Choice is a word that most of us refer to as second nature, it’s value unnoticed. To the slum dwellers of Deponija in New Belgrade, Serbia, it is a luxury out of reach.
Serbia, a country situated in the Balkan region of Europe is one that has experienced crippling economic, social and political turmoil within the last few decades. Its result can only be described as unsurprising and unfortunate to the mass of it’s population who are left to fend for themselves.
Deponija, a Serbian word for landfill, resembles it’s description, a collection of unstable structures built one on top of the other made from none other than garbage, loose materials and really anything that their people can get their hands on. It is a slum, and one that spans an area close in size to about 10 football fields. Their unhygienic conditions are catalyzed by the complete lack of sewage and electricity along with only a very small percentage of its inhabitants with the use of running water. Located under the Pančevački bridge, its out of place looking background is lined with modern buildings and a shopping centre, a lifestyle out of reach to most of it’s inhabitants.
In April of 2011 I had the opportunity of photographing what was my first up close encounter with a slum of that magnitude. Along with the obvious issues that go hand in hand with such dwellings, I was almost immediately, and to my surprise, struck with innocent displays of hope and strength in what to me would be my worst nightmare. Among the chaos of it’s nature, I witnessed a group of men playing soccer in the adjacent parking lot, children riding bicycles and clothes- lines filled with brightly coloured clothing.
The two young boys in the top photograph saw me with my camera atop the bridge and ran to get their photograph taken. They were accompanied twine leash in hand by their own dog and a gang of 3 strays. Right as I was preparing to take the shot, one of the strays bit their dog on the neck. The boy on the right kicked the stray with as much force as he would kick a soccer ball and then nonchalantly turned to me putting his arm on his buddy’s shoulder and posed. It all happened so fast I wasn’t quite sure how to react, do I flip on this kid or do I accept the situation?
My photographer instinct went on autopilot and I took the shot. Directly after the kick, neither the boy nor the dog seemed fazed by the encounter. It was then, I realized that they were both in similar situations; survival mode. Their survival instincts were just too strong to let a trivial experience affect them. This strength surprised me. It is something I can only hope to posses in my life, also something I hope that these boys don’t lose touch with over time.
Entering this foreign environment with negative preconceived opinions, I left with a very different view. One that saw displays of strength, whether it’s strength to forget or strength to change, it is a quality they must embrace and one that must be recognized. The people of Deponija are not hopeless, they are for the most part a misunderstood people in an environment less than fitting for anyone.