First published: FORTH, December 10, 2015
He is a Puck. A charming, dexterous dare-devil of a man. At the airport our small talk turns naturally to the Swiss mountains: “My house is opposite the most beautiful female mountain in Switzerland”, he offers carelessly, leaving me to puzzle over the gender. “It’s hard to explain, we learn these things at school.” He starts the car. For a day I inhabit the world of Dijan Kahrimanovic, where life is like a forest; mysterious and energetic, full of jaw-dropping stories (the funniest ones invariably prefaced by ‘Me and my cousin…’). But behind the arras of joviality is a serious and original artist. On his apparently unlikely ascent from butcher to photographer, he received a Swiss National Art Prize and exhibited a highly idiosyncratic project for the LISTE Art Fair Basel. What follows is a mere sliver of 24 hours of kinetic conversation.
“I had bad grades at school. When I was six I was hit by a truck and had 26 surgeries. I was absent from school most of the time. When I finished, my only option was to be a butcher. I cut meat for two years, but in the end they kicked me out. I tried to figure out what to do with my life and I asked myself: ‘Dijan, what is the thing you do best?’ At the time the answer was ‘fabricating’. Followed by lying, stealing and telling stories. So I weighed up my four qualities and decided to become an artist!
“After F+F [Art and Media Design school, Zurich], I sent out 180 CVs. I just wanted to work in photography, even if it meant selling cameras in a store! In Switzerland it’s really hard if your last name ends in ‘vic’—it brands you as Balkan. You have to be 3 times better than a Swiss to get a place. I ended up at a factory that makes plastic parts for asthma sprays. That was the only job I could get.
“On my first day in America I went to Starbucks, because it was something familiar to me. I knew about eight words in English (including ‘paprika’, which is the same in Bosnian and German). Some girl asked me to look after her things while she went to the bathroom. At least I thought that was what she asked. I was confused and thinking ‘Oh dear, what are you doing here?’ When she returned she started talking to me and I nodded along for 15 minutes. Finally, she asked me something and I replied: ‘Me? First day. America!’ Everybody laughed.
“I came to my first photography class in Boston. In Switzerland they tell you to start a project and bring some works in progress the following week. Most people come with nothing or bring three or four pictures. In Boston I did the same: I took a few pictures and spent my time partying, meeting people and learning to speak English. Two weeks later I came back to class and discovered everybody had whole books of work with them! Finished books! My classmates talked and talked about their projects for hours. Then the teacher said: ‘Dijan, maybe show us what you did?’ And I said ‘Sure. Look at this—I have four pictures!’ He was so pissed he kicked me out of the class. My first class! I called a friend and said ‘Sandro, it’s really bad in America. You have to work!’
“I wanted to learn something in America. Something that I would never use in my life, something that I don’t need. One day I was in a bar and heard two girls talking about some school and walking in high heels. I asked them what kind of school it was and they said it was a modeling school. I asked the address and went there. An old lady, who was in charge of the classes, asked me: ‘Are you gay?’ I said: ‘No. I simply want to learn something I would never use in my life’. She thought for a minute and said ‘Ok, I will let you in to show the girls what they shouldn’t do!’ So I was there, texting my dad: ‘Dad, I am on high heels!’ And he replied ‘Did I send you to America to learn stupid stuff? Or did I send you to become clever?’ I sent him a picture of 18 girls of my age, all taller than me, and he messaged back: ‘Ok, can you tell them your dad also wants to enroll?’
“In my family being an artist means being ‘the looney of the clan’. Once I showed nude pictures of me to my parents. I was ashamed that my mum and dad would see me naked, but I wanted to hear their opinion, so I showed them nonetheless. My father said ‘I don’t know, Dijan…can you make money from them? Sell them!’ My parents never worked with art. But they are honest with me and they always tell me the truth. If they don’t understand something I do, they say ‘I am not sure about this…now go help put those logs in the truck.’
“When I came to study in Zurich, I was like a shit-on-the-boots cowboy in town. I am from a dorf, a village. I am from a farm place. I didn’t know the streets. I was clumsy. In the city I was like a chicken among wolves. It took time to gel in the urban jungle. In America locals would start talking to me because I was a ‘country boy’ and I didn’t know how to get anywhere. That’s how most of my projects started.
“I took pictures with everything. I even took pictures with a scanner. I put my head in it and made posters for my exhibition. When I badly wanted my hair to grow long, I bought horse hair and covered myself in it. I looked like a pitch black yeti, or a gorilla. I took those pictures to see what I would look like if I had such long hair. I punched myself for a school project. The first day you don’t feel anything but then for a whole week you are dying. Still it was fascinating. I have only seen it in the movies. I locked myself for 2 days in a dark room and snapped self-portraits non-stop. In the end I looked a real wreck. I stopped sleeping, I was constantly waking up. I didn’t go to the toilet, I didn’t eat, I didn’t smoke. I was going crazy. In the beginning I looked quite healthy, but by the end of the second day I got bloated up and I was smelling bad.
“When I started taking pictures I was convinced that a photographer must have elaborate set ups and everything has to be huge. So I did pictures with 30 lights and lots of props involved. I ran into problems with all that jumbo stuff and one teacher told me I didn’t have to go out looking for something. That I could do everything in one square meter. And I was like ‘Yeah, he is right! You can be anywhere, in every corner of the world, just in one square meter of your room’. And then I did everything in the one square meter of my room. I didn’t even go out.
“My classmate told me about a crazy neighbor, and I ventured off to take pictures of her and her huge house. She looked like a Hitchcock granny and had a little dog that she was holding all the time as if it were a baby. She had white upholstered luxury arm chairs with claw feet. They were wrapped in cellophane. I said: ’Oh, you just bought those?’. And she replied she had had them for 20 years and she would remove the cellophane when someone important came. Another girl I met in Boston said she was a feminist. I never knew what a feminist was. I met her in the street and asked if I could take her picture for my project. She said ‘Yeah, but I am a feminist…’. ‘That’s not a problem!’ I reassured her, without knowing what it was about. We came to her home and she lifted her arms to reveal two thick bushes of hair. I gasped and she said: ‘Yep. I told you. Feminism!’ and she started laughing. I stayed in her home for three days, taking pictures of her in her surroundings. This was for a series of pictures of locals in their real homes. One of them was the father of my friend from school. I was like a part of their family after three months.
“One day I was taking pictures outdoors and it was freezing cold. I needed to go to the bathroom and my friend’s father was soaking in the tub. I knocked on the door and he said I could come in. I had a camera on me and I asked if I could take a picture of him from the back. He said ‘Noooo!’ I started talking him into it and eventually he gave in. I called that series ‘Close’, because you can be really be close to people but also far away.
“In Switzerland Dijan Kahrimanovic is a good name for a creepy guy in a thriller. When an invisible murderer calls to deliver a death threat, that’s what their name sounds like. I decided to use it as a pivotal point for the series of self-portraits. I dialed random numbers all over Switzerland and I told people: ‘I am Dijan Kahrimanovic. I want to take a picture of myself and I want you to tell me what to do’. I was in a room with a telephone, a camera, and a small set of things. My calls unnerved people. Why does this guy have my number? Why does he have a camera in front of him? Why does he want me to do a set up for him? I received lots of suggestions to fuck off. But also people had this power to do whatever they wanted, and it was overwhelming sometimes.”
Dijan Kahrimanovic is a 25-year-old Swiss photographer of Bosnian origin. He is a graduate of F+F School for Art and Media Design, Zurich and a School of the Museum of Fine Art, Boston (2013). In 2015 Dijan won the Helvetia Art Prize (National Swiss Art Prize) with ‘Platform 15’ — a performance centered on discarded negatives collected from photo labs around Bosnia and Switzerland. Presenting a selection of 80 images from the total of 2000, Dijan explored themes of immigration, isolation and belonging. His series of self portraits for the international LISTE Art Fair Basel (2015) is an attempt to answer the question ‘Who is Dijan Kahrimanovic?’ Dijan’s website can be viewed at www.dijankahrimanivic.com.
This article first published by FORTH.