In only its seventh year, Organ Vida has become one of the most intriguing contemporary photography festivals in Europe. Founded as an non-profit NGO in 2009, it is the only documentary photography festival in the Balkans, taking place annually in Zagreb, Croatia, this September.
While it has grown in stature—Roger Ballen, Rob Hornstra and Hannah Starkey are among the jury members this year—the team hasn’t forgotten its lo-fi roots.
“In Croatia, photography wasn’t recognised as art,” says Marina Paulenka, co-founder and director of the festival. We weren’t part of an international community, we didn’t have many exhibitions, we didn’t have the platforms; we just want to make something here.”
The team is frighteningly young—the oldest member hasn’t even turned 30—and draws from a pool of Croatian photographers, graphic designers and artists.
The central focus of the program is the exhibition of the main finalists, but also includes lectures, round-table discussions, artist talks, creative workshops, portfolio reviews, film screenings, music and theatre performances.
The Klovićevi Dvori Gallery, one of Zagreb’s largest galleries, will be the focus of most of the festival, with several other museums and galleries collaborating and lending their space.
This year, the theme of the festival is ‘boundaries’, and Paulenka is open to the multiple interpretations the concept allows. “If you’re talking about the medium, you can think what photography is, the boundary between staged and spontaneous,” she tells BJP.
She is also cognisant of the theme’s resonance to the city and the region. “Here in our country we have so many boundaries—of gender, of nationality, of geography. So much of our past is still present. We really want to talk about that, especially with young people, to make a better future.” she explains.
“We are young, we are open-minded, we are liberal, and through our festival we want to speak about it. Now we are in the EU, we’re much closer to Western European countries and have much better communication with them, so that’s a big step.”
Initially conceived as a showcase for local photographers, it became an international festival in 2012 with more than 185 artists from 85 countries having showcased their work since then.
They’ve also been victims of their own success, growing and welcoming more visitors (over 4,000 last year) while struggling to cover their costs. Fittingly for a young, upstart outfit, they’ve turned to Kickstarter for a helping hand. “It’s a platform with a different way of thinking,” Paulenka says.
They’ve already received Kickstarter’s seal of approval, with the project being showcased as one of the site’s Staff Picks. The usual crowdfunding prizes (t-shirts, prints, tote bags) are available, but backers can also receive limited edition sneakers from famed Croatian brand Borovo, become a jury member for an online open call on Instagram or receive private tours through all the festival exhibitions, and Zagreb itself.
Many scars from the country’s recent past have yet to heal, but the Organ Vida team are part of a new generation of Croatian creatives forging a modern collective identity through artistic collaboration.
“So many young people are unemployed, especially artists,” Paulenka says. “We just don’t want them sitting at home, waiting for something” says Paulenka. Hana Kunić, Organ Vida’s production runner adds: “You have three choices, you can either go out and leave Croatia, you can just stay here and give up or you can fight. That’s what we’re doing, fighting with the situation to make things better.”