Domagoj Burilović discusses ‘Dorf,’ 1st Place Winner in Sony World Photography Awards

Domagoj Burilović discusses ‘Dorf,’ 1st Place Winner in Sony World Photography Awards

Conceptual series explores the irony of nature taking over the homes of those who came to exploit its resources

By Pam Voth

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Overview Croatian photographer, Domagoj Burilović, uses conceptual photography to explore cultural issues in his community. His series, Dorf, won first place in the 2022 Sony World Photography Awards in the professional architecture category. In it, he brings to light the story of a culture changed by industry and what the final chapter might look like.

View the Dorf series by Domagoj Burilović on Sloika

Follow Domagoj on Twitter and Instagram

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Pam Voth: Welcome to One of One from Sloika, the curated NFT photography marketplace. Today I'm talking with Domagoj Burilović. Dom is a photographer from Croatia with a Master of Arts degree in painting. He uses photography to explore the social problems of his community. His works have been exhibited internationally and received prestigious awards. In fact, his series Dorf won first place in the professional architecture category in the 2022. Sony World Photography awards. He recently minted Dorf as his Genesis NFT series on Sloika. And we're going to dive in to discover the deeper meaning of these charming cottages.

Welcome, Dom. I'm so glad you're here today.

Domagoj Burilović Yeah, I'm glad to be here also.

PV: First, first of all, congratulations on winning that Sony World Photography award. What was that experience?

That was a very intense experience. I remember when I first get emailed by them, I was in the post office. And my phone rang. I saw that I got an email. And it was some English name. So I thought that it was maybe some ad or something. And then I see the title Dorf from Sony. And I was overwhelmed. I sat in the park for at least 15 minutes to comprehend that news. Later that day I found out that I placed first in my category.

PV: Wow, congratulations! What kind of changes have happened to you since you won that award?

DB: I got the opportunity to go to London. I have never been to England. So that was a very important experience for me to see the city to see the culture, the art. In the end, to be in that exhibition with all the big names in photography from around the world. People contacted me through social media email. It was a very, very new experience. To me, it was a very positive experience.

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PV: That's really great to hear. What was your favorite part about going to London?

The city, the history, and the architecture. Everything! I come from a small country, you know, I travel a little bit in Europe. London was like, the biggest magnitude. Probably the art had the biggest impact on me.

PV: Yeah, I can imagine. Well, I know you're very tuned into architecture because Dorf of course won in the architecture category. So seeing the architecture of London must have been pretty amazing.

DB: Yeah, I am privately very interested in architecture. I follow some bigger national and international architects, but architecture never was my occupation in photography until this series. I started to educate myself about architecture even more because of this series.

PV: I read that you have a degree in painting, but now your art form is photography. How did how did you make that switch? Or do you go back and forth between those two?

DB: Yeah, I don't go back and forth anymore.

When I was a kid, I always had a pen and paper, you know, and I drew. My dream was to go to the Academy of Fine Arts and I did it after high school. It was my first choice to paint. I didn't think about other kinds of art at the time. Of course, we're all still very young when we go to college, so I didn't have the maturity to think about it. And I didn't know what I wanted from art at that time.

The first and second year of the bachelor's degree was painting and drawing and it was very classical. But in the third year, and during the master's degree, it was very open to the medium. The craft was not as important as the idea, the problem, or the issue. So I didn't in my third year in college, I left painting and drawing and switched to conceptual art, readymades, and contemporary mediums.

For me, it was more convincing. If I use the glass for water instead of painting the glass of water, you know? For me, the message had more impact if the reality is what I used, to articulate my idea. So I finished college with conceptual art.

It was at that time I bought my first semi-professional camera. I was always intrigued with photography. Most of the art that I saw and consumed was photography. I noticed everyday consumer art through photography. I was thinking, why would I use the real glass of water when I can photo that glass of water and I can manipulate it. You know, I can put a glass of water on the moon in photography now.

In reality, I am still constrained by the laws of physics and my abilities. By that logic, I became more immersed in photography, I started to use photography for some commercial works. But little by little, step by step I started to use photography purely for art. And that's the line that I switched from painting to photography.

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PV: That's great. I love the idea of using the glass of water and using what's around. You're using reality to tell a story and bring the viewer to the idea that you're trying to express

I think that's what I was getting out of the series Dorf when I first saw it because I thought this is like magical realism, almost.

Can you tell us about Dorf? Describe the series of works and how you got to the idea of of creating those.

DB: I live in Croatia, in the region of Slovenia. It was historically an agricultural region. All plains and forests. In the last 10 years, after Croatia got into the European Union, a lot of people started to move out of Slovenia, and out of Croatia. And in the last five or six years, I was drawn out.

I was focused on the problem of the exodus of the population, and the emigration of people from around here because I live here. A lot of my friends and relatives fled from here. This region was affected by the war, in Croatia and Yugoslavia, and generally in the 1990s, when the whole industry was ruined. This region was very prosperous. But from the 90s onwards, after communism fell apart, the situation got worse and worse.

The other part of Croatia, the Dalmatian Coast was very famous for tourism, and enjoyed big development.

And here, this part of Croatia, just, I don't have a word. It just stagnated. Nothing happens here. And that's the topic I, focused my art on.

The Austro Hungary empire, in the 19th century, when Slavonia started the industry, the empire was giving the land, to whoever wanted to come and plow the land and cut the forest and exploit them for the industry.

It was mostly a wasteland, very few domestic people live here. So the land was inhabited by people from different nations of Austro Hungary empire.

Among them, Germans had the biggest influence on this region, because they started to build brick factories. They started to build houses made of bricks.

Before that, domestic people made houses out of mud and wood which had lots of moisture and they didn't last long. So the Germans brought craftsmanship, language, and culture and they influenced other nations that settled here.

And that's how this type of house started to be built in the 19th century. And I didn't know all of this story when I started the photos of these houses. They were just very interesting to me.

Because of course, their architecture, the ornaments on the house, their colors, they, they pop out due to the industry. It's a line of modern houses.

Little by little, I started to read the literature, the history books about them and the people who settled here. So after maybe half a year, I realized how this story was connected with people coming here to Slovenia in the 19th century. And now they are going out of here and they live in these houses that became part of the cultural identity today of villages. Because all agricultural events happen in villages. So this is a story about villages and the name of the series, Dorf, is actually “village” in the German language.

And that's the irony. Germans settled in Slavonia and raised the quality of life. Then people of Slovenia, left this region and went mostly Germany, to seek out jobs and to seek out a better life. And that irony of history is also in the series title, Dorf. I titled it with the German word.

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It's very clever. And it suggests there’s a story behind these really adorable homes. I know that in the series, Dorf, each one of the homes looks like it's completely being engulfed by plants like trees, vines, or different vegetation. Is that how you photograph them? Or did you do your glass of water trick and bring that to life?

I did the glass of water trick.

I knew that I didn’t want to just photograph them in a realistic environment, because of all the noise around them like the modern housing, electricity, traffic signs, bushes, and trees. From the start, I needed to cut them out from their environment and do some post-production work.

My first, simplest idea, was just to present them in blind backgrounds that have a color from the house or opposite color or something. So the house would be the focus. But I wasn't completely satisfied with that solution. I tried some others.

And as I said, there were very often obstacles for photographing a particular house. One house was surrounded by trees, ivy and bushes. I took maybe four, five or six photos of different parts of the house. Because I couldn't, in one shot, capture the whole house. I needed to get closer to move the branch, but because of the fence, I couldn't even get in the yard of the house. I didn't want it.

And when I took all the photos, I went back to the car and I thought about it. How could I put it all together? I knew I couldn't recover a particular part of the house. And it just popped to me at that moment that why would I not move the nature around it but put even more so this blank background would be surrounded with the bushes and leaves and trees and et cetera.

So that was even more in the context of the house. Most of the houses have nature overgrown around them because every one was abandoned for the last 10 years. Most of them in even more. So that's how I came to this final solution.

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PV: I'm just so enchanted by the way you completely filled the frame with nature.

DB: These houses were created for the purpose to house people who were there to exploit nature. Then, I create this irony that nature claims them back.

PV: I think nature's gonna win.

What other social themes do you explore through photography?

DB: This last five or six years, I was focused primarily on immigration, and I have planned another series that also includes the immigration battle.

Where I live, this city is 8000 years old. We are known as the oldest town in Europe, from the Neolithic, to this day.

And the whole town lies on the archaeology, ruins or layers, underground on the ancient Rome ruins, the medieval, and Baroque and all the historical ages. And young people who buy a piece of land or own a house, when they start to build something new, there’s a very high chance they’ll hit some archaeological layer. And in this situation, they have to stop work. And they have to call the city and History Museum and they have to pay from their own pocket for excavation and research.

Because of that, there is a very tricky situation. Because of that, some people who find something just bury it back. They don't report to anyone because they don't want to lose money.

This situation is very interesting to me. Because in every position, there is a problem. It's an absolute catastrophe if someone ruins the archaeological findings. On the other side, the city and the states are putting people in this position, if they don't have the money, they cannot pay for the excavation. They cannot build a house of their own.

That's really expensive. This is a very tangled situation. And for me very interesting to work on it through art. That's the next work that I'm going to do.

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PV: Sounds like an idea that simmering in there, right? I'd be so curious how you would represent that visually. And I'll look forward to seeing that. I have some ideas in my head already. Keep me posted.

I'm always so impressed when a photographer can express something conceptually, by bringing in real-life elements and recombining them in a way that represents what they mean to say. I feel like painters can do that all the time because they can just use their imagination.

But it's really impressive, I think, when a photographer takes on that challenge as well.

So what opportunities do you hope NFTs can bring to your photography?

Well, I just started with it. I know superficially what NFTs are all about now after this month or two with the minting and joining the NFT community and reading and watching what people say. It's a very new world for me. I have a feeling that the NFT community is very tight and very passionate about this new thing in the virtual and real world.

I compare it with sports fans or football fans. A very, very close community and very, very passionate. And I'm just the new guy here. I’m excited to be in it. I still feel like tapping in the dark, and still trying to inform myself and be included.

I was also new to social networks. I didn't have anything then I opened Facebook and Instagram 10 months ago and now Twitter two months ago. Now when I joined, I see all those people included in the NFT's and it is really like a window into a new world. I don't know what are my hopes or expectations. I'm open to everything.

We're super happy that you're here for sure. And I think you'll find that the NFT community is very open and loves to meet new people.

Thank you so much, Dom, for sharing some time with me today. And for talking to me about your work. I think the themes that you're exploring are really unique and really important for us to take a look at. So I really appreciate you sharing this with me today.

DB: Yeah, glad you like it. And I'm also glad to be here with you and part of the Sloika community.