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Velibor Božović

Every picture tells a story - or does it?
A photography student explores what goes on behind the frame

Velibor Božović l Photo: Christie Vuong Velibor Božović l Photo: Christie Vuong

Velibor Božović is not afraid to make radical decisions: he chucked in his engineering career at the age of 40 to start studying photography full-time.

Perhaps that's because profound change is not foreign to Božović. When he was in his mid-20s, the engineering graduate's idyllic life was blown apart when his hometown of Sarajevo came under siege during the Bosnian War. Drafted into service, he became a soldier in the army of which his father was a prisoner. After two years of not knowing what had happened to the other, the army brought father and son together and filmed the emotional reunion.

Božović plays back a few minutes of the film on his laptop. "The footage is a document, it's a record of my memories, and it's propaganda," he says. "I don't know where one ends and the other begins."

The MFA in Studio Arts student incorporated some of the footage into a recent video installation called My Prisoner.  (The work was featured in the 2012 edition of Ignition, Concordia's annual curated graduate student exhibition.) In it, he questions the malleability of the memory and the shortcomings of seemingly factual photographic documentation. 

In fact, Božović hasn't watched the whole film yet because he's concerned it will influence his memories of the encounter. He wants to write down his recollections before seeing the rest.

On the other hand, he says images don't tell the whole story either.

While a photograph has a great power, Božović explains, it also has a great, inherent weakness: the major providers of the content - the action that brought the elements together in the frame and the time at which it happened - are invisible. "That's why we desperately search for context when we look at a photograph," he notes. It doesn't necessarily help to look for clues in the faces of any people in the frame:  they tend to perform for the camera, he says.

"For me, all of this combined leads to fiction versus documentary," he says. Perhaps that's why he doesn't attempt to show a truth in his work. He just wants to tell a good story. 

Of tribes and stories

Božović didn't get into photography until a year or two after moving to Montreal in 1999. Taking photographs "kept him sane" from his day job, which the father of two eventually quit with the full support of his wife. He entered the BFA program at Concordia in 2007, graduating with great distinction in 2011 and immediately plunging into graduate studies.

His projects revolve around his exploration of storytelling, for which he often collaborates with writers. In the critically acclaimed The Lazarus Project, for example, he travelled with his friend Aleksander Hemon on a research to Eastern Europe to take photographs. For Stone Sleepers, a work by a professor friend, he took images of medieval cemeteries in his native Bosnia.

More recently, Božović has been exploring the theme of tribes, taking pictures of people with whom he shares some affiliation. An avid soccer fan, he began shooting fans wearing their favourite club's jersey, underlain with themes of immigration and displacement. And in a year-in-the-life-style project, he's taken portraits of his neighbours, the families on his street.

Lazarus (2003) Image courtesy Velibor Božović. Click to enlarge. Lazarus (2003) Image courtesy Velibor Božović. Click to enlarge.

"I tend to archive people. At one point in my life, my world collapsed and people left," he says, his hands flying apart. Getting to know the people of these "tribes" in Montreal is satisfying work. Learning their stories and sharing information, he says, is as much part of taking the photograph as the mechanical process. It ties in with his belief that much more is going on behind the scenes than what is portrayed, that an image conceals as much as it reveals.

Does Božović have any regrets about making his "financially suicidal" decision to quit his corporate career for full-time study in the fine arts?

"I'm happy," he replies. And with his work enjoying success - it's gained international exposure through exhibition and publication (including The New York Times), and his awards include a research scholarship from the Fonds de recherche du Quebec - Société et culture - the odds are his big gamble will pay off.

Story by Liz Crompton. Posted on Oct. 1, 2012

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