Marko Drobnjakovic: Finalist in the 2019 Aftermath Grant
The Aftermath Project is a non-profit organization committed to telling the other half of the story of conflict — the story of what it takes for individuals to learn to live again, to rebuild destroyed lives and homes, to restore civil societies, to address the lingering wounds of war while struggling to create new avenues for peace. The Aftermath Project holds a yearly grant competition open to working photographers worldwide covering the aftermath of conflict. A 2019 finalist is photographer Marko Drobnjakovic. The jurors for this year’s grant were Aftermath founder Sara Terry; photographer and writer Ibarionex Perello; Aline Smithson, photographer, writer and founder of The Candid Frame, Ibarionex Perello; Aline Smithson, photographer and editor of Lenscratch; and Todd J. Tubutis, Associate Director at Sheldon Museum of Art, soon to be Director at the Art Museum of West Virginia University.
Yugoslavia no longer exists as a nation, having officially dissolved in 1992, yet it persists in the minds of many in the region who hold on to and strive to promote what Yugoslavia once represented, often emphasizing the country’s former idealism and promise over any negative recollections of autocratic rule.
What might that look like, more than 25 years later? How does a remembered—or longed-for—way of life manifest itself in the day-to-day? How does the veneer of nostalgia color the present?
Marko Drobnjakovic is a photographer based in Belgrade, Serbia, where he was born and raised during the waning days of then-Yugoslavia. His series, The Last Yugoslavs, offers vignettes into how memory plays out in real time. It is undeniably an aftermath project, but his are not images of destruction or rebirth. Rather, they are subtle documents of a nationalist undercurrent that stirs a particular demographic–one “impaired with a legacy of violence, populist politics, failed economies”–to reverence and longing for a tightly controlled peace and stability of the past.
Drobnjakovic’s palette and subjects are undeniably of that part of the world: the light on the landscape, the massive monuments and bombed bridges, the antiquated communication devices, the Soviet-era overcoats. But what this series truly bears witness to is a moment that transcends the region. As he has written, “This subject gains in importance as the worldly affairs are dominated by post-truth narratives. Xenophobia and populism are resurgent in America and Europe. The brutal decomposition of Syria and the continued conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq sent waves of refugees through the Balkans, and the history of Yugoslavia intersected with world history once more. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing from war in their home countries passed through farms, fields and towns that were once on the front lines of the Yugoslav conflicts. … In today’s world, the Yugoslav wars and the ideologies that triggered them seem not the shadows of the past, but a prediction of the future, the forefront of the new global reality of the 21st century.” – Juror Todd J. Tubutis
Marko Drobnjakovic is a freelance photographer and videographer, based out of Belgrade, Serbia. He is a contributor to The Associated Press, and has covered breaking news and sports stories across Europe and the Middle East. His work includes coverage of the aftermath of the Balkan wars, the Iraq conflict from 2006 to 2009, the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 and the conflict in East Ukraine, the advance of ISIS on Iraqi Kurdistan, the European refugee and migrant crisis, and the 2016 Mosul offensive, among other stories. He is a recipient of the Magnum Foundation Fund grant and was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for AP.
The Last Yugoslavs
Yugoslavia, once my homeland, was a European country that existed in the 20th century. This socialist federation of six republics was one of the most ethnically diverse societies in the world. Ruled by a charismatic authoritarian leader, but with important democratic liberties preserved, Yugoslavia successfully balanced between East and West in the bipolar world established after WWII.
But the Cold War ended, and the country failed to adapt to new realities. As a result of
exclusionary politics that quashed reformist voices and ignored rising nationalisms, Yugoslavia disintegrated in a series of brutal wars in the 1990s. While the conflicts raged, those who identified as Yugoslavs, forgoing their original ethnic categorization and embracing a supranational sense of community, were labeled as traitors of ethnic interests.
New, troubled nations arose from the ashes of Yugoslavia, forging their newfound statehoods by revising their history and suppressing the traces of their shared past. The old model of the collective Yugoslav memory, one that was founded on the ideas of brotherhood and unity, peace and reconciliation after WWII, was replaced with nationalist mythology. Gradually, fewer and fewer people considered themselves Yugoslavs, reverting to their nominal ethnic groups.
The Last Yugoslavs documents the aftermath of a violent dissolution of a multiethnic society. It delves into the factors that shape the identity and memory of the people living in this forgotten enclave in the heart of Europe. Two decades after the cessation of hostilities, the seven countries birthed from the collapse of Yugoslavia remain clinched in post conflict mode, lost in the murky waters of endless transition. War, trauma and fear define day to day life, persisting as the central elements that mold personal identity and collective experience. The nationalist ideas responsible for the Yugoslav conflicts still dominate the public discourse, and the region continues to float
somewhere between bloodshed and peace, in a prolonged state of uneasy truce.
This work examines the identities of those who remain Yugoslavs – more than twenty years after the bloody demise of their beloved homeland. This marginalized group often ignore the negative aspects of life under the old autocratic rule, equating Yugoslavia to Utopia. Yet, by tying their collective identity to a country that no longer exists, they struggle to preserve the memory and the values of Yugoslavia, seeking to revive the tolerant, multicultural ideas it symbolized.
Through taking portraits, documenting the reunions and private lives of Yugoslavs, I look to explore pieces of individual and collective memory of the former country. Contrasting the images of Yugoslavs against those of transitional realities surrounding them sets a critical view of the societies that inherited Yugoslavia. Impaired with a legacy of violence, populist politics, failed economies, the new states fall miserably short of achieving the standards of life, personal liberty and human rights of a flawed, authoritarian, albeit functioning system of the past.
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The Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic PortraitureSeptember 27th, 2020