photograph created in my mind. What worries me a lot is today’s tendency for a photo essay, in order to be taken seriously and eventually published in any form, to be accompanied by a well-written text as if it requires an explanation. Pictures that are well ”packaged” with good statement/writing are a priori taken more seriously than a body of work not “packaged,” however good it is. Photography doesn’t need explanation. Two examples that come first to mind, since I saw them recently, is Andy Levin’s Coney Island series and Stefan Rohner’s Humans which I only saw in multimedia format. Fantastic photographs, no captions or voiceover (at least in the presentations I saw), just photography at its best. It is so refreshing to see someone today having the courage to call his photo series simply ‘Humans’ and present it without wrapping. And it is beautiful. When introducing his series to Lightstalkers forum Stefan wrote something like “no big theme, just bunch of pictures together…,” knowing, I guess, that people expect big themes and explanation. I’m not judging anything and, of course, I’m not taking about the news photography, I’m only afraid that we will never see some great photography work because it is not packaged and will not be taken seriously. Most of us fall right into this trap, I often do.
Recently I had this correspondence with a photo editor of a magazine. He was obviously interested in my project after seeing the pictures, but then he started asking me to talk (write) about my project, which I did, but then he wanted more and more. No matter how much he liked the photographs, he needed to come up with the explanation, I assume, for the viewers on how, why, who… As if everything has to be explained. (Don’t give a viewer a chance to make his own conclusions or story), there is hardly any space for photography as a product of photographer’s emotions, perception and inner self references… At the end, I believe, only photography that stands on its own ground has a chance to be timeless.
[See also Part II, a brief continuation of the interview.]