Holm Sundhaussen has analysed in detail the construction of memory and myths in Yugoslavia and its successor states, positing that memories are dependent on social setting and context, and are consequently subject to change.[1] When Yugoslavia broke up, the Yugoslav memory was broken down into a number of national memories that were given the task of setting up the new identities of each individual nation. Debates that involved an attitude to the past, different interpretations and manipulations according to given political goals were omnipresent in the media. Names like Jasenovac and Bleiburg went beyond their topographical referentiality, and each time they were mentioned included different possible interpretations and contextualisations. This prompted consideration of the culture of memory and of the places that in various ways construct the national history and identity. Thus in 2008 I started the research and in 2009 began taking series of photographs that I named Infertile Grounds, metaphorically signifying the impossibility of development in an area in which historical accounts had never been settled. I was interested by places that political rhetoric had used copiously in inflammatory speeches during the 90s, places of institutionalised memory as well as those that had never been marked by a single memorial plaque. As after World War II, so after the war in the former Yugoslavia, the politics of memory labelled what needed remembering, and suppressed what it was desirable to forget. Each party in the conflict has the need to commemorate only its own victims and deny the right of the other party its memories.

Pierre Nora claims that the concept lieux de memoire was created because in our society rituals have vanished. Nora believes that museums, archives, cemeteries and collections, public holidays, anniversaries, memorials and shrines are the rituals of a society without a ritual, artificially established, determined and decreed by a society deeply absorbed in its own transformation and renewal.[2] There is no spontaneous memory, hence the endeavour to create it from archives, marking anniversaries and organising celebrations, carrying out operations that according to Nora are no longer natural. It is hard to understand what it is that prevents Croatian citizens who so heartily wanted to have independence hanging out the Croatian flag on their homes on the days of state holidays. Year after year television polls show that citizens of this country do not know which national holidays are celebrated on which day. “Every group that wants to consolidate itself as such endeavours to create and secure spaces that are not just the theatres of its forms of interaction but also symbols of its identity and moorings for its memory,” writes Assman.[3] And so the Altar of the Homeland was, significantly, set up at Zagreb’s burg of Medvedgrad during the rule of Franjo Tudjman, the first president of
Croatia, in 1994, and after his death was neglected and little visited.
As historian, Tudjman was obsessed with historical revisionism and the establishment of rituals of memory to build up an authentic Croatian identity. But the only places that are visited and that do have an importance in the cultural memory are places of real events from recent history, sites of mass crimes and suffering. Naturally, only those places that in the official culture of memory are accepted, marked by memorial plaques and monuments. “The most original medium of any mnemonic device is location in space,” as Assman points out. But while mnemonics operate with imagined spaces, the culture of memory sets up signs in natural space.[4] When in Varivode a memorial slab was erected to the Serbian victims killed after the military operation Storm, it was smashed the very next day. The same thing happened in the Bay of Slana on Pag island, the site of a concentration camp where 15,000 to 18,000 people, mostly Serbs and Jews were killed from mid-June to August 25, 1941. In the collective memory, this place hardly exists. Individual memories are cherished by the descendants of those who were killed, by those who have the need to commemorate their own dead.

Places of memory are not unambiguous; rather, their meanings are in a state of flux, and a change in the political system can completely change the meaning of a place. The village of Srb, in Lika, was marked in Yugoslavia by a monument commemorating the day of the uprising of the people of the Socialist Republic of Croatia against Nazism and fascism; however, when Croatia became independent, the commemoration of AntiFascist Struggle Day changed its location and date, and the monument in Srb was blown up and destroyed.[5] 

The photographs of the Infertile Grounds series show empty landscapes, on the whole avoiding putting any memorial emblems in the frame. Memorial signs are indications of a politically motivated culture of memory and are subject to destruction, change of meaning and ideological iconography. Assman points out that “even landscapes can serve as a medium of cultural memory”[6] and then are entirely elevated to the level of sign. He calls them mnemotopes[7].  Landscape is a social construct, which Liz Wells defines as the look that comprehends both nature and the impact that humanity has had upon it.[8] Mitchell states that landscape “is a medium of exchange between the human and the natural, the self and the other. It is both a represented and a presented space, both a signifier and a signified, both a frame and what a frame contains.”[9] Accordingly, in the series Infertile Grounds I take the landscape as the point of departure, and look upon it as site for the construction of collective memory. Some of these sites have been raised by ideology to the level of the sign, and the actual topographical reference as title of a photograph evokes in the viewer a whole series of common/produced knowledge and media interpretations. “Naming transforms space into place”, writes Wells.[10] For the photographer too, in the very act of photographing, the landscape is that “present space” that he or she experiences and interprets while including the ballast of all that knowledge and all those emotions created in the meditative process of recording with a large format camera. History is not visually inscribed in the landscape itself, but the fact is that these selfsame trees were growing in the winter when the Ustashas turned Donja Gradina into an immense region of mass graves and when the same location was photographed almost 70 years later. Poplar of Sighs orPoplar of Brother Satan, as the inmates of Jasenovac Camp called the tree on which the Ustashas hanged their victims after first savagely torturing them, has absorbed and also contains memories of these events, or we can at least believe that among its grains there is this inscription, if illegible to us.

Unlike places that by institutionalisation have permanently secured a place in the collective memory, like Jasenovac and Donja Gradina[11], some sites have only recently been discovered, have still been insufficiently investigated, and their geographical names will arouse the interest of just the handful of initiates. Such are the places Kljuc Brdovecki and Gornji Hrascan, locations at which the Partisans allegedly, immediately after World War II, carried out the mass executions and burial of hundreds of Ustashas, regular soldiers and members of the Wehrmacht. This memory was repressed and even proscribed in Yugoslavia, but that was unable to prevent human bones occasionally being turned up in the fertile ploughland in the surroundings of Zapresic. A look at the landscape here is a look at nothing, or as Mitchell records: “The invitation to look at a view is thus a suggestion to look at nothing - or more precisely, to look at looking itself - to engage in a kind of conscious apperception of space as it unfolds itself in a particular place”.[12] Where the naming of the locality is not enough13 a text providing the factual details of the historical events inducts the viewer into the context of the space that he or she is looking at in the photograph. It is this history that the landscape shown transforms from a general and undefined space into a place.[13] 

Some locations by their very names will evoke just nice memories of a family weekend trips to the Zagreb mountain, Sljeme, like the popular hiking lodge Adolfovac. But this was also the site of the execution of Aleksandra and Marija Zec, who on December 8, 1991, were taken there by the police reservists of the so-called squadron of death commanded by Tomislav Mercep, after they had murdered their father and husband Mihajlo Zec in their home in Tresnjevka. The case of the liquidation of the Zec family is very well known in the Croatian public, particularly since the killers, even after their admission of guilt, were released; but the place of their murder is not marked, is not a part of the official culture of memory. The hiking lodge Adolfovac was itself burnt down to the ground in 1993. The photographs are more than a mere reference to a real locality, for the viewers they can become a real place.[14] 

For this reason, in the Infertile Grounds series I endeavour to create a place of memory within the space of the photograph, an alternative memento that is not created by ideology, rather by the need to open up the space of remembrance for victims who are never going to acquire their own space in the official culture of memory. 

Sandra Vitaljić

[1] Sundhaussen, Holm, “Jugoslavija i njene države sljednice. Konstrukcija, destrukcija i nova konstrukcija "sjećanja" i mitova, in Brkljačić, M., Prlenda, S. (ed.), Kultura pamćenja i historija, Golden marketing-Tehnička knjiga, Zagreb, 2006.,  p. 242

[2] Nora, Pierre, Between Memory and History: Le Lieux de Memoire, Representations No. 26, Spring 1989, University of California Press, p.12

[3] Assman, Jan, “Kultura sjećanja”, in Brkljačić, M., Prlenda, S. (ed.), Kultura pamćenja i historija, Golden marketing-Tehnička knjiga, Zagreb, 2006,  p. 54, translated from Croatian

[4] Ibid., p. 70

[5] The Srb memorial was reconstructed in 2010, but the actual events in Srb in July 1941 are still subject to various controversial interpretations.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Halbwachs also wrote of the legendary topography of the Holy Land as expression of collective memory, explaining it by the need for each group to localise and monumentalise their own memory. In the previous chapter, Broomberg and Chanarin, already mentioned, dedicated the only visual chapter in their book Chicago to the Palestinian landscape, whose history contemporary Israel is systematically erasing, attempting to wipe out every memory of Arab life before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Desert areas are afforested with pines in a contemporary ritual in which the victims of terrorist attacks and fallen soldiers are commemorated. These woods have become popular excursion sites, and the beauty of the afforested landscape calls to mind the image of a paradisal garden, calling to mind the lost homeland of the Jews. And yet, this new forest landscape is actually located in the expropriated lands of Arab villages that have been destroyed, the inhabitants forcibly evacuated in 1948. Broomberg and Chanarin with their photographs draw attention to landscape as a space for the deletion of memory and of collective amnesia. See Broomberg, Adam, Chanarin, Oliver, Chicago, SteidlMACK, Gottingen, 2006.: 

[8] Wells, Liz, Land Matters - Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity, I.B. Tauris, London, 2011,  p. 2

[9] Mitchell, W.J.T., Landscape and Power, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994, 2002,  p. 5     
[10] Wells, Liz, Land Matters - Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity, I.B. Tauris, London, 2011.,  p. 3

[11] Jasenovac and Donja Gradina are a battlefield for different remembrance cultures. Once part of a single unit called Jasenovac Memorial Area, today these two locations are in two different states – Jasenovac in Croatia and Donja Gradina in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or rather, in Republika Srpska. At commemorations on the different banks of the Sava, different numbers of victims are mentioned. During the years, the different sides have manipulated the number of victims of Jasenovac, and the figure has ranged from 30,000 to 700,000. According to the most recent research of the Jasenovac Memorial Centre, the real number of victims ranged between 80,000 and 100,000. In April 2010, a name-by-name list of the victims of Jasenovac was published, in which, using more than a hundred different sources, and with a critical re-examination of the data for each individual victim, the number of 80,914 was reached, although this is still not a final number. See

[12] Mitchell, W.J.T., Landscape and Power, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994, 2002.,  p. viii 13 The photographs are always accompanied by a text that explains events at the location shown. Some places are generally known and it is not necessary to explain them in detail, but it always depends on the cultural heritage of the viewer. 

[13] The relationship between space and place is a key question in the context of landscape. See more in Mitchell, W.J.T., Landscape and Power, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1994,2002.,  p. viii             
[14] Author Kitty Zijlmans points out that it is this that is the reason that we take photographs with us in our wallet, looking at them, kissing or touching them. We also use them to mark and familiarise some temporary space, like a hotel room, to turn it into our own space. Zijlmans, Kitty, “Place, Site and Memory in Contemporary Works of Art”, in Westgeest, Helen (ed.), Take Place: Photography and Place from Multiple Perspectives, Valiz, Amsterdam, 2009.,  p. 221