Following the tumult of the Balkan wars in the 1990s, the inland nation of Serbia found itself in political limbo. In 2000, the government under president Slobodan Milošević was ousted, its head given up to The Hague and tried for crimes against humanity in relation to the Bosnian genocide. Serbian LGBTQ organizations, which had been vocally anti-war and anti-nationalist in the later part of the ’90s, were excited to capitalize on the nation’s fresh commitment to democratic ideals. But in 2001, their optimism proved premature: Belgrade’s first attempt at a pride parade, scheduled just two days after Milošević’s arrest, was met with brutal violence from right-wing extremists, nationalists, and neo-Nazis with lingering commitments to the old regime. Images of bloodied marchers were broadcast around the world.
In the late 2000s, when Serbia was vying for a spot within the European Union, LGBTQ rights became a hot-button topic. In the year of Serbia’s application for EU membership, the United States and Europe pressured the nation to guarantee a pride parade without brutality, but in 2009, it was still too soon. Threats of violence spurred the government to cancel, and the parade’s main organizer, Majda Puaca, was forced to seek asylum in the United States. It wasn’t until September 2014 that a pride parade would take place uninterrupted, although with heavy police protection. Today, Serbia remains staunchly conservative, with deep influence from the Serbian Orthodox Church, and although the sociopolitical landscape for LGBTQ citizens is warming (in fact, Serbia’s first openly lesbian prime minister, Ana Brnabić, was elected in 2017 ), the thaw isn’t felt in the daily lives of many queer Serbians.
These are the folks captured in Lives in Transition: LGBTQ Serbia, the product of an 18-month endeavor by Serbian-born and New York-based photographer and architect Slobodan Randjelović. The artist, who returned to his homeland to document LGBTQ people living in Belgrade, introduces us to Helena, a trans woman who sits upright in her hospital bed moments after her gender-confirmation surgery. We also meet Dalibor and Srdjan, a handsome gay couple of more than six years who muse about their fears of violence on the streets. Another subject, Štefica, an up-and-coming drag queen, tells the familiar, yet triumphant tale of finding family in her community after being rejected by the family into which she was born.
“I hope to show a glimpse into their lives,” Randjelović writes, “so that anyone who reads this can find empathy and understand that we are all human, that we all hurt, and that we all love.” His photos show the ability of the camera to do so much more than document: It can explore the rich complexities of human relationships, pointing to the universalities that connect us across cultures and beyond borders.
Lives in Transition: LGBTQ Serbia, by Slobodan Randjelović, now available from the New Press