Resisting the Narrative of Loneliness
An Interview With Harun Mehmedinovic
By Mende Smith
War has more colors than a used crayon box. Concrete canyons and falling bricks, sniper fire, gasoline-soaked puddles and bloody limbs are the muse of a once nine-year old child of war. Harun Mehmedinovic has channeled the fragmented memories of war-torn Bosnia, a place that he says he will not call his home, into a process that can be called art therapy. When wide skies, rock formations, grassy meadows, and lonely beaches siren solitary figures in playful scenes, we find it hard to look away from the Bloodhoney series: the images speak volumes in the expression of his creative self, that, he says was most influenced by war.
"I happened to be born there but that is about it," Mehmedinovic says, "Even being from Yugoslavia, I never really connected with the culture of the Balkans. Obviously I learned the language we shared but the region was very tribal and sort of mired in that mindset—the only thing I connected with there was the landscape itself."
Around the time Mehmedinovic came to America he was 13 years old. He drew comic books and told stories to illustrate the horror of desolation and destruction and soon realized the hypersensitivity he felt toward many things related to the war, rather than the life that he had left behind.
"When the war ended, coming to America made the most sense because there was nothing left. Coming to a place, well, not just America, to many countries out west, there is a little more privacy than there is anywhere in Eastern Europe, and people let you express yourself here."
He eventually discovered cinematography in college and prior to his venture into professional photography, his film In the Name of the Son premiered at Telluride Film Festival and won over thirty international awards including Shanghai, Savannah, and Cleveland film festivals. It was the first live-action short film to receive an exclusive screening for the members of United States congress on Capitol Hill.
"Being from a place of war is very much like having the social fabric pulled from under you and then this new way of living and the existence is surreal and then it became just normal. And looking back now on it, this time where all was chaos and realizing that entirely crazy state of living that has influenced every part of me."
Mehmedinovic says though there is no way for survivors to get war "out of your system" but there is a way to heal from it. For him, it was the decision to create art. It helped him to grow into his new country.
Mehmedinovic was dealing with a mild case of Posttraumatic stress disorder and recalls those feelings and heightened emotions and helplessness upon leaving the place of his childhood trauma. He compared himself to a small animal with fine-tuned senses and a keen survival instinct; most refugees in camps suffer these things he admits, though it was art that sheltered him.
"I was really alone in what I had been through when I was a kid, and by the time I first moved here I was wanting to sort of process these feelings and tendencies in a different way. When I found a kind of a medium to testify to things and for me it started in drawing comic books—through pictures and telling little stories—I could let the past move through me without letting it hook me. It was translation into another medium and it was a therapeutic thing to do."
In his early work in cinematography, and in his current photo project, he says he has found a way to process life into art. Mehmedinovic has learned that his process of living in the present and focusing less on the past and future has also been inspiring others to do the same. To him, art is the thing that gives meaning to each day. Throughout the scope of this project, he has found his subjects' desire for an escape from their own reality and identity much in the way that he longed to leave the war behind.
"I found a way to escape. To take enormous stress and shock and even the grind of everyday life sort of always translate it into artistic form with a kind of narrative component to it, it really helped me and it still does, and now it does the same for other people too."
Mehmedinovic's first two collections in the series are titled Séance and Persona, extolling images of prom-dressed and naked females shrouded in the elements and the alchemy of panoramic landscapes across the American wilderness.
What may appear to be little more than a fashion photo shoot turns to the sublime when we find that every subject, every place, and every photograph tells the story of the children far removed from their own reality, gasping for fresh air and freedom of expression, hopscotching through the expansive adult world of long-dead mentally deteriorated working class America. Mehmedinovic's lens captures the kindred spirits of childhood in arresting photographic images.
"I thought the way that the models were dressing was interesting. I expected them to dress more casually, it was the thing that I said to them so that they would be comfortable and I was dead wrong about that. I asked them to wear whatever they want and to them it became a way to enact something, but then it became more complicated. When you see the images, some of the clothes have special meaning to the individuals; sometimes even the clothes have a story."
Each one of the models in the Bloodhoney series was given the opportunity to select a place they wanted to be and what they wanted to wear for the day and many of the ladies, Mehmedinovic recalls, were more like 'tomboys.'
"All I asked of them was that they lose their concept of time and not be looking at their phone or computer or the watch. They agreed and the project became a way for them to revisit childhood, allowing themselves the freedom to be captured doing it—I should also mention that many of them came from conservative families and were not often allowed to express themselves freely growing up, and they all suffered that conflict."
Mehmedinovic recalls he had a similar experience in the old country where being an artistic person was highly discouraged. In extreme cases he says...you were bullied or even killed. Many times, Mehmedinovic recalls, those suffering from the traumas will continually harm each other as a coping mechanism.
"From a young age my interests were art and literature and there in that place they tend to treat that like toilet paper. To them, soccer is really important. Sports are really important but arts are just garbage—nobody (in Bosnia) has any real interest in the arts—the artists are being marginalized and even in Yugoslavia were never even around, they had to pretty much conform to whatever the state told them, otherwise they would be blacklisted."
In his TED talk that Mehmedinovic was invited to do last year, he shared images of the war in Bosnia to infuse the weighty backdrop of his old life into the lightness of his new one. Of the TED experience, Mehmedinovic says he does not write speeches. He says that the talk he gave was no exception. He put together a slideshow of images and talked about the project in a way he felt matched their enthusiasm for it, saying that because they rarely get any artists to the event, he was selected for being an artist with an idea put to motion.
"There was a lot of interest in the ideas behind the Kickstarter campaign that I did for the project. People really responded to it and supported it from over forty countries and that is when an executive director for TED events invited me to come and talk about it and I did. When I think of TED I do not think much about art, because they are more interested in ideas than fine arts. They do not really want that mysticism. Art is shrouded in mysticism, not interested in anything that debatable, they like what has been laid out and proven and tested."
By his own definition, Mehmedinovic is truly an American artist now. He spoke freely about being an artist in a country where creativity is misunderstood. For many in the audience that afternoon, his manner of speaking his mind may have seemed radical, based solely on the detachment that he displayed.
"I find the U.S to be a little bit neutral. I do not find this country encourages or discourages art. I do think there was some discouragement for me for example in high school, I think there is a bit of a mantra that says 'Don't do art because you can't make a living, however, that is in no way the kind of discouragement that exists in the Balkans. There the discouragement is nationalistic and deeply rooted. They can be quite violent at times. By and large, being an artist is being outspoken, and being outspoken is met with violence—as an artist you always try to shake up the status quo—getting people to be more awake is the methodology that art embodies in the world."
Mehmedinovic is thankful he has found a home where he says no one will point a gun in his face just because he is doing something artistic—coming from where he calls a backward nation where making art is considered weakness—in the face of all the hardships he has overcome, in the lack of understanding in his home country, and the blind eye gleaning toward the vibrancy of his creative life, it is the force of this project that continues to color with eternal magic to his life's work, work that mirrors the childhood that he never could have imagined on the long road of success.
And to visit Harun's website click here.