Mountain Black: Photos from the Former Yugoslavia

Irina Rozovsky captures the disconcerting beauty of a nation that no longer exists.

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Nov 6 2015, 12:00am

These photos appear in the November Issue of VICE Magazine.

I'm in a rental car, pulling up to the border between Bosnia and Montenegro. The uniformed man in the booth squints down at me through the sweaty smoke of a cigarette that's dangling from his lower lip. My American passport turns his face sour with distaste but he stumbles on the first page and does a double take between my photo and me. "Russkaya?" he whispers with incredulity and then he's laughing like thunder. "Irina! You're one of us! Darko, come quick, a Russian." From somewhere, Darko appears, also in uniform, also with a cigarette.

They're wide-eyed and grinning like schoolboys, and saying something like, "Hey, meet our buddy, he's single." They slide open the window to reveal a third guy in uniform. "Like him?" This one seems like he had just got through an evening of getting punched in the face and drinking. "He was in a fight last night, but he's a nice guy. And he's looking for a girlfriend."

"Can I slika?" I reach for my camera. "Yes, sure, sure, slika." They sling their arms around each other, look proud, I take a photo and drive forward. A fourth, final patrol guard steps suddenly in front of the car with a wide stance and a massive gun slung across his body. He's clearly the boss. "Did you just take their photo? No photos at the border!"

"But I asked them if I could slika and they said yes."

"Of course they said yes. They are like dogs. What happens when you show a dog the meat?" I am not sure. "He will say yes," he says, steps aside and motions me onwards.

The world's biggest Balkan music festival erupts every summer in a tiny mountainous village in Serbia. I have always felt charmed and hypnotized by the absurd madness of these sounds and this August set out to put them in pictures. Approaching the village the first evening, I heard trumpets from far away, rising to the heights of joy and falling to the depths of pain. The music echoed loud among the dark mountains that have witnessed bloodshed and now seemed to sing about it.

The photographs in this portfolio were made during an ensuing road trip through the former Yugoslavia—a group of neighboring countries bound together by culture but fragmented by history and war. Perhaps, what I heard in the music, I began to see through my camera.

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