It seems there’s something of a debate going on here these days about whether Belgrade is “beautiful” and it got me to thinking, what is ‘beautiful’? How do we define it?
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As a photographer, beauty is an important part of what I do. In even the most depressing images there is a certain part of the creative process which gives way to the question ‘How do I make this image beautiful? How do I make it resonate with others so they see and understand what I am seeing here?’. In his book Within The Frame, the photographer & author David duChemin speaks of it in wider terms as creating & expressing our ‘Vision’. The unique perspective or way in which we see things and how we try to show that in a photograph.
My vision of Belgrade first began to take shape about six years ago when I travelled over to meet a wonderful lady who has since become my best friend & sister. She had described Belgrade to me as being ‘something like England 20 years ago’ and if ever there were words more likely to get me on the first flight over, I don’t know of any. You see, people look to the west and automatically they seem to think it is ‘more’. More beautiful, more advanced, more free, more…everything. It’s not true. Sure, we have Manchester United, we have cricket, we have .. well, United & cricket but, after that, what we have is what we make of things ourselves, culture, art, community, etc, etc. It’s these things which in my mind equate to beauty and Belgrade has them by the bucketful.
I arrived in Belgrade after a day spent working and travelling. 20 hours non-stop and I was shattered. My friend collected me from the airport and we took a taxi straight to Skadarlija for something to eat and at that moment I went straight into sensory overload! Beauty is not just something you see, it’s something you feel, you live, and you breathe deep into the heart of your soul. Walking the length of Skadarlija with the music in my ears, the scent of the most glorious food in my nostrils, and in the company of my dearest friend amidst the beauty of a vibrant nightlife, in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined being in a more beautiful place. My favourite quote from Morihei Ueshiba “Heaven is right where you are standing” couldn’t have been more true.
Later that night we walked down Knez Mihailova, the recently watered flowers creating pools on the ground which glistened and reflected the lights of the shops in such a way that I probably felt much the same as Dorothy did following the yellow brick road. That led us to Kalemegdan rather than the Emerald City but still, overlooking the Sava & Danube, it was another place I fell instantly in love with. Over the coming days, my friend introduced me to many different places and many different aspects of Belgrade life and I don’t think there was one moment when I wasn’t completely & blissfully happy. Belgrade can do that to you.
When my friend had described Belgrade being like England 20 years ago, she hadn’t meant it was backward in some negative way, what she had described was a place where community still matters, where people are friendly, where life is lived with a smile on the face, and where beautiful women don’t walk along the streets in t-shirts proclaiming ‘I’m a bitch’, as if being miserable, annoying, and angry for no reason, is something to be proud of. I digress, In England, I can tell you the name of my neighbours in the house next door but any further down the street and i’m struggling. In Belgrade, we sat with our neighbours in a cafe in the street, and we talked, we smiled, and we shared the joy of living. In the evening we went to a club where we sat down with friends, had drinks, and listened to a local band ‘La Luna’ playing just about every style of music you can imagine. To say that the place was rocking is an understatement. The only way you weren’t going to dance that night was if your legs were broken … even then you’d have probably given it a go!
In the days that followed and the years that have passed since, I have experienced many different sides of life in Belgrade and I can say without doubt it’s the most beautiful city I know and the place I feel most at home. My pathetic attempts at speaking Serbian have been met with laughter, applause, and smiles of appreciation, my natural shyness overwhelmed by welcoming hearts and infectious joy. If you think of beauty as some kind of mathematical equation, some kind of recipe where each component has to be measured out and placed in the bowl in just the right order, then heated for an exact period of time, not a second more nor less, then perhaps Belgrade is a city of contradiction… And perhaps you’re an accountant in a grey suit with 2 point 4 children. If, on the other hand, you see beauty with your heart as well as your eyes, then there’s no contradiction. Belgrade is stunningly beautiful! It’s a place of life, where living is not only encouraged, it’s compulsory!