“I’m Going Back to Sarajevo Because I Love That City”

Born in the Serbian city of Zrenjanin in 1953, Zoran Lesic spent his childhood in theaters instead of pre-school. He got his first applause when, as a five year old, he raced across the stage looking for his mother who was performing. An actress mother and a director father moved around from Zrenjanin to Cetinje, Kragujevac, Mostar, Novi Sad and finally Sarajevo, where they settled when Lesic was in middle school. He left Sarajevo in 1992, but says he’ll be returning some day.

This interview is part our series “That Great Diaspora”, inspired by the Rachel Zucker poem of the same name. On a bi-monthly basis, we will publish writings from people who have, for one reason or another, found themselves living in another part of the world. We’re interested in hearing stories from people everywhere, so we’re soliciting your essays or your willingness to be interviewed at editor[at]balkanist.net. Whether you’re classified as an immigrant, an expat, a migrant worker, a refugee, a foreign student, or an asylum seeker, we want to talk to you, members of That Great Diaspora.


Zoran Lesic, Artist, the Hague, Netherlands


What does an artist do in Sarajevo in the year 1992?

My “war schedule” was tied to Kamerni Theater, where I worked in photography, poster design and PR. We didn’t know where we were or how long it’s going to go on for. We didn’t even comprehend the horror of things that were about to happen. There were about ten of us, and all of our energy was going into making sure the army or a police unit doesn’t take over the beautiful theater space. We tried to keep it a theater, as much as it was possible. In the fall of 1992, we started with the production of Hair. Theater in a war zone is a strange thing. We didn’t have electricity, or any way to announce showtimes. And even when there was electricity, we weren’t going to advertise it on the radio: “We are performing a play at 11 in Kamerni, bomb us!”. We weren’t that crazy. But somehow this unstoppable word about the play was spreading through the city. To this day, the ways people found out about our shows remain a mystery. The theater was packed at every show. Of course, there were no tickets, you simply had to show up and watch. Because there were evening curfews in place, the play would only run during the day. The theater was completely freezing, the audience would be sitting down in their coats, with hats and scarves still on. I have a video of it and it’s a funny sight: the audience laughing, and the cold white clouds coming out of their mouths.

What did going to the theater on a daily basis mean to you? How important is it to create in times of despair?

During that year I missed work maybe five times, on occasions when it would have been really foolish to go out because of the heavy bombing. We were gathering at the theater every day because to us, that was an attempt to keep our everyday life normal. Everything else around us was completely abnormal. Hair was part of our fight for normality, and to prove we were still human, that we didn’t want this war and it wasn’t our choice, but we’re stuck here. That was our way of fighting it. The rest of the actors and I were left there by the state, to try and contribute to the image of “normal” Bosnia, one that wasn’t all about killing. There were still normal, bright people there. The whole theater was a battle of its own.

Zoran Lesic and his sister in law, Biljana Blazevic. (Photo credit: Zoran-Lesic.com)
Zoran Lesic and his sister in law, Biljana Blazevic. (Photo credit: Zoran-Lesic.com)

To what extent did art preserve this sense of normality? Do you think the role of art is overestimated in such moments of turmoil, and only offers an illusion of relief and a temporary distraction?

I completely agree that it is a temporary distraction, but anyone who wasn’t there can’t possibly comprehend the power of distraction. You’d have to be there, in 1992. Sarajevo, in the horror, the cold, the hunger, the constant fear, and then have an hour of relief, an hour without fear, a relaxed hour of theater filled with love, where you feel normal again. I’m sorry but, whoever wasn’t there can’t speak about this. It was a small moment, but one that meant the world. And it was precisely those moments that kept people going. It would have been a lot harder otherwise.

Have you ever considered leaving Yugoslavia before the war started?

There’s an interview I did with Oslobodjenje in 1991, after an art show opening I had. They asked about my plans, and I said I’d leave Sarajevo because it was too small. I wanted a bigger audience. My departure from Sarajevo was never politically motivated. It was the fact that the city’s population was about five hundred thousand at the time, with only about ten percent of that number consuming art and culture, so you do the math. As an artist you always want as large an audience as possible.

How did you go from doing theater photography to doing crime scene photography?

My wife and kids left Sarajevo in May of 1992, and ended up in Holland with our wonderful friends who opened their doors to us. It made sense that I would eventually follow them. As soon as I arrived in The Hague in December of 1993, I put on an exhibition at Jota gallery. I went straight to the gallery to inquire about a possible collaboration, even though everyone was telling me “Don’t even bother, that’s not how they do things here.” Still, I went and told them about my idea of putting on a week-long exhibition, where I could show my photography and talk about life in Sarajevo. They looked at each other and told me the gallery would be torn down on January 1, but they still agreed to shorten the existing display by a week, and let me do my show. During that week, I showed my photography, as well as documentaries about painters, writers, Sarajevo, and our production of Hair. The gallery was full every night, and I met some wonderful people, some of whom are my friends to this day.

The friends we were staying with arranged for our kids to attend an American school, but even so, we were still refugees. We lived on welfare, which was very difficult, because I wasn’t used to getting money from someone without earning it. My wife Mirjana and I started working with refugee and special needs children. It was mostly small projects, and small income that we would report to the city right away, and they would take it out of our welfare check. We were happy we were making at least some portion of the money. But it was through my kids that we knew we were still refugees, because that’s how they felt. Then a job opened up at the Hague Tribunal, a temporary one that would last three months, which I applied for. I was hired and three months turned into what’s been almost seventeen years now. I am retiring next spring, so I can finally get to work on all the little project I’ve had in mind. I’m keeping them under wraps for now and doing only small projects and exhibitions.

Is your artwork “socially motivated”, or do you create purely for aesthetic reasons?

It’s difficult to say. Since I work at the Tribunal, I work on things that I would never dream of or be allowed to alter in any way, so outside of work I like to create set-up scenes. I don’t like shooting nature, street life, or others’ pain and suffering; I have enough of that in my job. That’s why I create photography that tells my story. I am currently working on a collection of self-portraits that look like movie and theater posters. Theater is my life; I can’t and will not be without it, and my projects reflect that. Every poster represents one of my wishes or stories. Some are stories from my life but incorporated into a play, some are wishful thinking, a character I would have wanted to play but never did. In my dreams, anything’s possible. These are not pieces that you put in a frame, they hang on a rope like laundry that’s drying. I’m airing out my dirty laundry, and that’s how I set up the exhibition space too.

The posters talk about my experiences from the war, being a refugee, and the message I am attempting to convey is definitely socially motivated. On the other hand it is an aesthetic one as well. I have been a photographer for forty years, and I’ve gone through all the phases, I am always balancing between social commentary and aesthetics. The stories I am trying to tell are things I have gone through. They are about my experiences and acknowledging that I have been lucky because everything that’s happened to me could have gone very differently. I was lucky at certain points to have survived, that my family had survived, and I am not taking it for granted. Really horrible things were happening to others. I want to show that we all find ourselves in certain situations that could end badly. Some of us are lucky, some are not. Of course, this is something we shouldn’t constantly have on our minds, but my message is that it is us, who are standing in front of these posters, that are the lucky ones.

"Life at 24 frames per second"
“Life at 24 frames per second”

Your piece “Life in 24 frames per second” talks about this second that can change a whole life.

I love that piece. I created it for the first time about ten years ago, for a festival called Sarajevo Winter. The idea came to me when I was tasked with creating a compilation of video footage for the trial of Stanislav Galic, which showed the atrocities of the war in Sarajevo. Among the footage I was using, there was a video of an incident on Tito Street. It was an opening of the first exhibition of war caricatures with Ibro Spahic, at a furniture showroom in the city’s center. A small group of people showed up, it was a calm day, a truce had been announced. I shot some footage outside and then went in, when suddenly a grenade went off out front. I ran outside with my camera and kept shooting. It was a morbid moment; people were screaming, there was blood and bones everywhere. I wanted to extract this earlier moment from that footage, of a woman and her friend standing in front of the gallery, talking. I was filming them, not realizing I was capturing her last moments. When I got outside, she was laying on the pavement, and her friend was running towards her. It seems they had separated, she stayed behind for a moment, and that was the moment that decided her life. Now she was laying dead on the pavement. I wanted to capture these details that would show how unpredictable life was in Sarajevo. Going through some more footage of that incident, I came across a mother running with her child. The footage was blurry and full of movement, but such a powerful moment, filled with the horror of what had happened. I wanted to take out the best frame I had of it, and it turned out there were 24 of them, exactly one second. That second of her life, when a grenade fell and another one was expected shortly, when the people are screaming and she is trying to get away with her child, that’s a second she will probably never forget. Then I took my camera to a mall in Hague, and I waited. A woman passed by with a child, about the same age as the ones on my footage. The child was almost dressed the same way too, as if I’d set it up. I filmed them looking at window displays, and took out 24 frames of them, one second. Nothing. No movement. A second they’ll never remember. Just one of billion seconds that pass by in life without anything happening. I blew up the frames and created two large collages, and hung them up without any explanation in Sarajevo where I had filmed the footage of the first woman years ago. I stood there next to it for days, listening to people’s comments. A sign above them read “Sarajevo 1992” and “Den Haag 2012”. I noticed people understood my message, they would stop and think. Some people saw it and wiped a tear, because the photo disturbed them, or reminded them of something they had gone through in Sarajevo. Some people commented, some didn’t, and I realized my work speaks. And I was glad.

Do you think art is a good tool for learning about the war, and facing what has happened?

Art during war, like art about a war, is momentary and can arouse a momentary emotion in the observer, as well as make them think. I don’t believe that art changes the world, but it keeps it going. It’s difficult to change people’s consciousness through art. If you’ve only changed one person, you’ve done great work. But to expect art to stop a war, or to change the mentality of a group, it’s impossible. Through my work, I try to create a dialogue and communicate my story. If it changes one person, or makes them think, I am happy. I don’t think my work will create permanent changes, but I also don’t find that to be a reason to stop and give up. All of us with a similar mission should keep working to contribute our grain of sand to the sea of sand, even if it’s just a grain. If there were more grains, maybe something could change.

In the aftermath of WWII in Germany there were Nuremberg Trials and their rulings, but most Germans learned about the war crimes in the late 70s, when an american TV show Holocaust aired and attracted 20 million viewers. After the show, the interest in war crimes against Jewish people rose significantly.

I believe that has more to do with the passing of time than with the media. A certain amount of time has to pass after the war for people to calm down, to open themselves up to someone again. Especially in the Balkans where the war was so bloody, so brutal and where there’s still no trust. I follow the news from all sides, but unfortunately, that’s exactly what they still are, sides. This is our side, this is your side. But I also see that art is opening new doors. The artists in Bosnia were the first people to shake each others hand. They were the first ones to collaborate in the region, and art is the only thing that really functions on the post-Yugoslav territory as a region. As time goes on, there will be more of this. I am optimistic, not foolishly so, but by nature. Artists easily find ways to get along. Their envy isn’t based on nationalism, but on the fact that someone is better than them. They’ll never say: “He’s terrible because he is a Serb or a Muslim.” They’ll say “He’s terrible because he’s better than me.” Ego, pure ego. Always has been.

Have there been times when you’ve considered returning to the Balkans?

I will be back! But I’m not a man who wants to have it both ways, I am here now. At the same time, I carry Balkan roots. I wouldn’t call them Bosnian or Sarajevan roots, but Balkan roots. The Balkans are a strange place, either red or black but never rose-colored, and I find them fascinating. My plan is to return when I retire. I physically reside in another city, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love Sarajevo, or that I’ve left or abandoned it, and I’m returning. My privileged situation is that I’m not Sarajevan, and I don’t need to prove that I am. I go there because I love the city and I have friends there, and not to be some famous face around Sarajevo. I’m going to live there because I like it there, and I love that city.

One of Zoran's film posters.
One of Zoran’s film posters.

What advice would you give a young person intending to leave the Balkans?

I am not sure I would return to the Balkans if I had school-aged kids. I don’t have to put anyone through school in Sarajevo, so I don’t have that issue. If I did have a child in school, I don’t think I would take them back there. If a young person wants to leave any city in the Balkans, I completely understand them. Especially because, for example, in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the main museum has been closed down. Owning Prada shoes, being muscular, bald, with glasses and driving a black BMW takes priority over reading a book. In these kinds of circumstances, I completely understand that young people don’t see a future there and want to leave. One of the main reasons I want to go back to Sarajevo is an organization I started with my wife called Happy Family, which will organize workshops and projects for young people, and help them find their path through involvement. We have done the same thing in Holland with street children. We put on a play with them, the lead role being portrayed by a young Moroccan boy. The others told us: “If he’s in the play, we don’t want to be in it, those Moroccans are horrible.” The boy did a fantastic job in the play, and grew up to be a wonderful young man, who is a social worker now. The whole attitude of “these groups are bad, these ones are good” is something I don’t buy into. It’s all about the individual. If we’ve managed to give certain opportunities to kids here, we are even more motivated to do the same thing for the kids in B&H, to help them make a small, tiny step, towards achieving their goals. We are planning on combining video, photography, and modern dance to make it happen. We are also bringing on great mentors to help along the way.

If you could take the best parts of The Hague and Sarajevo to create a new city, what would that city look like?

If I could combine the two, I’d create a utopia that could never exist. I’d take the warmth of Sarajevan people, their quirkiness and the tradition they embody, and combine it with the creativity of Holland, the people’s organizational skills, the money they have and the constant need to produce, and to witness. Maybe I’d combine creators from Sarajevo with an audience from Hague. That sounds like a great combo. Holland has never had as many museum-goers as in the past year, and we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people. Their theaters can easily get a thousand people in the audience. If I could connect this audience with the creative people from Sarajevo, that would be my ideal city.


Cover photo credit: Radio Sarajevo.

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Tanja Matic

Tanja Matic is a journalist living in the Netherlands. She covers topics related to the Balkans, where she's spent most of her life.