Miss Yuniverse
Photographing the ghostly sirens of a lost world

Berlin-based photographer Boris Kralj grew up in a Yugoslav family in Germany. The heritage of Yugoslavia, a country erased by history, has been a recurring topic in his creative practice and his key inspiration. While making his photographic book My Belgrade he returned to the city he had often visited a child to trace the past and find the key to his national identity. He didn’t have to go far, however, to get the idea for his most recent project on Yugoslavia — it was in a box of old VHS tapes in his parents’ attic.

“This music connected Yugoslav guest workers in Germany to their homeland.”

“My father was one of the first people in town who had a VHS camera. It was a big thing which looked like a microwave,” Kralj explains. “He always carried it with him, including on our annual holidays to Yugoslavia. Since there was no satellite TV back then, Yugoslav people abroad were not able to watch Yugoslav TV, so my father made a lot of videos and recorded music shows which he showed to his Yugoslav friends back in Germany. I found them all in the attic, digitised them and then watched them for weeks. It was like watching my whole childhood pass by.”

Kralj’s main subject in this lo-fi survey of the past was female Yugoslav pop singers. Their glittery outfits, elaborate hair-dos and passionate songs evoked memories of childhood and transported the photographer into the elusive space of his inner Yugoslavia.

“These women lure me and scare me and evoke my Yugoslav spirit.”

“I remember all the songs as I grew up listening to them and observing the impact they made on my family and their friends. It was the 80s, and usually people drunk and smoked a lot in front of the TV”, he says. “This music connected Yugoslav guest workers in Germany to their homeland. They found peace listening to these women singing songs about nostalgia and fear.”

While this superficial layer of pop culture may not have reflected the country’s troubled state of affairs, the music appealed to Yugoslav people worldwide. “The style of these singers is somewhere between folk and pop music. Folk music in Germany is mostly listened to by older people, but in the former Yugoslav countries it is popular among all social classes and ages”, Kralj adds. “However, the quality and profundity varies. Some songs are trashy, the sort of thing you’d only listen to when drunk at a wedding.”

The singers in Kralj’s pictures are frozen in their ecstasy, oblivious to their approaching fate. “These women lure me and scare me and evoke my Yugoslav spirit,” Kralj says. “I see a lot of glitter and shine…sometimes I see monsters, and then I see beautiful women…everything is transfigured.”