• Ljubljana / London
Miha Colner

Notes to Independence

Notes to Independence

The article entitled Notes to Independence was initially published in the catalogue of Backlight Photo Festival, Tampere, Finland, which was focusing on different notions of independence.


The human world, like that of many other living species, is undoubtedly hierarchical and structured in a particular social pyramid. This is a state of affairs from which (almost) nobody is exempt. The idea of personal independence is thus challenged at every step as (almost) nobody can act or react without taking his or her surrounding into account. This is what we call society, which has its own rules, regulations, expectations and conventions. At the same time there is the absurd notion that although people are essentially collective creatures, that very same collective affiliation often limits personal freedom and independence. These are, however, highly ambiguous concepts that are often misrepresented and abused for there are many different notions of independence, which is what makes it almost impossible to systematise. Moreover, it turns out that it is an even bigger challenge to address these related issues with visual means, namely photography.

Juha Arvid Helminen, The Herd, Invisible Empire, 2011

The most direct reference to the notion of political independence is the centenary of Finnish statehood, which was won after the end of World War I, in 1917. The so-called Great War was a catalyst for immense political change, in Europe especially but also globally, and the new-born state of Finland, was unable to avoid the bloody civil war in 1918. Moreover, there were number of related local histories across Europe in these unstable and groundbreaking times when many nation states were established. The solemn remembrances of those traumatic events, therefore, led to the conclusion that national independence is not the only form of independence. However, in the recent history, it has undoubtedly been a very common notion of it.

The 20th century was marked by the decay of old European empires and with struggles for independence of smaller nations which can only be seen in the broader picture of geopolitical interests of big world powers. The new–found freedom, national pride and patriotic zeal have always been short lived. None of the socio-political changes were unanimously approved by all sides involved. There were always winners and losers, heroes and victims; the latter were soon forgotten. The process of independence of the state of Finland was as traumatic and painful as any conflict that leads to civil war. Similarly, the process of disintegration of the republic of Yugoslavia in the 1990s was also characterised by ethnic hatred and extreme nationalism that saw thousands of people die and left thousands displaced.

Michal Siarek, The construction site of the future Archeological Museum of Macedonia, Skopje; from the Alexander series, 2013

By the end of the 20th century, nationalism had become increasingly destructive and damaging. Yet, two centuries ago nationalism was seen as rather emancipatory ideology–a side effect of the Enlightenment era. It offered people an opportunity to liberate themselves from the reign of supranational elites–noblemen who were ruling by “divine right”. But as the world irreversibly entered the era of globalisation, with all its positive and negative implications, nationalism became anachronistic and futile. Nowadays, in a world dominated by corporate power and private capital that was mostly accumulated through the depletion of the public assets, most nation states do not posses real sovereignty. On the other hand, nationalism, despite its many new forms, still adheres to ideals and aspirations from two centuries ago. Furthermore, it has became increasingly regressive and unadjusted to the contemporary way of life. However, in a world dominated by rising inequality, stratification of societies and gradual loss of civil rights nationalism and (economic) protectionism seem to be prevailing solutions for number of disappointed citizens.

Borko Vukosav, Used to Be, 2016

In a desperate attempt to fight back the new world order nationalism has, once again, become the opium of the masses. In Finland, former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, the struggle for national independence led to an ideological divide which still, constantly and relentlessly, brings up ghosts from the past. Therefore, it is somewhat logical that many contemporary artists deal with collective notions of independence and its many implications and consequences. Some of the artists participating in this year’s Backlight Photo Festival show the leftovers of the former states, while others question the ambivalence and horrors of civil war. There are two documentary-based projects about the war-torn region of Kurdistan, which is one of the biggest national territories without an official statehood. These works are emblematic in relation to the theme of the festival as the emphasis of the artists is as much on the emancipated position of women in the Kurdish society as on the idea of national independence of Kurds.

Sonja Hamad, Two Stand Still, Jin-Jiyan-Azadi, 2015

The artists who were selected to be part of Backlight Photo Festival mostly address different notions of personal and intimate independence bringing up extremely topical questions of how societies are structured and organised. The notion of personal independence is closely related to the ability to take care of oneself, to the possibility of being self-sustainable, or to the process of growing into adulthood. On the other hand independence is also a very commonly used and abused catchword that address people in order to sell solutions promising to improve one’s life. But nowadays, in the world of endless possibilities and multiple parallel lives, everything seems to be for sale, even independence.


Title image: Zaza Bertrand, Dreamland, 2015


© Miha Colner, May 2017 / proof reading: Ana Cavic