Pasko Kuzman wears four watches because he believes they help him travel through time. He’s an archaeologist who works in an office called Troy, searching for the burial site of Alexander the Great, and other elements of Macedonia’s Classical past.
Kuzman is one of the many characters Michał Siarek met while photographing Alexander, an exploration of Macedonian national identity by way of ‘Skopje 2014’. Set up in 2010 (and originally slated to end in 2014), the Skopje 2014 project hopes to make Skopje a tourist attraction by drawing on its history – Macedonia was once part of Ancient Greece, and shares its name with a Northern Greek province, but is now so far removed from its heritage that its neighbour lobbied for it to be called the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Thanks to Skopje 2014, a 25-metre bronze statue of Alexander the Great astride a rearing horse now stands in the city centre, and newly-added Neoclassical columns adorn government buildings and new museums. “What I think is most significant is that they totally covered up the brutalist architecture that was built by the Japanese architect Kenzo Tange – his whole vision for Skopje after the earthquake destroyed everything in 1963,” says Siarek. “For the third or fourth time in its history, they are reshaping the city.
“They are trying to fill the void that happened after the dissolution [of Yugoslavia],” he continues. “The national consciousness dissolved. People needed another root – historical roots.”
Siarek started shooting the project while studying photography in Lodz, Poland, and Alexander was his first major series, but it won Calvert 22 Foundation’s inaugural New East Photo Prize in 2016 – an award set up to find new perspectives on the region. Siarek first travelled to Skopje in 2010, initially just to see what was happening in the city, but after climbing a high rise in the city centre and seeing the construction site below, he started to shoot in earnest.
“That view triggered me; I could see the technical significance of Skopje 2014 below,” he says, adding that when he interviewed Kuzman, “I felt like I touched living history. I realised that all of these myths are not myths, they are alive.”
Siarek originally planned to study medicine, motivated by the desire to be close to people, but after he bought his first camera, “I became interested in capturing social issues, and realised I could fulfil my interest in people through photography.” Alexander focuses in on ordinary Macedonians, and shows the impact of Skopje 2014 from a small-scale, human perspective – one shot shows a man fishing below an enormous replica ship, for example, another vast Ionic pillars on a construction site. “It’s like seeing props and a role-play stage,” says Siarek.
Michał Siarek has now self-published Alexander as a book, priced 190,000 PLN for those based in Europe www.michalsiarek.com This article was first published on bjp-online on 08 December 2016