SARAJEVO, Old Town —seated on her living room couch in black leggings and a blood red tracksuit jumper zipped to the top, Vanja Lisac lights up a cigarette and cordially pushes a cake littered with sugar powder my way. Her black and white Pekingese-Cocker Spaniel takes more of an interest in the treat than I do, curiously sniffing at the jam treacled down the sides. My attention remains fixed on Lisac, whose fierceness and allure seeps through her comfortable clothes. Despite her steely disposition bolstered by a permanent pout, her soft, searching eyes of chestnut hint at the childlike innocence Pablo Picasso famously quoted as a requisite for all artists.
The room is dimly lit with a strong eclectic feel. Time seems at a standstill within the walls of this second story apartment, busily adorned with sentimental relics of days gone by, including a framed award her grandfather received for photography in Rome, signed by Mussolini himself. There was sunlight before the building started being renovated, she tells me in a thick American accent rippling with a Bosnian undercurrent that adds to her depth and intrigue. The building’s entire facade is cloaked in a dark green construction safety net which only serves to further the sense of seclusion from the outside world that is felt within her home studio.
Lisac, whose solo photography exhibition ‘Faces’is on at Jeliceva Photo Gallery Sarajevo until December 23rd, is more than just a successful commercial photographer. Aside from her impressive client list that includes L’Oréal, Italian Vogue, Marie Claire, and Grazia, she also happens to be Bosnia’s only commercial photographer earning a living solely from her photographic work. And in a country where nearly 1 in 3 people are registered as jobless, and just 3.9 % of females are self-employed, that is no small feat.
One of the keys to her success, Lisac says, lies in her ability to be versatile. “I have to do every direction if I want to live from this job,” she explains. “I can’t just do fashion…I have to do all of them, and I have to be good at all of them.” And versatile she is. In addition to catwalk models, she’s photographed fruit and vegetables, Spanish royalty, sausage dogs in pink woollen jumpers, government ministers, children in slums, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and even Ricky Martin.
Born in Sarajevo, Lisac enjoyed drawing and painting as a child, although she doesn’t deem her early artistic expression relevant to her creative journey. “I didn’t consider myself something special, because all kids like to do art,” she explains rather dismissively. The catalyst for pursuing a career in photography, she tells me, occurred many years later and in a different continent. In 1991, 13 year-old Lisac and her family moved from Bosnia to Croatia due to the war. The following year, they sought refuge in Germany, before migrating to Los Angeles in 1996. It was there that her professor, Dennis Keeley, at the community college she was attending, made Lisac believe that a future in photography was within her reach. “When you’re 18 and you have a professor who’s worked for celebrities, and he tells you that you have some talent and that you should go into that, you go,” she declares.
But Lisac didn’t ‘go’ just yet. Instead of pursuing photography after completing her studies, she stayed in the same receptionist roles she had worked in as a student. The pay was much better, and she didn’t see the value in lugging cables around as somebody’s second or third assistant for ten years. But money didn’t fill the void she felt within. A bitter contrast to the proverbial American dream, Lisac was miserable. “L.A was bad…I hated it,” she reveals from behind a thick cloud of smoke.
“I used to wake up at ten to seven every morning and then cry for fifteen minutes,” she recalls with a nostalgic chuckle. “And then I’d rub my tears and then go to work, and I was like ‘oh my god, there must be something better for me.’”
…And there was. It was a decline in her emotional health, seven years after moving to America that began to alter the course of Lisac’s life. “I started getting depressed of course”, she says. “As how it goes over there,” she adds disdainfully, rolling her eyes. But instead of seeking any treatment for her low mood, she heeded her mother’s advice. “Go and see where you’re from,” her mother had urged her. “Go to Bosnia and see if that makes a difference.” Lisac was hopeful that the “missing identity piece” she had been seeking, might just be waiting for her back in her homeland.
Touching down in Sarajevo at age 25 for the first time in over two decades, Lisac’s malaise miraculously vanished after a two day flight. She was not depressed after all, she tells me, it was the environment. And now, her heart was finally home. Lisac loved her time in Bosnia, and when her three month visit was up, she returned to America to save up for the next trip. In 2006 she returned to Sarajevo permanently, where her photography career began to prosper in an unforeseen way.
Lisac’s intuition led her to begin working in a photo printing shop in Skenderija, a decision which heavily perplexed those around her. “Why would you do such a sh***y job? You’ve been to school, you can do whatever you want!”, they would say. “I just know I need to be around photography if I wanna start that business”, she would tell them. “And sure enough I was right,” she adds proudly. “The Hollywood story that happens to people in Hollywood happened to me here”.
Her boss at the printing place had sponsored a contestant of the national beauty pageant, who happened to win. And it was Lisac, he asked to take her pictures. “I did great pictures, and I put ‘em up in the windows so people can see,” she recounts. Not long after, Eurovision singer Fuad Backovic walked past the photo print shop and, captivated by the photos in the window, felt compelled to enter the store and ask the manager (Lisac), who had taken them.
From there, Lisac developed a close friendship with Backovic, who introduced her to many celebrities she built relationships with. “I used these connections to promote myself, not on purpose, but it was logic …because in the US, that’s what they teach you,” she says. In addition to her networking prowess, Lisac believes it was a “lack of ego” that allowed her to be flexible in her approach to increasing her client base. “A lot of photographers lost their careers in a way, because of ego,” she says. “They would say, ‘No, you have to pay for my photos!’…I was like, ‘I know but this is Bosnia’,” she recalls. Photographing famous people for free in exchange for being credited for her work quickly became Lisac’s inadvertent game plan to gain reputability in the industry. “How much?” they would ask her. “Nothing, just sign me, and tell people that I did it”, she would reply.
Lisac says her methodology for accumulating famous people as clients had more to do with necessity than confidence in her abilities. “There was no other option for me” she emphasises, while lighting up what must be her third or fourth cigarette in an hour. “I didn’t have a plan B,” she says. According to Emi Mesic of Life Coaching Sarajevo, getting out of one’s comfort zone is exactly what is needed to achieve career success in Bosnia. “People are very risk-averse, and I think that’s the mindset that holds everybody back,” says Mesic. “You need to shed that whole sense of security,” she insists. There wasn’t much security or comfort in Lisac’s strategy for achieving professional success: “meet people, take a couple of famous people’s photos for free…if I’m good, they see my name, they’re gonna come for my pictures: logic…and if I’m not good, I shouldn’t be a photographer.”
People did come for her pictures. And through her continued dedication to her craft, Lisac’s photography business expanded until she became the only commercial photographer in Bosnia to earn a living off her photography work alone.
For aspiring photographers like 22 year-old Nikola Purisic from Banja Luka in Western Bosnia, in an economic climate where the youth unemployment rate is the second highest in the world, photographers like Lisac give him hope. “I see them as my role models,” he says. “They have really inspired me to begin my own destiny as a photographer.”
And speaking of destiny, 13 years on from when she moved back to Bosnia, Lisac now reaps the benefits of the path of fate she cleverly paved for herself. She lives comfortably, freely travels the world through her craft, and enjoys devoting herself to her creative expression. “Art is my life” Lisac declares matter of factly. And although she insists there is no hidden story or message behind any of her work, her pictures disagree. They tell a story of strength, defiance, beauty and conviction. A story of Vanja Lisac. And in a land where around 2 million Bosnians reside outside of the country, chasing a ‘better life’, Lisac’s story is one of encouragement and hope for all. For if Lisac found herself and her Hollywood story, right here in Bosnia, maybe you can too.
Interview by Miya Yamanouchi