Margareta and Luka are primary school sweethearts. After a few years studying in different cities, they decided to move back to Tenja. Having conversations about that period in our lives we realized that there is an often overlooked quality of living in smaller places.

Matej’s photography is a reflection of everything he is as a person. His project Looking for Hope is an exploration into his home, Tenja – a small, conservative village in the eastern part of Slavonija in Croatia – a region greatly affected by the former Yugoslavian wars in the 90’s and more recently by the global economic crisis. Since then, many of Matej’s peers who grew up in Tenja moved abroad to build a life elsewhere.

Dijana was getting ready when I arrived to take a photo of her. I caught her off guard and that turned out to be the moment I was interested in photographing. The towel wrapped around her head gave the photograph the everyday quality I want to explore with this project.

The work stands in recognition of youth growing up in smaller places across the region – struggling with identity and belonging. Through his photography Matej recreates his own memories and situations so as to achieve emotional distance, perspective and growth. Through this approach he reconstructs his memories so he can better understand who he has become today, outside of the conservative constraints of Tenja.

Josip: Boćanje(Jeu de boules) is a traditional meditation sport, in Tenja is usually played by older men who gather around and play it for fun. Josip fell in love with the sport as a teen and took it seriously. He competed all around the country.

Matej photographs his peers as a way to stay close to a physical space he knows best, his own mental and physical comfort zone. His photography penetrates stereotypes that surround smaller places across the region. Looking for Hope stands as a proud testament to the reality of places like Tenja, which are often seen as irrelevant, forgotten or marginal. Therefore, this project is a self-therapeutic body of work, where Matej reclaims his own identity through his memories, friends and experiences.

An old map hand-drawn on the news board in the middle of the Tenja caught my attention as I have never seen it before. I never paid attention to that board in my life. I am now thinking about hanging a call-out letter addressing this project and use it as an opportunity to reach other young people living there who might want to share their stories.

His photography is defined by its sincerity of approach, and also his pride in representing those who grow up in Tenja, who feel different or as outsiders in the world they live in today. Matej’s photography is fresh and nostalgic, it is intimate, and evokes a curiosity about forgotten places and marginalized people.

“It is important for the people from the Balkans to see what the youth today is like in the region. When the political and religious curtain comes down you discover a generation that is yearning for representation. We have a politicly charged history, but “Looking for Hope” is not about that, it is about our humanity. Our identities are hidden in the ordinary life that at times can feel hard to navigate. Our aspirations need to come to the front and in order to do so we need to be vulnerable. That vulnerability is what I want people to take away from looking at the images. More than anything I want the youth that is growing up like we did to feel seen.” – Matej Jurčević, winner 2021 VID Grant.

Lara, my fifteen-year-old cousin. I see a lot of myself in her as she has shown interest in both photography and music.

Looking for Hope invites the audience to look with honesty and openness to Tenja. Matej’s work offers a clear dichotomy: the attractiveness and seduction of his images which coexists with the subverted beauty ideals that constantly offer new meaning. To understand the beauty of Matej’s work you must understand this duality of a place like Tenja. It is through beauty that we (re-)find hope. In this way, the audience might come to understand more intimately his photography, his home and his more cosmopolitan state of mind. Matej’s photography is a combination of documentary and fiction, always giving a realistic and a contemporary perspective of small-town Croatia.

My best friend Ana Maria moved to Ireland when she was nineteen. After a few years of working abroad she decided  to move back to Tenja where she is starting her own business. Her dedication and hard work always inspired me.

We are thrilled to have Matej’s work as one of the VID Grant winners in 2021 – representing important issues from the Balkans which are timeless and fundamental.

Matej Jurčević

Matej Jurčević is a Croatian photographer exploring themes of memory, nostalgia, mental health and youth culture today. This year he is graduating in Photography at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Antwerp. In partnership with the Organ Vida Festival, he will be publishing his first photo book later this year titled “Milk and Honey.” In collaboration with the fashion brand Price on Request he has won the award at the Biennale of Croatian design, 2018 in the category: Concept, initiative, critical design.