Balkan Stories: Milica Nikolić on 'Daydreaming Serbia'
Nataša Cordeaux interviews documentary photographer Milica Nikolić on daydreams, expectations and Serbia through a new shade of tinted glasses...
Not So Popular: So, let's start with something simple. You've called the photographic series, being exhibited at PEAKS, 'Daydreaming Serbia'. Can you tell me why you called the collection this? And why daydreaming and not simply dreaming?
Milica Nikolič: I chose the word ‘daydreaming’ as a point of difference to the word ‘dreaming’: ‘Daydreaming Serbia’ is a collection which shows how I would like to see life in my country, not by looking through rose-tinted glasses, but through a slightly different shade. I find I am inspired more by the present moment I find myself in, whether locations and situations , and this often influences me to capture what I see in a more positive and impressionistic manner – as seen in my shots of natural landscapes. However, with ‘daydreaming’ the struggle between life and landscape and documentary photography is always there. The element of dreaming is also important here, as it is more imaginative, it brings to the work a reflection of a subconscious inner-state of mind that sends you messages, or suggests and predicts… it is something of multi-pronged culmination of feelings in the case of my works.
In the series you can also find the influence from my childhood memories of the Adriatic coast, and a surreal connection between our relatives from our neighbouring countries, which have passed away… For these things, we humans have only words or photographs to relive them and daydream them. So, yes, I have a strong and a multi-layered definition of how I experience daydreams and dreams in Serbia.
NSP: Speaking of childhood, it does make sense then children feature fairly frequently within the collection, they bring a sense of play - what are you trying to express through this?
M: Kids these days grow up very quickly with the advent of digital technologies, and this applies to Serbia as well. I think it’s very important to try to preserve one of our main of human instincts- to play. It allows us to be creative and to discover the world like a child does, or at least as a child should at a certain age. Each time we travel around the country, never mind if it’s urban or rural, I am inspired to capture moments of play, moments of children in nature with animals, rather than those crammed into urban cities, forced by social expectations to adopt and merge in with the stereotypical lifestyle.
NSP: I find in ‘Daydreaming Serbia’ a feeling of a kind of freedom, the family life, the beach - can you tell me if this something you feel is present in Serbia now? Is there a sense of freedom, or is there just a daydreaming of freedom?
M: I like to see and capture a relaxed community, making uplifting compositions with their bodies and expressions, whilst they enjoy the outdoors and open spaces. For me, those are true moments of family freedom that we see and experience in Serbia. However, in cities like Belgrade, people are sadly more limited, fad and with poor self-esteem.
NSP: Can you tell me more about the stories behind your Belgrade images, and perhaps more generally the wider series?
M: The whole series represents a storyboard of life in Serbia. It starts with my personal surrounding, like Belgrade’s foggy Danube banks, kids and families enjoying our ‘Great War Island’. The series takes you through the story where kids are working and creating and slightly stepping over the line into adult life. I break this up when I introduce the black and white photo of two people talking in the streets of Zemun, during the calm of winter. The next ones are of joy, fun whilst also harbouring an awareness of the recent floods, the various contrasts of human life on a big river.
Near the end of the photographic story are the daydreaming photographs of everyday life in Serbia: the market in Subotica; abandoned villages of South-East Serbia; children playing in the river Gradac; baptising in monastery Celije and a kid making his first mosaic in Prohor Pcinski monastery in South Serbia.
For Belgrade in particular, I depict the connection between the citizens of the city and the city itself in a few photos such as the lady hanging colourful laundry out in the Savamala district, and the Roma mother with her child, hiding.
NSP: As we’ve said, your pictures show people in remote locations, and although there is a sense of space, openness – you do also seem to play with a feeling of abandonment - the houses out in the countryside, the dreamland sign, which shows the viewer just sky - we don’t see the active life of the funfair below...
M: Yes, this photograph follows the photograph’s capturing the stories of these alienated people in Belgrade I just mentioned. The Dreamland sign represents both their hope and the emptiness of their expectations, as they fail to be accepted in their towns and countries.
It might seem that this applies only to the Roma community, but I have spent time with Roma people in Belgrade, and have heard their troubles, and yet, they are often filled with charisma and positive attitudes. Those citizens that we might expect to be full of positivity are actually often not. In certain places, you can feel a strong sense of alienation within Belgrade, as we see in my images of railways stations; people wandering to try and find their path. We’re all at different points. Some of my friends went abroad, some of them found their own way right here, and some have manage to connect to their roots, through a sense of natural and spiritual calmness, like in the black and white photo of a monk in winter on Zlatar Mountain.
NSP: How do you decide between using black and white or colour within your photographs?
When I see there is too much visual information in a shot sometimes, but very rarely, I will change into a black and white mode. But when I do shoot in this way, I do so with respect, because you must understand the potential and variants of each film you shoot on; each has its own grain, contrast, as well as having the best ability to preserve light. I believe Black and white photos can be important to accentuate the moment more fully, and to add a sense of timelessness to the shot. I’m always suggesting to students and friends to use black and white film to “exercise the eye” as it helps us to understand a photograph’s composition, light, techniques and then through this we can find our own photographic style.
NSP: As you say, the whole series ‘Daydreaming Serbia’ is itself a kind of story – does it have a message for the viewer?
M: The very last image holds this. It is of the silhouettes of my friends in the great outdoors; it captures a moment alone with each other, almost meditative. So, the message would be: turn to your inner mind, clean your thoughts, select your priorities with less expectation, and appreciate more what you have.
NSP: Finally, who are your artistic inspirations?
M: Some of my early influences are mostly from painters from the Romanticism and Impressionism movements, such as William Turner, J.A.M. Whistler, Caspar Friedrich David, J. S. Sargent, as well as surrealistic and metaphysical painters like Giorgio de Chirico and Max Ernst. However, some of my influences lately are from the movie industry, those that create a strong atmosphere such as: Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmush, David Lynch, Tim Burton and Wong Kar-Wai. As for photographers, they would have to be Sebastiao Salgado, Sally Mann, Mark Osterman, Garry Winogrand, Eikoh Hosoe, Rinko Kawauchi, and Irving Penn, and of course my main muse was, and always will be, David Bowie.
A B O U T
Milica Nikolić is a photographer, graphic designer and art restorer born in Belgrade in 1986, and is part of the Faculty of Applied Arts, Belgrade. Always seeking for the inner energy of people, hidden messages of the cities; she seeks to take the breath and weightiness of the great outdoors and apply it to her work. For more check her blog out here.
Nikolić is active in the fields of cultural heritage, documentary photography and graphic design through a wide range of mediums, such as educational workshops, art and documentary projects. She has been exhibited everywhere from Serbia, Macedonia and Austria to the UK, Germany and Japan. She is also the co-founder of Belgrade-based City Guerilla Association.