In Europe’s blind spot

© Nihad Nino Pušija

Photographer Nihad Nino Pušija documents the everyday lives of the Roma in his exhibition Sarajevo – Berlin RETOUR at the Academy of the Arts.

Baby Michael looks like a little angel. He looks into the camera with his head slightly slanted, his mouth half open. His aunt Izeta holds him up by her left hand and smiles at him. This beautiful and proud black-and-white double portrait was created 21 years ago in a Berlin refugee hostel. It was taken by the photographer Nihad Nino Pušija, born in Sarajevo in 1965, who had also fled to Berlin, where he still lives today. This is where he began to document the situation of his compatriots, after awhile concentrating on the Roma. They have remained the focus of his artistic work.

The exhibition Sarajevo – Berlin RETOUR at the Galerija Akademije likovni umjestnosti features around 250 of his photographs and will offer an insight into his work until Wednesday. For the most part, they are presented as projections that are divided into three themes. The most important to Pušija is the chapter called “Neglected Europeans,” which shows the housing situation of Roma in different European countries. The spectrum ranges from poor settlements to large mansions. The chapter “Chavez – Children” also shows the diversity of the ethnic group: We see a smartly dressed girl in Hungary and in the next picture a Bosnian boy who is obviously growing up under far more precarious circumstances. The third part of the exhibition deals with Roma art and activism.

Nihad Nino Pušija wants to use his photos to contribute to the “deconstruction of clichés and to break down the stigmatisation of the Roma.” We never see bare feet, colourful skirts or jolly musicians in his photos. “Those are the images in many people’s minds. That’s exactly what I don’t want to show.” Instead, he portrays the Jasenovac survivor Nadir Dedić, whom he met in 2012 at the inauguration of the monument to the Sinti and Roma murdered in Nazi Germany in Berlin and later visited in his Zagreb flat. Seated in front of a portrait of Tito, Dedić’s blue eyes look into the camera in a friendly and slightly melancholy way. On his waistcoat he wears a badge of the monument of Jasenovac. He never forgot his time in the camp, also because it was where he met his future wife.

For Pušija’s work, it is essential that he meet the people whose lives he documents more than once. For example, he has kept in touch with four families from near Tuzla since the 1990s, for which he at times became a kind of social worker. He phoned Berlin offices and doctors, helped them find places to live and testified in court. “You have to help. After all, you are taking something from the people, so you give something back. This is no photo safari.” In this way, Pušija has become an insider whom people trust. Since his first exhibition on Roma everyday life with the photo of Michael and Izeta at Berlin’s NGBK gallery, he had held many more. One was the Duldung Deluxe project, which dealt with the residence status of “toleration” (suspension of deportation) that negatively affects the lives of many young Roma in Germany. They have no permanent right of residence, but are only provisionally tolerated, which makes it very difficult for them to search for work and plan their futures.

It is even worse for Roma coming to Germany now. If they come from Serbia, Kosovo or BiH, for instance, they have virtually no chance for asylum, because these states are considered “safe countries of origin.” What this euphemism looks like in real life is among the many things that can be seen in the photographs of Nihad Nino Pušija.