Still Lives

Issues of Beauty in Kosova before and after War

“Something in me yearns to win
Such a cold, such a lonesome heroine...”

–Leonard Cohen

When I first saw the mannequins in Kosova I was struck by their iconic, impassive beauty, their presence in the street. I have traveled widely in the Balkans, but Kosova is the only place where these figures were placed outside the shops, still lives in the midst of bustling towns. I began to relate their frozen state to that of the Albanian people living in Kosova, mute, but willful in the face of adversity.

For the past fifteen years I have been working in the Balkans on a photo-documentary project about the Albanians. Since the fall of communism, life has been stressful in wildly different ways for those living in this region. In Albania the end of communism brought a kind of crazy freedom; in Kosova, just across the border, it brought a form of slavery.

In 1989 the Serbian government declared martial law and rescinded the autonomy of Kosova, along with the rights of all Albanians living in Yugoslavia; thousands were fired from their jobs. Serbia took control of all the media, and the Albanian language was abolished from all schools. Even though this ethnic minority was the majority in the Kosova region – 90 percent of the population – Albanians became second class citizens.

Everything changed with the emergence of the Kosova Liberation Army in 1998. The Serbs went after the rebels with a vengeance, slaughtering whole families suspected of having KLA ties. The United States and its allies were determined to stop yet another orgy of ethnic cleansing, and in March 1999 NATO began bombing Yugoslavia. It continued to do so for over two months, until Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was forced to withdraw his troops from the province. The ethnic Albanian population returned from exile under the protection of United Nations police and began to rebuild their lives. Some took revenge on their enemies; some continued to fight.

Each time I return to Kosova, I am unsure of what to expect. The destruction is devastating, but rebuilding continues; there is beauty among the ruins. The more I photograph these figures, the more I want to dramatize their lives; lines from songs by Leonard Cohen come to mind and his words have informed some of the titles of these photos. A theme of his is the “lonesome hero”, and so the mannequins seem to me, heroes and survivors: “What happened to your beauty happened to me.”

These photographs represent the strength and rebirth of a people, and hope, where once there was fear.

Martha Grenon