Format17, the latest edition of the QUAD and University of Derby-organised photography festival, is a hotbed of best-known and emerging international talent. This year’s showcase features a flock of rising stars from the New East. Here is a taster of the projects on offer: covering global issues such as immigration, the refugee crisis and global warming, these photo stories also share a fascination with the fantastic — far flung, mythical and invisible worlds to escape to.
Alexandra Polina’s Masks, Myths and Subjects tackles the topic of immigration through wildly theatrical portraits of immigrant minorities in Germany where she lives. Polina made the move away from her native Uzbekistan 12 years ago. This life-changing experience has been a constant throughout her practice. She uses portraiture to interrogate national identity, particularly the ways it is moulded and perceived by others. In the past, Polina borrowed the visual language from propaganda posters for her Made in USSR series. Masks, Myths and Subjects, which the photographer describes as “a collage of individual experiences” of being a foreigner in Germany, recalls both ethnographic museum displays and fashion campaigns — an industry which is continuously criticised for perpetuating racial stereotypes.
Displacement is also the heart of Dragana Jurisic’s series, only Yu: The Lost Country is not about immigration. It deals instead with Jurisic’s native Yugoslavia, which disappeared in 1991 along with a national identity with which the photographer had identified since birth. Yu takes inspiration from Rebecca West’s 1941 travel book on Yugoslavia Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941), and the photo book to the project even includes extracts from her writing. Jurisic too embarks on a journey retracing West’s footsteps through present-day Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Albania among others, in an attempt to relive her own experience and memories of her non-existent home. The somewhat surreal nature of the photos plays on the fantasy of a invisible land.
Jurisic is not the only photographer representing the former Yugoslavia at Format this year. Like Jurisic, Borko Vukosav was born in what is now known as Croatia and his series too is dedicated to Yugoslavia. However, where Jurisic tries to conjure the country into existence, Vukosav’s Used to Be uncovers the visible and remaining symbols “of the once glorified concept — Yugoslavia”. The series features former military resorts and complexes; the last remaining Yugoslavian airplane; the Uprising Monument in Petrova Gora; a school built for the League of Communists of Yugoslavia; even Tito’s personal toilet on a ship called “Galeb“. Including archive photography, it is a sober reflection at what was once one of the biggest military powers in Europe.
Polish-born New York-based photographer Magda Biernat looks at dislocation and disappearance through Antarctica’s melting icebergs in her series Adrift. For this series she made the journey from Antarctica to the Arctic Circle. An architectural photographer, Biernat approaches these floating icebergs like human-made structures undergoing a process of decay. She juxtaposes these photographs with images of hunter cabins belonging to the native people drastically affected by the changing climate. “The hunting cabins of the Inupiat are mirrors of the lone ice mountains in the south, singular polar structures under pressure by a changing ecosystem. Silent and static witnesses to the change,” she writes.
Continuing the journey through the Arctic Circle is another Polish photographer, Dominika Gesicka. Her series This is Not Real Life is dedicated to the world’s northernmost city, Longyearbyen, located in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago. “You cannot be buried here because it has been discovered that bodies fail to decompose in the sub-zero temperatures. You cannot be born here because pregnant women are to return to the mainland to give birth” — the introduction to the project reads much like an excerpt from a myth and sets the tone for what is a dreamlike and bewildering series about an isolated settlement.
The Appleseed Necklace by Antwerp-based Belarusian photographer Alexey Shlyk was inspired by memories of makeshift objects he encountered in his childhood. Soviet-era Belarus had a predominant DIY culture: “It was a time when one had either to find a way to ‘snatch’ what was needed or to make it out of accessible materials,” Shlyk reveals. The photographer recreated everything from a paper hat to a lampshade made from bicycle parts. Many of these are exact replicas but Shlyk was also interested in how well these DIY projects would turn out from memory. What’s more, we see these objects through Shlyk’s childhood self — as spectacular feats of imagination.
Ciril Jazbec, Matej Povše, Boštjan Pucelj, Matic Zorman
This year Format Festival is showing the work of four Slovenian documentary photographers who have individually followed the desperate plight of refugees fleeing civil war in Syria. Slovenia is one of the country’s on the so-called Balkan route. Starting from the Macedonian town of Gevgelia and continuing through the Slovenian-Austrian border, it has been used by millions of migrants trying to reach Europe and find shelter. Last year several counties including a number of Balkan states had closed or severely restricted routes and borders to limit the influx of refugees. This group exhibition — comprising work by Ciril Jazbec, Matej Povše, Boštjan Pucelj and Matic Zorman — is a reminder not only of the treacherous journey endured by millions, but also the masses who have been left behind on the other side of the border.
Text: Liza Premiyak
Top image: From Used to Be by Borko Vukosav