© 2016 Hannah Papacek Harper

6. Searching for reasons

We wander through the sweltering city. We follow those worth following. We look for peace by the river, on the noisy beaches, where the water is warm. We talk our minds out of it and into it. searching for comfort, we find a bar where they play loud music and serve drinks with ginger. we know this is not why we came, but the rest is too hot to hold. She saw the turning of the century, she watched it all evaporate every summer. 

Serbia, 2018, Nikon Fm2

5. The weeds

Another day to morn. She puts on a different skirt. We stop for candles and she crosses herself at the chapel. Th cemetery is past the city, near a village, between the sunflowers, roasting in the sun. It takes us a while to find the grave. They tell me what the letters look like in Cyrillic. She has to hold onto the tombs to support herself. Finally we find them. They are three, the tombs haven't been visited for a long time. She puts down her bag and starts to rip out the thorns with her bare hands. We all pitch in on the scrubbing. Her sun lights the incense. We leave, her granddaughter supporting her. 

Serbia, 2018, Nikon Fm2

4. Lament

We set morning dates to go to graveyards. Her sun has a car, the one he drives straight from Paris. She gets ready, packs the candles, the incense, and wear the proper dress. She warns us : She is going to lament today. So we drive to large town cemetery, the sun high in the sky, sweat running down our backs. She walks slowly down the path, coming to his tomb, she talks to him, her husband. She kisses his portrait, talks about who may be leaving the flowers, she weeds and leave a peach next to the plastic blossoms. I watch them all bend over and look around me at all the other portraits, all the dates and the faces. 

Serbia, 2018, Nikon Fm2

3. The Aunty

One night she corners me, before I leave. Sitting at the kitchen table, she questions me. why am I here, what are we writing about, why am I taking photos. She asks me if I am a journalist. She speaks french and she asks me to correct her. She helps her husband to translate, and they live upstairs. I explain as much as I can, then I sit at their feet in the living room as they switch back to Serbian. So I look at her perfect toenails, and the hole in the grandmother's slippers. While they discuss, I disappear into the other rooms and observe the cupboards covered in Icons, the draws filled with things. I feel witness to something important which could disappear. 

Serbia, 2018, Nikon Fm2

2. The Granddaughter

Her father left long ago, although he comes back every year. He taught her to follow. To sit down at the kitchen table and listen, to a language which is not her own. To sit under the icons which are not hers. As soon as she can, she writes, because someone has to write about all this. 

 

Serbia, 2018, Nikon Fm2

My work on Serbia is now divided into two lines of research.

The oldest is one started 5 years ago, which causes my regular return, and which is based in a small Slovak community in the North of Serbia. Related and more dated collections are found last, so as to show a clear evolution in perception over time. 

 

The most recent is the following, based on time spent in Belgrade.

 

 

Returning always

In Belgrade in the summer, there is no breeze. Even the Dunau is sluggish. Dragging my feet, I mounted to bus which takes us to the terminal. Since 2013, I have arrived 4 times and left 4 times. I then take the next bus to Novi Sad and then another on to Backi Petrovec. 

Things have changed. Following a line of collaboration, this time I am accompanied by a French-Serbian writer. Her mission: to show me her link to Belgrade. I spend my time documenting something that does not belong to me. But after all, nothing there has ever been mine. 

This time it opens again more intimately: the wrinkles of a grandmother, the fold of a skirt, the icons in the kitchen, the deep voice of a father and the hot marble of others passed. All the time we spend sweating the discomfort of this concrete dust block of a city where tradition is laminated and used, where solace is found only in the juice of a nectarine running down your red chin and in the familiarity of a family home. 

1. The grandmother

She winks a lot, puts on her face and wears pearls. She cooks Breakfast, lunch and dinner on four electric burners. She weeds with her bare hands. She lives in the living room, where she unfolds the same couch every night and folds it every morning. She occasionally watches the TV, from very close up. In the summer heat, the apartment steams at meal times, chats at breakfast, then falls silent. Except at times for the piano, on which her son plays his compositions. She let me take a photo, reluctantly, on the sofa under all the photos. 

Serbia, 2018, Nikon Fm2