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Ada Hamza's Alpe-Adria today
“British tourists at Hvar Island”Photography by Ada Hamza

Exploring history and independence in the Balkans

The Slovenian-born photographer capturing the remnants of the former Yugoslavian republics through the glare of the summer sun

Mass democratic movements, huge reforms, socialism and war aren’t likely to have been huge parts of your childhood. That is unless you grew up in 80s Slovenia. Photographer Ada Hamza did and last summer she decided to travel around the Balkans in order to visually rediscover the lands she grew up surrounded by. It has been more than 20 years since all the former Yugoslavian republics gained sovereignty and she remains fascinated by the momentous historical and cultural shift endured by the region in the past couple decades.

Building exteriors, the sky and nature certainly outweigh her focus on individuals; “I think the surroundings preserved the atmosphere,” she notes of her tendency to shoot the outdoors. Her photographs reveal signs of what once was, as well as what previously was never allowed to exist: “the beautiful beaches that were used as an army base in Yugoslavia,” she says. Below, we caught up with Hamza to talk about inspiration, upbringing and the socio-political and cultural result of decades of disruption.

Could you tell us about these images?

Ada Hamza: I took these photos during my travels around the Balkans in the summertime. They are vernacular snapshots of the things that I found interesting, funny, beautiful or sad.

How has your upbringing in Slovenia influenced your choice of subject matter?

Ada Hamza: I grew up in the 80s and witnessed Yugoslavian socialism and the drastic changes after the war at the beginning of the 90s. Every day I am reminded of it through little things like household products but mostly because of the omnipresent discussion in Slovenian society about the pros and cons of socialism and the present political system. If the present system functioned, nobody would question if the previous one was better.

Could you explain the transition that occured after the disintergration of Yugoslavia?

Ada Hamza: The transition in my opinion caused both financial and mental impoverishment for the Balkan people. The disintegration of Yugoslavia was followed by general confusion, the establishment of corrupt governments, incompetent managers and so people turned towards religion, nationalism and consumerism. Amongst the flood of shopping malls and appalling pastel family houses there are still impressive monuments, buildings and a cultural heritage that hopefully people will start to appreciate more. A typical example of this is Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers' project Spomenik, The Monuments of Former Yugoslavia where he beautifully documented monuments commissioned by Broz Tito. Nobody really paid attention to them, I didn’t even know they existed, and many of these monuments are painted with graffiti and trashed.

Which of the Balkan countries documented did you find had seen the most drastic visual change since their sovereignty?

Ada Hamza: All of them had, but Bosnia and Herzegovina and part of the Croatia changed the most due to the war. The Croatian coastline changed because of the hungry tasteless foreign investors who wish to fill every bit of land with summerhouses and mini golf courses. They rarely care about the beautiful natural landscapes and the government on a regular basis allows such drastic measures due to their individual interests and the country’s financial deficit.

What memory springs to mind for you when thinking about the past? 

Ada Hamza: Yugoslavia seems almost impossible from today’s perspective. It was a socialist republic with strong western influences and not remotely as repressive as the USSR communism. I have a feeling that culturally Yugoslavia was much more in sync and up to date with the world than the Balkans are today. A sense of equality was strongly internalised in every citizen and we all had the same rituals; swimming in the Adriatic in the summertime and skiing in the Alps in the wintertime. We all went shopping to Trieste for clothes and smuggled Levi jeans across the border. We ate so-called French salad with mayonnaise (it’s a Yugoslavian invention) for holidays and we all used one brand of laundry detergent throughout the whole country. I'm very glad I had the chance to be a part of what today seems like a political, social and anthropological experiment.