The Balkans actually are a mountain range in Bulgaria and Serbia, but their name has prevailed as the term designating the region between the Adriatic Sea and the Black Sea. Which countries belong to the Balkans is quite contentious. It depends on the viewpoint taken whether or not Slovenia, Croatia or Moldova form part of them. In any case, the term South-East Europe, which is often used synonymously, encompasses all of these states.
There are many definitions of the Balkans: There are those who regard them as the interface between the Orient and the Occident. There are others who regard them as a historical region, which is characterised by its ethnic and religious variety and changing affiliations to various empires, among them Byzantium, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.
The Bulgarian historian Maria Todorova takes the position that Western Europe invented the Balkans in order to create its own identity. They were already used by western authors as a negative reflection in the 19th century. The Balkans were constructed as a primitive, violent and incomplete region – not quite European, but not quite foreign either – and thus regarded as inferior to Western culture. Todorova calls this phenomenon as Balkanism.
The photographer Harald Schmidt also noticed that our mental image of the Balkans is strongly influenced by stereotypes. In 2015, he therefore decided to get to the bottom of his own preconceptions of South-East Europe and to document this venture by photograph. He travelled across the Balkans a total of six times, together with his wife Annette in order to get acquainted with the countries and their people.
The photographer Harald Schmitt introduces himself.
► Audio commentary (in German)
(MP3 file, 1.21 MB)
"Facing the Balkans" is an invitation to follow Harald Schmitt on his journey through South-East Europe. The exhibition takes the visitors from Slovenia in the north to Albania in the south, from Croatia in the west to Moldova in the east. Eight sections show the topics the photographer took a particular interest in.
The images on display are characterised by Schmitt’s self-concept as a photo reporter. For more than three decades, he worked for the journal STERN; among other things, he spent six years as accredited correspondent in the German Democratic Republic. During the 1980s and 1990s, he travelled to the countries of Eastern Europe several times, in order to document the historical changes taking place there, such as the Velvet Revolution of 1989 in Czechoslovakia or the August Putsch of 1991 in Russia. He won the World Press Photo Award, the most important award in the field of press photography, six times for his work.