Mean Streets of Belgrade – Street Photography from the Heart of Serbia
Last time I was in Belgrade, I got bottles of piss thrown at me. Enjoy mate.” Despite what it sounded like, that wasn’t a warning, as such. “I was in Belgrade in 2010, right wing fascists rioted and torched the city, because pride march was on. Cars were burning outside outside the apartment.” That’s what two friends told me, when I announced my trip to Serbia. Now that I’ve been in Belgrade almost a month, I know what the capital city of the former Yugoslavia is like. And, I wish I didn’t.
Serbians are all too aware that their international reputation may precede them. “They all hate us, they think we’re butchers”. I’d only met this guy two minutes ago. He opened up his closed bar and poured me a drink. And, he refused my money. Such is the hospitality I have experienced here.
Belgrade is a memorable city. A 50 year stint with communism, a three month NATO sponsored bombing campaign in 1999, and a notable millennium or so of history, has created a unique metropolis. Western Europeans think this city is dirty, smoky, and could do with a spruce up. Fortunately, Belgrade is guilty on all three counts.
click to see an interactive map showing the location of this article
“Those three months in 1999, with the bombs, that was the best time of my life.” He poured another drink as I quizzed him about the bombing. It was only 13 years ago that Belgrade was hit, and I could tell by the smile that beamed from his face – he believed what he was saying.
Somebody else had told me a similar story – at first the bombing was scary, but before long “you would see the missiles and bombs flying through the air, and you just get used to it”. Prince may not have been the only one partying like it was 1999.
Apart from the stories of the locals, semi-permanent reminders of this period include a heavily bombed pigeon-pair of modernist communist buildings in the downtown area. The former Ministry of Defense buildings must make it hard for locals to forget that Belgrade, Serbia, and the entire Balkans region, has a recent history of indescribable horror.
The complexities of the wars in this region are incomprehensible. Deciphering who was at fault in which war, is certainly not the point of this article. The deaths were many. As in, genocidal. Those responsible for the horrors, one way or another, are paying the price. Or perhaps the crimes are so huge as to be unanswerable, and traditional justice would always fall short.
Currently being detained in the Netherlands, Serbian Vojislav Šešelj is on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity. His rap sheet includes persecution, torture, deportation, wanton destruction, and murder. I’m sure his mother is proud.
However, here in Belgrade, Mr Šešelj’s face appears on posters and billboards – as the current leader for one of the largest political parties in the nation. His face can be seen in a few of the Belgrade photos that accompany this article. Without any intimation of innocence or guilt, all I can say is “only in Serbia”.
There are good Serbians, and bad Serbians. As with every other nation on Earth. At the better end of the scale is the young girl that “insisted” that Phillipa and I accept a large “chimney cake”, as a welcoming to Belgrade. Her father provided translator duties during our random encounter in Belgrade’s main pedestrian mall. I’ve also enjoyed gifts of a free t-shirt from a restaurant owner, and a night out on the town courtesy of some government employees. Clearly there’s more than a few good eggs here.
A gushing travel writer may call Belgrade and its citizens resilient, matter of fact, and welcoming. But it’s not entirely true. Don’t count on a welcome mat, but do expect to have an easy time slipping into the way of life here, making some new friends, and picking and choosing from an array of experiences and sights. Belgrade is a city of loud nightlife and quiet parks, European elegance and communist brutality, of bohemian optimism and economic pessimism, a place where efficiency was planned, and urban decay is organic.
What is Photography on The Streets in Belgrade Like?
The strange foreignness and simultaneous welcoming makes the streets of Belgrade a dream destination for photography. I instantly knew that the time I had in Belgrade was always destined to seem not enough. People here are interesting, and expressive – with just the right amount of staunchness to blend into an urban environment that is real, not plastic. The winter light is stunning, the urban backdrops varied. Now that I’ve experienced Belgrade, I’m finding it hard to leave.
After spending four weeks here I felt like I should have something to show for this amount of time, which is a decent chunk out of a semi-nomadic year. All I have is a handful of photos and my memories. Both will eventually fade. More importantly, I discovered my version of Belgrade – a city I would gladly revisit for an extended period of time. For a long term traveller occasionally in need of a break, that’s a priceless discovery. Much like bacon flavoured candy.
When my Australian friend told me about the riots he experienced last time he was in Belgrade, I facetiously told him it sounded a bit like his home town of Sydney. “Probably more right wing nut jobs in Sydney I think”, he replied.
PS, this week, I’m excited to be travelling overland from Belgrade to the Macedonia.
27 thoughts on “Mean Streets of Belgrade – Street Photography from the Heart of Serbia”
What a lovely last post on Belgrade. I love that you continue to challenge whatever the surface impression/idea is of a place and really strive to find the heart of a place, as you experience it. I think too many times people only what to see the “show,” but not the behind the scenes, if that makes sense? I’m always more fascinated by the behind the scenes of something. Especially with a place like Serbia that has had such a complicated recent history, it would be offensive to disregard how that has shaped what it is today and how the people are moving forward and getting on with life. As always, great pics, they always make me feel like I get a small sense of the place you’re talking about.
Thanks for the comment, as always, Noelle. I do try and get to the bottom of things, and try to get to know a place as well as I can in a short period of time. Glad you’re enjoying the posts.
Great photos as always. Nice to see some colour. The photos look like something out of the early 1990s set of World Book encyclopaedias at my parents house.
haha – they do! I just added a map to the post, just to add a little more “encyclopedic” flavour. I used to love flicking through old encyclopedias… maybe you’re onto something, design-wise, Paul.
I love it! The balkan people are made for street photography. Their faces are so raw, you can see this recent gruesome history written deeply in the creases of the older generations especially.
The men standing and smoking and the old men in the park gathered really brought back memories. I loved taking pictures of people when I was in Croatia. The neighborhood groups of old men bullshitting and smoking together over an espresso. One of my favorite style sightings there, aside from the signature reddish/orange tint hair, was the man bags-oh so stylish! A must have male statement piece.
Glad you have had an eye opening good time. I love the honesty and openness you can find in some people. In this region it really allows you to feel history through their eyes which is so unique to hear when their history is still so fresh that the politicians are still linked to war crimes.
Did you get a chance to relax at SF Coffee House? I though it was hilarious that even your friend/guide said that hotel I stayed at was the worst in the world- I felt validated in my disgust!
Cheers Crystal… didn’t get a chance to get back and check out *that* hotel, it’s reputation seems to be well known in these parts. I have had such a great time here in Belgrade. It’s been a great rest as well, before onwards with more travel. The Balkans is absolutely fascinating, I could spend the rest of my life exploring this area.
Yes, there is a definite signature hair colour going on…I had noticed it, but didn’t think about it until you pointed it out. The other fashion accessory I’ve been loving is the fur coats – a must have for the women of Belgrade!
You have a great way with words Crystal, just based on your comments here I’m going to have to check your blog out a little more thoroughly…
Thank you! That means a lot, I am trying to grow and be more consistent with my writing and photography-Well at least the posting part because I have such a backload of trips, photos, and stories untold haha! Major catch up needed. But please do check it out!
I too felt really welcomed and at home in the Balkans, never a dull moment. They thought I was crazy for loving it and wondered why I ever left California! Don’t think you missed out on anything with the hotel-I’ll try to find my pics and share them….yikes. Already know the post title for that one-worst hotel in the world!
If you ever get a chance to read Fools Rush In by Bill Carter, its a book about life inside Sarajevo during the war. The author sets up satellite video to be broadcast from Sarajevo to U2 concerts all over Europe to bring attention and humanity to the people involved in the heart of the war. They later did a documentary called Miss Sarajevo with footage shot inside Sarajevo and the Miss Sarajevo Beauty pageant . I really enjoyed and related to the book.
Looking forward to following your next adventures through your lens!
Hey Crystal – thanks for the info on Fools Rush, sounds interesting. It really is a fascinating part of the world around here in the Balkans. Also…if you do get some pics of the hotel online, feel free to come back and pop a link here, I would love to see them!
I just found today out we’re possibly going to Belgrade in a month so I’m doing a little research. Very cool to see your posts and photos from your time there. Interesting that Crystal mentions Bill Carter. He and his wife used to live in the little town we called home for several years – Bisbee, AZ. They’re a great couple, and actually bought their house there from one of my best friends.
Huge world/small world :) I’m enjoying your view of it!
Ohhh, thank you Crystal – I have been trying to remember the name of that book whilst I am travelling around the Balkans at present myself. It made such an impression – I second the recommendation.
adore your photography and love of travel and experiencing new places
Why thank you Rebecca, a nice thing to say. I really do love seeing new places!
Really great to see some beautiful colors in your photos Nate. Especially love the light in the final shot. Forwarded this to a mate who grew up in Serbia, and really enjoyed it.
Thanks mate… I’m going to keep working on colour. I think the European winter might have got to me a bit!
Nate, for the photos of the gentleman looking at you, did you ask to take the photo? I’m always blown away by how powerful your photography of people are in other countries. I really enjoy how you can walk around countries, especially “communist-era” countries, and really see what is below the surface. Like you said in the beginning about the views about Serbia, but you go way further into the history and actual life. Always a good read.
I was wondering the same, do you ask to take peoples photos or is it more candid? Some of them look RIGHT at you so intensely. (esp leather jacket mafia man smoking)
Hey Crystal – as I said to Ryan, most of the time (as in, probably 90% or more), I don’t ask for permission. I like that intense look, and it’s difficult to get when it’s not candid. In the case of leather jacket man, I knew he would be intense, he was just that sort of guy. I asked permission, but then put the camera very close to his face (it’s a reasonably wide lens, I have to get much closer than you would think). It’s fun!
The gentleman in the leather jacket, yes, the guy in the blue coat, no. I don’t ask for permission often, as I find the photos come out looking staged, which isn’t what I’m after. So, the guy in the leather jacket, I had a quick chat, and then asked to take his photo, he had no problem with that. I generally don’t go straight for the “can I take your photo” line, as people will often say no. Where as if I chat first, then ask, they tend to say yes.
Glad you enjoyed the article Ryan, take care in Haiti buddy!
If only you stayed just a week longer you could have witnessed something that would have been interesting to you I guess, 10th anniversary of assasination of Serbian prime minister. Sounds like it has potential for at least a paragraph in this post. :)
Anyway, great blog (or whatever it is), always love reading outsider’s perspective on our region :)
Hi Nim… damn, missed it by one week! Thanks for the kind words, I really like that you referred to this site as “whatever it is”… I really don’t want this to be a typical blog, so I take that as a compliment!
Sadly this sort of nationalism is all too pervasive, even among groups that have experienced persecution themselves. What makes it so inflexible is the notion that their views are “correct,” and seeing them this way seems to excuse any feelings of guilt at being racially biased. They think they’re right to view the other as the enemy, so they don’t have a reason to feel bad. But I’m not talking about Serbians in particular. People like this are all over.
Yes, I agree. It happens everywhere, people like this are all too common. It’s a big shame.
You have seen only Belgrade, you must see the rural part of Serbia, it is totally different.
I am from Serbia, from city of Paracin.
If you are interested in another visit to Serbia you can contact me on Facebook. My name is Vladimir Milicevic and I am member of Serbian association of photographers.
Thank you Vladimir. I have since returned to Serbia many times, and have visited all over the country. Including Paracin! Next time I am in the area, I will contact you. Cheers!
I am a man from India and would like to visit. How do they respond to Arabs because though an Indian I look like an Arab. Also any recommendations for a good hotel to stay in belgrade.
No problem, go and visit.
Hi my buddy neds keeps talking great things about serbia but i dont belive him. He says serbia OG and soccer team is top of league. Is it worth visit or my buddy full of chit?