13 July 2016
13 July 2016 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo
Michał Siarek travelled to the Balkan country to capture how the government is drawing on its ancient history and the figure of Alexander the Great to build a contemporary identity.
Once part of Ancient Greece, and more recently the former state of Yugoslavia, the young Republic of Macedonia has long struggled to shape a defined identity. In 2010, the government began an extensive project to remodel first the capital, Skopje, and then the entire country, into a sense of connection with its alleged roots, dedicating considerable public funds and serious propaganda apparatus to the reinvention of traditions and the stimulation of a national consciousness. Alexander the Great, one of the most recognised and powerful rulers in world history, became the self-proclaimed father of modern Macedonia, with statues and other neoclassical monuments erected across Skopje in honour of the nation's newfound hero. In his series Alexander, Polish photographer Michał Siarek explores the construction of this myth, and questions whether it is even possible to forge a new identity based on origins so distant that they may never have existed at all.
Hi Michał! First of all, can you tell us how you became interested in work concerning the identity of the Balkan Peninsula, specifically, Macedonia?
I was attracted by the shady reputation surrounding this region. I remember one picture that has stuck with me since childhood. I was watching a news report on the Yugoslavia conflict; a short message concerning the extermination of all the animals in the region by the rebels in order to avoid shredding the abandoned dead bodies. For a child, such a picture constituted an act of incomprehensible cruelty. The subject of Yugoslavia returned while I was applying to film school. One of my older colleagues was among the photographers who went to Kosovo in 2008, the day before the proclamation of the independence. I found it impressive and later I went to Pristina myself, to see the country that everyone spoke about with such a voice of dread. Since then I have become interested in the politics of the region.
A couple of months later I travelled to Macedonia, with the aim of finding out more about their modern situation since so little was talked about. During the work I met many historians-romantics dedicated to proving, at any price, the continuity of the leading role of Macedonia in world history. However, I’ve also met fascinating scientists such as prof. Pasko Kuzman, considered a Macedonian Indiana Jones. Mr. Kuzman, the former head of the National Museum and advisor to Prime Minister Gruevski, continues to search the tomb of Alexander the Great. Yet the scientific thread is one among many.
Did the original view of your project shift from its initial starting point or did it remain? Could you briefly explain?
At first I was overwhelmed. The issue was so broad that it demanded encyclopaedic knowledge and research just to organise and understand it. In addition, I was neither an experienced photographer, nor a historian. At first I tried a photojournalistic approach, but then I experimented, yet the results were disappointing since I didn't have a clear concept. Luckily the metamorphosis of the town wasn’t immediate and I had some time.
The breakthrough happened when I recklessly decided to photograph the town from above in order to gain an uncommon perspective. I sneaked into the construction site of the Marriott Hotel on the main square and climbed to the upper floors. I photographed the monument “Warrior on the Horse”. I realised that playing with scale and perspective was a must for me.
I continued to find access to high spaces in the city, specifically to a balcony of one of the banks in the city centre, but as expected I was thrown down the stairs, but I came back through the window. Again, I climbed the building, walked over a few rooftops and I was there, in front of the archaeological museum (above) - one of the most spectacular buildings. I shot a few pictures and had to flee. Later on, I organised it better and got some great shots - most of my pictures were made illegally in prohibited areas. Paradoxically, Macedonians did not want to document these places and several times I had serious trouble with the police and military.
When you embarked on this project, what were your thoughts on how you wanted to portray Macedonia?
I had a mental map where I pointed out all of the possible footholds. Since the theme revolves around this Greco-Roman stem, I became interested in theatres, scenery and props. Simultaneously, I was looking for people who were involved in the story of Alexander. For example, its citizens. In one of the villages near Skopje I found a fuse box encapsulated in a chapel with the image of Alexander riding in a chariot. The owner asked about the motives of me photographing it, so I answered with honesty, Alexander was strong like an electric voltage.
The story was developing in so many directions, and therefore I was forced to narrow it down. There are numerous videos, objects, and illustrations, which from the beginning pointed towards the production of a book. At one point, I was working with a whole team, all friends, who began to believe in this project and became immersed in the adventure.
Due to its historic role in the Balkan region, Macedonia constitutes a perfect carrier agent for the translation of local policy, however the figure of Alexander left a mark on the history of the world, so I took his spirit as key. I don’t think I have exhausted this subject.
Can you tell us about your working process? How many times have you visited and how long did you stay for each time?
I first visited in 2010, but I didn't start making meaningful pictures until 2013. At first, I could not do frequent trips and most of the time I did not carry my own camera. The turning point was in 2014, when I had a clear idea and knew how to approach it. In 2015, I was driving to Macedonia every two weeks for almost a year, so I have been there for over six months, during which I systematically executed pictures. The closer to the end I was, the faster everything worked out. I gained experience and learned the working methods that best suited me. One of the most precious pieces of advice I received was that I should trust my ability and allow myself to mature as a photographer on this particular topic.
Recently I calculated that this learning cost me US$15,000. This is including the budget for promotion, bribes or fines, two broken cameras and a broken car. Mr Blue (my car) is limping a bit after it drowned in mud, but I still love it. No institution, except my own mother, would support this project. I had to earn that money myself. For two years I have been away from school and taken odd jobs. Anyway, I had the opportunity to develop with the project, and besides, it has been an awesome adventure for me and for all who had the chance to partake in it.
You have been awarded a number of prizes for Alexander - what is next for you and the project?
My distance to the art and photography industry has not changed. It's a competitive field where you have to pay fees to awards and festivals and it's difficult to meet with photo editors. Luckily, I have met people with whom I would like to work with. I imagine the project as an intervention piece in a museum space. It goes beyond the world of photography. As for Macedonia itself, the country faces a new civil war and I will continue this project, as well as other projects that I can see in the Balkans and the East.
When it comes to me - I’m a ‘chillionaire’. I live on a tiny island in Scandinavia, maybe 200 sqm and there are just two of us there. Every morning we row our boat ashore and go to work. We paint houses for 12 to 14 hours a day and that’s very relaxing. These are my everyday stories.
Michał Siarek is a Polish documentary photographer with an interest in subjects that revolve around the nexus between geopolitics, history, and national mythologies. Follow him on PHmuseum, Twitter, and Instagram.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.