A memory of a childhood image of former Yugoslavia led a Polish photographer to hunt for Alexander the Great in contemporary Macedonia.

raw0011-copy.jpg#asset:767© Michal Siarek, from the series Alexander

Michal is a documentary photographer and cinematography student at the PWSFTviT department in Lodz, Poland. He is fascinated by the Balkan Peninsula issues and has spent three years on his essay “Alexander”, which is focused on myths, identity and nationalism in one of the ex-Yugoslav republics. He is also a nominee for the 2016 Joop Swart Masterclass.

How did you become interested in the work concerning the identity of the Balkan Peninsula, specifically, Macedonia?

I was attracted by the shady reputation surrounding this region. I remember one picture, which struck me since childhood. It was the news reporting on the Yugoslavia conflict, a short message concerning extermination of all the animals in the region by the rebels in order to avoid shredding of 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 dread voice. Since then I have become interested in the politics of the region.

A couple of months later I travelled to Macedonia, with the aim to find out more about their situation since so little was talked about. During the work I met many historians-romantics dedicated to prove at any price the continuity of the leading role of Macedonian element in the 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 the Prime Minister Gruevski continues to search the tomb of Alexander the Great. Yet the scientific thread is one among many.

4x5-011_odwrocone.jpg#asset:770© Michal Siarek, from the series Alexander

Did the original view shift from its initial 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 experienced photographer, nor historian. At first I tried a photojournalistic approach, but then I experimented, yet the results were disappointing since I didn't have a clear idea. 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 see the uncommon perspective. I sneaked into the construction site of the Marriott Hotel at the main square and climbed to the upper floors. I photographed the monument “Warrior on the Horse”. I realised that to play with the scale and perspective was a must for me. 

I continued to persuade to get access 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 few roof tops and I was there, in front of the archeological museum - one of the most spectacular buildings. I shot a few pictures and had to flee. Later on, I organised it better, but most of my pictures were made illegally in prohibited areas. Paradoxically, Macedonians did not want to capture these places and several times I had serious troubles with the police and military.

IMG_0451.jpg#asset:768© Michal Siarek, from the series Alexander

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 all of the possible footholds. Since the theme revolves around Greco-Roman stem, I became interested in theatres, scenarios 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 nearby 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 as an electric voltage.

The story was developing in so many directions, therefore I was forced to narrow it down. There are numerous videos, objects, illustrations, from the beginning made with the idea to be a book and multimedia. At one point, I was working with a whole team, all friends, who began to believe in this project and got attracted by such adventure.

Due to its historic role in the Balkan area, Macedonia constitutes a perfect carrier agent for the translation of local policy, however the figure of Alexander like no one else left the mark on the history of the world, so I took his spirit as a key. I don’t think that I exhausted this subject. According to the myth concerning Argeads – the dynasty of which Alexander originated – are the descendants of Herakles. It is hard to imagine, but the Balkan history is not linear. Herakles and Yugoslavia can exist simultaneously and I do not ridicule this. For me, this is breath-taking.

Your images are rather cinematic. Do movies influence your work and if so, how consciously?

It was the part of my assumption – light, colours, cinematic narrative. I determined who inspires me and which artists will I portray. In the subject of the cinema, definitely Zwiagincew - Izgnanie, Vozvrashchenie, Leviafan. In Leviafan the main protagonist drives blue Nissan Terrano, so I decided, that I need a blue Nissan Terrano as well.

raw0006.jpg#asset:769© Michal Siarek, from the series Alexander

Can you tell us how your process on this project has been? How many times have you visited and how long have you stayed for?

I first visited in 2010, however then I did not make good 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 in fact, I have been there for over six months, during which I systematically executed pictures. The closer to the end, the faster everything worked out. I gained experience and learned the work methods that best suited me. One of the most precious advices I received was that I should give myself a credit of trust and allow myself to mature as a photographer on this particular topic.

Recently I calculated that this learning cost me $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 as my own brother. 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 mature with the project, and besides, its been an awesome adventure for me and for all who had the chance to take part in it.

skan-001c-d.jpg#asset:772© Michal Siarek, from the series Alexander

This year you have been awarded a number of prizes for your Alexander project - what is next for you and the project?

My distance to the art and photography industry has not changed. Its a competitive industry where you have to pay fees to awards and festivals and its difficult to meet with photo editors. Luckily, I have met people with whom I would like to work with. 

I am able to finish the project, which I consider it as multimedia, but as a book as well. I imagine it as an intervention 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. Possibly I am already working with a team.

On the other hand, when it comes to me I’m a ‘chillionaire’. I live on a tiny island in Scandinavia, maybe 200sqm and there are just two of us there. Every morning we row our boat ashore and go to work. We paint houses for 12-14hrs a day and that’s very relaxing. These are my everyday stories which you can see on my blog or Instagram.

To learn more about this project, visit Michal's PHmuseum profile

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