Balkan Stories: Artist Interview - Julian Plaka

Balkan Stories: Artist Interview - Julian Plaka

Not So Popular's Nataša Cordeaux, aka Tash, catches up with a hungover Julian Plaka to discover the meaning behind his photography exhibited at the PEAKS: Balkan Stories event. We talk 'Kitsch', Balkan journeys and Albanians...

Julian: First of all, let me tell you a little bit about me. I'm a graduate in Diplomatic Sciences & Product Design, now living in the north of Italy. I'm not a professional photographer, but I saw this PEAKS event (Balkan Stories) advertised and thought it was a good opportunity to show my pictures and express my feelings.

Not So Popular: Can you tell us where you travelled through and who you made this journey with?

J: I travelled with my parents and some close friends. We went from Italy, down through Croatia and Montenegro and finally into Albania. My exhibited photographs were captured during this trip through these Balkan countries. They look to show a journey, into time and space, between generations, objects and their meanings. For me, all these thinks create a sort of ‘Kitsch Melancholy’.

NSP: Can you tell us more about how ‘Kitsch’ features in your photography? What does it mean to you?

J: I've always been attracted to ‘Kitsch’ and they way it can be so representational. What I’ve done within a few images, such as the pillow photo, is capture moments that I define as 'Kitsch Melancholy’. Taken during my travels between Italy and Albania, I wanted to express the sense of melancholy and anxiety felt on the road as we travelled toward my home town, Tirana in Albania. This return was a journey that not only took place in space, but also through time and memory. So, I photographed places made up of objects that have a story behind them, a Balkan story… the spoon, the pillow and the couch... which often represent an identity that the communist regime banned and which has now re-emerge as a nostalgic symbol of what Albanian families used to be, before that regime. 

For me, places, objects and shadows are important, which, for a young guy like me, may seem ‘Kitsch’, but for my parents, they are memories of what once was - a status quo that political and social changes have made fade. This is why I was very interested in capturing simple moments and objects within the journey, this ‘Kitsch Nostalgia’, to capture and show what makes up the life of an Albanian immigrant, the things that are often passed by and left unnoticed. 

For me, I wanted the viewer, who has never been to the Balkans, to feel this feeling of ‘Kitsch melancholy’ and I wanted to provoke them. Why? Because sometimes we consider ‘Kitsch' the aesthetic sensibility of what is not generally diffused or known. 

NSP: So, by making 'Kitsch' the subject and feeling of your images - you're exposing the unknown, making it known by bringing it into focus...

J: Yes. Also, ‘Kitsch’ is often used as an aesthetic approach of the poorer classes, who want to emulate the upper class, and this works in the same way for some of the Balkan countries, who try to emulate living like countries in the west. 

NSP: I think your goal here is really important - to invite and give the viewer, who has not experienced life as a migrant, access to this particular way (or mode) of seeing an object, space and/or journey - letting us see things from the perspective of an Albanian migrant through the lens of the ‘Kitsch’. I also noticed that the melancholy in your photographs is also present through your use of light and colour (or sometimes lack of), however I think the beauty in this is is also brought to life with blurred shots of friends (smiling?), amongst many images of hidden faces and bare bed sheets...

Speaking of, a fair few images show the subjects that are often looking away from the camera, they don’t make eye contact or they are blurred. What is the meaning behind this?

J: A wanted to express a sense of incompleteness, this helps to create a mystery, a curiosity to know more... so you look harder at some of the people you find along the way.

NSP: Is there a moment on your trip that stands out to you?

J: Yes... the feeling of anxiety during the train shoot.

NSP: Can you give an example of how this anxiety is shown in your work?

J: Through the way I do, or don't, use colour in photographs... this helps me express the way I was watching and feeling in the moment that I take a photograph. So, sometimes my anxiety, my fears, make me perceive the world in grey scales, and sometimes, a certain light or a certain positive moment makes me perceive and feel the colours.

NSP: Flags feature in the series, alongside everyday things such as cigarette butts and beer bottles, what do they represent to you?

J: I framed those flags horizontally to create a marking line, as a border to our perspective.

Flag Julian Plaka

NSP: Where do you draw inspiration from?

J: When taking these photographs I got it from the people I met during the road trip, or by certain moments covered by a certain light. But if you mean photographers, I like Luigi Ghirri, Hedi SlimaneFan Ho and Vivian Maier.

NSP: So on topic of the PEAKS: Balkan Stories, I have to ask, do you have 'Balkan heritage'?

J: Yeah, a quick temper.

NSP: Haha. So, what does Balkan mean to you?

J: A mix of identities, a mix of different stories, but the same sufferings.

NSP: And finally, would you leave us with a 'Kitsch' memory which reminds you of Albania?

J: When I was a kid playing in my backyard, the smell of the road after the rain in summer or the little old trinkets in my grandma's house, the spoon, a pillow...

This way to see more of Julian's photography from the trip > > >


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