It’s Wednesday evening 27 June 2018 and around forty guests gather to meet with Dutch independent photographer Willem Poelstra in the café-bookstore and cultural venue Dit’ e Nat’ in the Kosovar capital of Pristina. Poelstra is there to personally hand out his book For Hanna, Future Stories from the Past… to the people who made this project possible.
‘Today, I want to thank everyone who has helped me realise this project since 2012’, Poelstra says. ‘Perhaps you’ll find your portrait in my book, or perhaps you drove around the country with me. I’ve been to so many places that even the police started to recognise my number plate.’
Poelstra worked for six years on a monumental documentary project about post-war Kosovo and the deep rifts that still exist between the Kosovar Albanian and Serbian communities. What all visitors have in common, is that they took a lot of effort to help Poelstra find new leads, connect him with new contacts – or because they were portrayed themselves.
‘Documentary photographers usually work like this: you finish you project, you bring it back home to exhibit, and you show the visitors what people “over there” look like’, Poelstra says about his decision to go through lengths to exhibit his project in Kosovo and Serbia.
‘I wanted to bring back the project to where it should be seen and discussed: here in Kosovo and in Belgrade.’
The event in Pristina followed on the opening of the For Hanna, Future Stories from the Past exhibition at cultural centre Parobrod in Belgrade, two days earlier. In late 2016, it was already exhibited in Pristina, in a major outdoor exhibition in front of the parliamentary building at the busy Mother Theresa Boulevard. Showing his project in Kosovo and in Serbia is a very sensitive matter, as the war has left deep scars on both sides of the conflict.
Poelstra: ‘I remember a very big guy approaching me at the exhibition in Pristina. I got a nervous feeling in my stomach, but he started praising the project right away. “It’s great that you’ve done this, my children should see it and know about this,” he said.’
Previous to the exhibition, Forhanna organised a masterclass on visual storytelling in Belgrade, for professional photographers from Kosovo and Serbia. ‘A very special experience’, recalls one of the participants who is also present at the book presentation in Pristina. ‘The memories are still fresh, but we were able to talk about our experiences. It’s better to solve these issues by talking then by starting another war.’
Poelstra ends his talk by asking a favour of the audience. ‘There’s one last thing you could do for me. Take some time to read the stories and act as an ambassador for the book. Talk about these stories with people you know. Share these stories. Do something with it.’
Willem Poelstra and Forhanna made the book For Hanna, Future Stories from the Past available to the Kosovo audience for a reduced price of twenty euros, instead of the regular retail price of sixty euros. The book is for sale in Dit’ e Nat’.