The photographer talks channelling his childhood dream into a photo project
Michał Siarek originally intended to study medicine before applying to The Leon Schiller National Film, Television and Theatre School in Łódź. Influenced by photographers such as Simon Norfolk, Susan Meiselas and Frank Hurley, among others, he is drawn to topics that touch on the wider issues of today’s fast-changing world. His first major work, Alexander, unravels the myths surrounding the controversial statue of Alexander the Great erected in the centre of Skopje, along with other monuments heavily drawing on buildings from other European cities.
I travelled to Macedonia for the first time because I could not find satisfactory information and coverage about this region. I was neither really prepared, nor did I expect it to be anything more than a field trip, but after my return I had this genuine feeling of some sort of schizophrenic condition that was to be found in Skopje. The deeper I went digging for information, the more confused I got. Then I read about the project Skopje 2014, aiming at rebuilding Macedonia around its supposed roots. It may look peculiar from afar, but Macedonia is a state, where one can observe the making of a country in fast-forward. I was both amazed and overwhelmed by the idea of covering such a huge issue.
Macedonia is a state where one can observe the making of a country in fast-forward
Soon I came to understand that this story may actually become the topic which I might learn everything on. It all began in 2010, I have been photographing since 2013, already aware at what was at stake. I spent some time experimenting while looking for the most tailored approach to this subject. It turned out to be a combination of mythology and symbols, theatre, absurd and marvellous landscapes, all shot from a certain perspective and often with a very precise light. The visual key was conscious, I work in a very organised, cinematographic manner therefore I knew exactly what I was looking for — somewhere between finding the spirit of Alexander the Great and staging an ancient political thriller.
My approach to the main question changed with time but at one moment my goal was to reach the ordinary Macedonians and to figure out what society really thinks about it all. What is not obvious in the pictures alone is that people do not want to talk about it because they are scared. What I always embrace is the fact that Macedonians are informed people, constantly intimidated by the government and struggling to survive in difficult times.
At some point I finally reached those significant figures who widely supported the revamp or stood behind it — scientists, politicians, enthusiasts — it all happens on multiple levels — a peculiar mixture of historical facts, imaginary wishes and sometimes confabulation, often triggering disputes about history and historiography. I remember a conversation with the widely criticised archaeologist Pasko Kuzman, in his office called “Troy”, about the ever-lasting search for the tomb of Alexander the Great. I felt like I was touching living history. It happened again at the burial site of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander. I guess it was then when I became genuinely obsessed. And that has introduced a whole new level to the work. As a child I used to dream about adventures. I absolutely loved history and there I was with the Macedonian Indiana Jones, driving my jeep through a mesmerising land to find my answers.
There I was with the Macedonian Indiana Jones, driving my jeep through a mesmerising land to find my answers
Macedonian society is divided on many levels and the whole topic of its ancient legacy is just the tip of the iceberg — a sum of more urgent issues. If you look at the map of Skopje, the town is ethnically divided in two between the Albanian and Macedonian parts, as is the whole country. Moreover, until recently there was no such nation or language as Macedonian. This land was supposed to be a cradle of Bulgarians, Serbians, Albanians and Greeks. Today’s arguments are deeply rooted in the Balkan Wars, itself an aftermath of the rivalry between the West, Russia and Ottoman Empire. These are complicated and delicate matters, however the collapse of Yugoslavia has created a certain void. The government has reignited radical dispute with Greeks about the domain of Ancient Macedonia to gain popularity and shortly after turned towards an authoritarian regime.
But the idea of owning antiquity by descent is ridiculous, on both sides. Many Greeks also claim the opposite — that they are the ancestors of the ancient Greeks. Whether Alexander was Macedonian or Greek, what does that even mean compared to today’s concept of national identity?
I am interested in the meeting point between the visual arts and sciences. I see the role of journalists, artists, scientists as gatekeepers — questioning, translating and explaining the complexity of the reality around us. I would like to see myself collaborating with people dedicated to significant topics, whether geopolitical, humanitarian or environmental. I would give up certain labels, genres or even authorship in order to execute a topic in the best way possible. I would also rather it reached a real audience, rather than other photographers. I do enjoy photographing meaningful landscapes but it does not seem to me to be the most suitable medium any longer. It all makes me wonder about the future of documentary photography.
On 1 December Michał Siarek was announced the winner of the inaugural New East Photo Prize at an award ceremony in London. His winning series Alexander will be on display at Calvert 22 until 18 December. You can find more information on the show here.