Free to leave: Photographing a generation changed by migration

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All images from Silent Fleeting Sorrows © Matej Jurčević

Growing up in Eastern Croatia, Matej Jurčević has watched the community transform as the new generation moves away to seek opportunities in Europe. He photographs the spaces and memories they leave behind.

This year marks a decade since Croatia joined the EU. That summer in 2013, Matej Jurčević, who grew up in a small city in Slavonia — a region of eastern Croatia, bordering Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary and Serbia — turned 18. No longer restricted by the borders of their country and able to indulge in the free movement policy, he and his friends suddenly found themselves separated by distance. “In an instant half of the people that had always lived close to me were gone,” he says. “My best friend moved to Ireland. Many others moved to Germany.” Jurčević too would move abroad. In 2020, he relocated to Antwerp. There, during his studies, he began his project Silent Fleeting Sorrows.

“I asked to photograph my best friend, Margareta, in her father’s library to document her in a space with someone else’s history.”


Much like an ornithologist studying migratory birds, Jurčević used his camera to explore the movement of people leaving his hometown in Tenja. He sought to understand how their moving away affects a hometown and the identity of its people. The photographs in Silent Fleeting Sorrows don’t show the journeys nor the vast distances travelled but instead invite us into the family homes, gyms and community spaces they left behind. “Everyone I know and worked with for this project has experienced emigration in some way,” he explains. “Maybe they’ve moved away or their mother picks up her paycheck abroad. I wanted to gather all those experiences and tell these stories from my own point of view. I didn’t want to look at the topic as an outsider or present something overly political.” Jurčević’s lens is unhurried and intimate, delicately unpeeling the layers of time. 

In one image, he shows us a photo of Ana Maria – an acquaintance who now lives in Ireland. The photo is printed on A4 paper and liberated from a frame, lovingly placed among trinkets her relatives brought home from abroad. Jurčevic was intentional about where he sat his family and friends for his portraits. In the context of the family home, he was interested in how a younger sister might adapt to her big brother’s room after he goes away to university, or how children fit among their parents’ (or grandparents’) memorabilia. “I asked to photograph my best friend, Margareta, in her father’s library,” says Jurčević, “to document her in a space with someone else’s history.” He includes archive photos of his family, most notably of his grandfather, who moved to Germany in the 70s, at the same time that one million Yugoslav citizens moved abroad, prompted by job shortages. 

The lived interiors in Silent Fleeting Sorrows open up a space to think about what is left behind and what is inherited, what is remembered and what is pushed under the rug — questions which have particular poignancy in a country that has experienced war in recent memory.

“As the easternmost region of Croatia, Slavonia was greatly affected by the war,” explains Jurčević. When Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia on 26 June 1991, the ethnic Serb minority rebelled against the newly proclaimed Croatian state. In Slavonia, armed conflict broke out as early as May and only worsened after the independence referendum. Jurčević’s hometown of Tenja sits less than 30 kilometers north of Vukovar, which was captured in 1991 by the Yugoslav army after a three-month siege and more or less destroyed by round-the-clock bombing.

Jurčević says the landscape is still scarred from the horrors of the 90s. Last year, archaeologists found 10 suspected war victims buried in a field near to where he grew up. 

“When I was researching the project, war emerged as one of the biggest factors to really influence our economic, political situation here in Slavonia.”


“I was born right after the war. Yet, I vividly remember the demining operation. People overlook the long-term effects of war, but the truth is it doesn’t just end when the fighting stops. The war cast a huge shadow over our childhoods. It shaped our experiences and ideas of self-worth.” The region never fully recovered and when the Great Recession hit, the struggle was twofold: “When I was researching the project, war emerged as one of the biggest factors to really influence our economic, political situation here in Slavonia. [For my generation] there was a lot of disappointment with the government, with corruption, with the lack of jobs,” says Jurčević. “So when we entered the EU, a lot of people who had the opportunity, left.”

The news of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, reverberated across Croatia: “It brought back a lot of memories, for my parents especially. They were crying [looking at the news reports] and recalling ‘this was exactly how it was in the 90s.’” At the same time, across the Balkans, images glorifying war criminals are appearing in murals and graffiti on city streets — remarkably painted by new generations. 

Before starting Silent Fleeting Sorrows, Jurčević asked himself: how can I talk about war without visual cliches? The answer was to build tension through the atmosphere. This is palpable between the peaceful and hopeful portraits of his peers and the glimpses of the past. 

Perhaps the image that best encapsulates Croatia’s complex relationship with its history, has nothing to do with the war at all. “Margareta’s dad is a fan of Blade Runner. After Yugoslavia’s fall, American pop culture stood for many as a metaphor for a better tomorrow. I stumbled on this poster in his study. I was drawn to the fact that it visibly sits over another print.” It speaks to the idea of history as a palimpsest. “What was hanging there before has been obscured.” 

Liza Premiyak

Liza Premiyak is a London-based journalist. For the last seven years, she’s been interested in understanding, of all places, what it means to live, create and protest in Eastern Europe. Until recently, she was Managing Editor at The Calvert Journal, where she looked after the online publication’s photo stories and ran the New East Photo Prize, broadening perceptions of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia.