For most of my life, I have preferred to see the world through the lens of my camera. I feel drawn to not only experience as much as I can, with as many people as I can, but also to document these people and places in a manner that captures the essence of the moment. I am thus not only able to preserve the moment, but perpetuate the experience by sharing the image with others. When I first opened the letter informing me–to my shock–that I would spend the year after graduating college in the Republic of North Macedonia with the Fulbright program, my first instinct was “I need to take a picture.”
Indeed, photography was the primary method I used to understand, dissect and reflect on my cultural immersion in this landlocked, fascinating South East European nation. Initially, I enjoyed documenting the many ways in which I identified with my new host country. My students at my placement university in the city of Štip were just as digitally literate and fluent in pop culture as their Millennial peers anywhere else in the world, including in the United States. Even the weather was similar, as the sweltering heat and humidity of a North Macedonian September recalled my upbringing on the coasts of the state of Georgia. The slower cadence in the pace of life, with a palpably Mediterranean feel, held parallels with the American South. The emphasis on long meals, long afternoons spent with friends, and the centrality of family evoked memories of home.
My camera became increasingly important as my understanding of life in North Macedonia evolved into a more nuanced, in-depth perspective, however. In Štip, time is demarcated just as much by the progression of the harvests as it is by the clock or calendar. The eastern portion of the nation is home to wine country, and the region is also famous for its abundance of different crops that grow in plenty in this landscape of gently undulating hills (“This reminds me of North Dakota,” my Fulbright Kosovo friend once remarked as we rode the two hour bus from the capital city of Skopje to Štip).
I began to mark the passage of time not in months but in terms of raspberry season, pepper season, onion season, apple season, cucumber season, and cherry season. Cafe meetups with my local friends were not set to a time but rather to “after sunset” or “when the day cools off.” I remember my surprise when the the normally sleepy city came alive with activity after the sun dipped behind the hills covered in brilliantly red poppies, and dinner parties started near midnight and lasted until the wee hours of the morning. I spent the first half of my Fulbright year in North Macedonia furiously snapping pictures of everything I could, from the wild puppies napping under a grape arbor to the neighborhood babas stirring savory and pungent vats of ajvar on their front porches (you can’t even imagine how delicious this smelled) to the brutalist Yugoslav monuments that dotted the countryside, relics of a bygone era.
I began to realize, however, that I couldn’t allow my camera to become a crutch. Too often, photographers insulate themselves from the subject by viewing them from behind the lens. Susan Sontag writes in her book, On Photography, that, particularly for travelers, “…taking pictures is also a way of refusing [experience]–by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir.” As my year passed in North Macedonia, I became increasingly conscious of this unfortunate phenomenon. I became aware that questions of composition, lighting and focus so often superseded more challenging considerations. “What is actually happening here? Who are these people? What are their lives like? What can I learn from them?” I eventually understood that I couldn’t truly understand North Macedonia’s complex society and history if I spent most of my time reducing the people to two dimensional images.
With this in mind, I made an effort to leave my camera at home. Instead, I focused on engaging with my host community and the students I came to teach–stepping away from merely documenting them. I stepped into the complexities of life in North Macedonia, and embraced every opportunity to let the community teach me. I tried to develop a new appreciation for the diversity and cultural vibrancy of the ethnic Macedonian, Albanian, Roma, Vlach, and Turkish communities, among others, learning of the the vastly different languages and religious traditions as well as the cultural practices that all the communities shared. I jumped over Christmas Kolede bonfires, broke bread during the Iftar dinner of Ramadan, ate fuschia-hued eggs during Orthodox Easter and basked in the strains of Kurdish melodies played on a traditional Turkish saz. With my students and colleagues, I threw stones off the summit of Istar mountain for good dreams and tied yarn dolls and bracelets to flowering fruit trees to petition for good luck from Baba Marta (Grandmother March, the harbinger of spring). I made memories instead of pictures.
Most importantly, I listened to my students as they shared their thoughts on life in their country, what they loved and what they wished they could change, as well as their hopes for their own futures. I learned about the challenges of living in a multi-ethnic society that had grappled for centuries with tension and conflict. I listened as my students shared their thoughts on politics and democracy, and why they had thoroughly mixed feelings on these matters. Life in North Macedonia isn’t always easy, especially for young people, and many of my students’ friends had already moved abroad in search of better opportunities. For better or for worse, North Macedonia has experienced enormous transformations to the political, social and economic landscape in its 29 years of independence, but many old challenges to governmental transparency and inter-community cooperation still remain. Setting down my camera allowed me to pick up a new awareness of the Byzantine dynamics that continue to shape the North Macedonia and the lives of its peoples.
My Fulbright year in North Macedonia inspired my epiphany that I was no longer content to remain a photographer, an observer in both the literal and figurative sense. I wanted to continue to engage in the country and play a role in helping North Macedonia’s young people create a more inclusive present and realize a more prosperous future. I felt particularly compelled to help young people in South East Europe transform into active agents within the power structures of their societies, interacting with public institutions and elected leaders to manifest real, inclusive change in the civic sphere.
Thanks to the Fulbright program, I was able to channel my experiences in North Macedonia into a position with the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in Washington, DC, a non-partisan and non-profit organization working to promote democratic capacity building around the world–including in South East Europe. As a Project Assistant with the Central and Eastern Europe team at NDI, I am able to work with young people in the region as they organize and plan efforts to engage with their local, municipal and national governments. I work with Roma activists to reduce discrimination against Roma candidates in politics and help amplify issues that disproportionately impact their community. I am able to organize conferences, training initiatives and networks for young politicians from across Eastern Europe and Eurasia and collaborate with them as they push for continued democratic reform. My Fulbright experience not only challenged me to do more than observe the problems the region faces, but also allowed me to participate in this work as a partner that was more attuned to the the unique approaches needed to make democracies in Eastern and South East Europe more effective, more inclusive of all communities and responsive to all citizens.
Most excitingly, my Fulbright year continues to catalyze new opportunities for me to engage in the region and pursue my passion for studying South East European history, ethnic relations and conflict resolution. I recently learned that I have been named a 2019 Marshall Scholar, and I will move to the United Kingdom next fall to spend the next two years reading for graduate degrees in international history, ethno-nationalism and South East Europe area studies. I know that my ability to share my personal experience with the human cost incurred by ethnic conflict and divisive identity politics in the region, and the exigency to realize economic progress and improved diplomatic relations, allowed me to convince the Marshall Scholarship Commission that British and American support for South East European nations, including North Macedonia, should remain a critical priority.
My time in North Macedonia has powerfully informed the direction of my life and career, as I aim to work in the intersection of conflict resolution, building civic identities and empowering young people to lead democratic reform–particularly in the ethno-political context of South East Europe. The Fulbright program provided me with the chance to move beyond mere observation and step into a transformative learning experience. Instead of watching from behind the lens, I realized during my Fulbright year that I want to work within the frame, joining the next generation of young leaders to make their vision of a more prosperous, cooperative future a reality.
Fulbright ETA North Macedonia (2017-2018)