The Lazarus Project is a collaborative work produced by photographer Velibor Božović and writer Aleksandar Hemon that combines text and imagery, fact and fiction, and the past and the present. To produce their photo-infused novel, which was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award and won the 2010 Jan Michalski Prize for Literature, Božović and Hemon travelled to Eastern Europe to reconstruct the journey of a Jewish immigrant, Lazarus Averbuch, who fled Kishinev due to the pogroms – large-scale anti-Semitic riots – and was killed by American police in 1908. Božović and Hemon, who themselves immigrated from Bosnia to North America due to the war, infuse elements of their own story into the work, complicating our understanding of migration, displacement, memory, and what it means to go back ‘home’. In this interview with GUP, Božović explains how this project radically altered the way he views and understands photographs and the world around him.
The Lazarus Project started as an idea that your friend Aleksandar Hemon had for a novel, but he asked you to collaborate with him to produce images for it, as well. How did that evolve?
Aleksandar and I have been best friends since our teenage years and when he was visiting my family and I in Montreal, I showed him some of my prints. He saw something in them, I guess, because a few days after his return to Chicago he called me and asked if I would join him for a research trip around Eastern Europe for this new story he was thinking about.
Aleksandar had encountered two images from the Chicago Historical Society that show the Jewish immigrant Lazarus Averbuch, dead and sitting in a chair, while a police officer is standing next to him and holding his head. The images were taken while Lazarus’ body was displayed to the public in order to justify why Chicago’s chief of police George Shippy killed him when he was unarmed. According to the records, police claimed that based on Lazarus’ appearance, it was obvious that he was up to no good; therefore, killing him was simply necessary.
Of course, I was thrilled to collaborate. A road trip with my best friend around parts of the world I’d never been to and my ‘job’ would be to take photographs – what’s not to like? At the time, I worked as engineer and photographed in my free time, to keep myself sane.
So, in the summer of 2003, we left for Eastern Europe with the only camera I had, the only lens I had and 40 rolls of film.
You say you photographed to ‘keep yourself sane’. What do you mean by that?
In ’98, my wife, new-born son and I left Sarajevo and came to Montreal where I started working as an engineer and I quickly realized that I needed to do something else with my time to keep myself sane so that life was not just the corporate world. I learned a bit of photography in Sarajevo in high school but then I didn’t do it for many years, until I came to Canada and started struggling with the idea of working in the corporate world until I would be 65. In retrospect it was quite crazy that I left that world and became a student again at the age of 42, to get my BFA and then MFA.
How did the process of taking photographs (primarily for a novel) differ from other photography projects and series you’ve made?
Working on a purely photographic project is very different than working on a project where photographs are not the only source of information or generator of feelings. Once a photograph is embedded in a literary work (or any other kind of work that employs some other medium) its role and meaning shifts. What was unique in working on The Lazarus Project is that one of the characters in the novel is a photographer. As we were traveling around, Aleksandar and I discussed these characters, a fictional writer and photographer, Brik and Rora. We were trying to imagine what they would do, what they would talk about and what Rora would photograph. After my return home, I developed the film and made contact sheets, only to discover images and moments that I had a hard time recalling. It was as if someone else borrowed my camera and took some of these images. I was obviously influenced, sometimes, by the ‘presence’ of Rora.
Also, The Lazarus Project differs from everything else I’ve done simply because this was the very first photographic project I worked on. Up to that point I was learning about photography on my own. Then, all of a sudden, I was involved in a creative process where a great many things were important and not just how to take a good shot. My creative collaboration with Aleksandar on The Lazarus Project changed my way of reading images, changed my way of seeing the world around me and, perhaps most importantly, changed my way of participating in that world. Finally, it led to a few radical changes in my life including abandoning my engineering career in 2007 and devoting my life to storytelling, mostly with images.
How did your way of reading images change?
Well, I think I really became aware of the significance of images and the stories that they could tell. I was not really thinking about those things prior to that, I loved photographs and I liked to photograph. I even built a little darkroom in my apartment where I would print after work and take pictures on the weekends. Also, I would pick up magazines and look at photography but I really didn’t know very much about contemporary photography or even about the history of photography. Additionally, the context in which images were created and in which they were presented became apparent to me in that there is a large significance to this. I became more aware of the process, the role of the photograph, the meaning of the photograph and the story that the photograph tells.
You said that during the trip, you were influenced by Rora – the photographer character in the novel. Could you expand on this?
Rora is a fictional character, but we do have some biographical similarities. Rora was there during the war in Sarajevo, I was there during the war in Sarajevo. Rora travels with a writer (a character named Brik), I travelled with a writer (Aleksandar). However, in terms of character or personality we are quite opposite. In some aspects I would really like to be like Rora - I admire that nothing holds him back. Of course, I'm not Rora.
How much of the Lazarus Project was already written at the time that you and Aleksandar went to Eastern Europe together?
None of it was written. Aleksandar did have an idea, he read about the real story of Lazarus Averbuch, and he had this idea of going on a trip to visit all these places where Lazarus came from, but none of it was written and it took another five years after we went on that trip and all of these photographs were taken before the book actually came out in 2008. We were discussing these characters and how they would be and what would they think when visiting these places, but it was really just the very beginning of The Lazarus Project.
The transition was brutal to the vast majority of people. And that transition is blurry, just like some of those images, in which only a few have the means to clearly see what is and was going on.
Beyond enhancing Aleksandar’s prose, your photographs create a narrative and tell their own stories. Considering the series is presented on different platforms (the novel, the digital archive collaborative project, or your own website) what effect do you feel this has on the way viewers encounter the photographs and visual narrative?
Photography is a medium, perhaps more so than any other, in which the story and its meaning do not actually originate with the creator but with the recipient (though many photographers would disagree with this). Every photograph tells as many stories as there are viewers. Additionally, the same image when viewed on a digital platform or as a print on the wall, or on a page in a book, functions differently and affects a viewer differently. Just as it is impossible to pull the visual content of the photograph entirely from the context in which it was created, it is impossible to pull the visual content of a photograph out of the context in which it is presented. In literature, the narrator can shift from being an outsider to becoming an insider, and the character can take over and tell his/her own story. I’m interested in how this could work in photography but I don’t have an answer. One person in the picture can’t tell anything about the other people. Those portrayed, subjected to the image, do not have any voice unless the photographer, or viewer, steps out of the medium and uses some other means, like words.
Of course subjects in photographs cannot speak to each other as characters do in written narratives, but can’t the subjects in photographs have agency?
Yes, maybe they do, but what is that agency? Really, we see images and then we project what we think or what we imagine this should be or what we read in some other context. On its own, the subject that’s in the photograph does not have the power to say what the photograph is about or what’s going on. Whenever we see a photograph, there is the knowledge that we have of the world that impacts what we see in the photograph and then if that photograph is in a book or is on a wall or a website it further influences how we see it. In that sense, I think literature is much more capable of giving voice to those that are subjected to the story. Photographs on the other hand, really rely on the viewer and the presenters of the photographs and in which context the images are presented and in which light we want to see them.
When photographing journeys you use long exposures that create an almost ghostly remnant of your / the character’s presence. I can imagine that this speaks to the collision of the past and present. Does it address anything deeper or different?
I don’t know about “deeper” but long exposures are result of, and speak to, different things. We travelled a lot in a relatively short period of time (one month). Scenes were coming up quickly and unexpectedly. Sometimes a long exposure was just necessary to take the photograph. Not all long exposures were there because I wanted to say something with them. Many were a result of the camera setting that I didn’t have time to alter, or even forgot to alter. So, in retrospect, they are the reflection of the road trip, they expose duration and maybe “the collision of past and present”, they also refer to transition in which that part of the world was going through (and still does) from Communism to Capitalism. The transition was brutal to the vast majority of people. And that transition is blurry, just like some of those images, in which only a few have the means to clearly see what is and was going on.
Unlike some other photo-text novels, all of the photographs in The Lazarus Project come at the beginning of each chapter, rather than being dispersed in the midst of them. Can you speak to this decision? Does the visual guide the verbal?
The visual does not guide the text but it is deeply connected with it. In my mind the visual performs some functions that the text can’t or would struggle to perform. When we read literature we imagine the world it describes. Having a photograph at the beginning of a chapter gives that world authenticity (however problematic this authenticity might be); it suggests to us, “this is real”. In The Lazarus Project, photographs push the reader to engage with history. But they also complicate things, since half of the images in the book come from historical archives and half are my contemporary photographs. Sometimes the difference is hard to distinguish. Most importantly, one of the leading characters in the novel is a photographer. The photographs stand in for him.
The photographs depict reality, what happened in the photograph happened in real life in front of the lens. So, photographs make a reader engage with history and this might be harder to do with only words, especially in a literary work marketed as a novel (which implies fiction). When you see a photograph of Lazarus Averbuch then you know he really existed and at that very moment you, a reader, confront history.
But at the same time, it’s the most mysterious of mediums. Because without specific contexts it could mean so many different things. Photographs have this power to lure you in but, you know, photographs also confuse things.