Contributed by Sanjeev Dasgupta. Check out more of their posts from this summer here.
“Belgrade seems European, but sort of a dilapidated form of European. Or maybe unkempt is a better word.”
That is what I told my friends and family back at home when they asked me what the city is like. Mind you, this was just my first impression based on a long walk I took on my first morning here (during which I did get horribly lost). I’d always had the desire to visit Eastern Europe, the less explored and less visited part of an otherwise widely visited continent. Now that I was finally here, I couldn’t help but compare it to those more frequented areas that I was slightly averse to as a tourist.
As part of my DukeEngage assignment, I was placed in an organization called the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN). They had never had a photographer on staff before, and I was first tasked to go around the city to photograph various parts in order to build a stockpile of photographs that they could use for the near future. As someone who loves exploring new places and loves to use his camera to capture and record those adventures, I couldn’t have asked for a better first assignment. Here I got to do something that I love while actually being of use to the organization I was working with.
As I went around exploring the city (with my camera, my faithful companion), I realized how narrow and inaccurate my initial description of the city had been. This city was unlike any other that I had ever seen before. Yes, many of the structures around the central parts of the town were kind of typically European. But the city had so much more. There was Kalemegdan Fort, parts of which had existed since the Roman times.
There was Novi Beograd, the ‘newer’ part of Belgrade, dotted with a series of Communist era buildings. There was St. Sava’s Church, a church that had been under construction for more than a 100 years and had still not been completed. There were the former Yugoslavian government buildings which had been bombed in 1999 by NATO during the Kosovo War. I could go on and on. And this is just the architecture. Every time I sat down to upload the pictures I had taken that day, I was just amazed by the amount of different things I had captured. The various kinds of graffiti on the walls grabbed my attention. I was fascinated by the public displays of art in the center of the town. And the people, in general, amazed me. Here was a group of people who had come through a turbulent decade of conflict, had been continuously denounced by large parts of the world, and yet were full of life, living through every part of the day (yes, even 4 in the morning) with heaps of enthusiasm and passion.
Seeing and capturing Belgrade through a lens gave me the ability to juxtapose the different parts of the city together. As I tried to make sense of what the complete picture reminded me of, I could not find anything. Belgrade was unlike any other city I had seen before. It was far from perfect, but it was unique, and I would do it a disservice by comparing it to the ‘more developed’ parts of Europe.
But why should I do that in the first place? Why should I try and compare anything new to something I have experienced before? That is what I did with Belgrade on my first day. And that prevented me from actually realizing the uniqueness of the city. MAYBE Belgrade is ‘typically European’ in some ways. MAYBE there are some similarities with some of the bigger European cities. But Belgrade is also unique in many ways. And that is what makes Belgrade special. Not that it is similar to other things. But that it is different and unique. Belgrade is first and foremost Belgrade.