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Michał Siarek’s award-winning series on Macedonian national identity

The Polish student has shot to attention with an eye-catching project contrasting contemporary Skopje with its Classical allusions

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 with 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.”

From the series Alexander © Michal Siarek

From the series Alexander © Michał Siarek

Siarek is a student of photography in Lodz, Poland, and Alexander is his first major series, but it recently won Calvert 22 Foundation’s inaugural New East Photo Prize, which aims 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.

From the series Alexander © Michal Siarek

From the series Alexander © Michal Siarek

Siarek was returning to Skopje as we spoke, aiming to shoot the parliamentary elections triggered last year after protests against the pro-Nationalist government. This time he wants to shoot film as well as photographs, to produce a multimedia component to his series. “It will be an immersive narration that can reach an audience beyond the photography industry,” he says. “I want it to be cheap and accessible – I want it to be able to reach ordinary Macedonians.”

Alexander will be on show at Calvert 22 Foundation until 18 December, along with works by the 10 other shortlisted photographers – Ziyah Gafic, Katrina Kepule, Eugenia Maximova, Sasha Rudensky, Alexander Epikhov, Andrey Shapran, Michał Sierakowski, Lana Stojićević, Danila Tkachenko and Vladimir Vasilev.