The Lazarus Project

Collaboration with Aleksandar Hemon on The Lazarus Project (Riverhead, May 2008). 

Hemon's novel deals with the real-life death of Lazarus Averbuch, a young Jewish immigrant shot by the Chicago chief of police George Shippy in 1908. Almost 100 years later a writer and a photographer go back to where Lazarus came from, attempting to understand the places he left behind.
Aleksandar and I visited Poland, western Ukraine, Moldova, and ended our trip in Bosnia, where we both come from. I made about 1200 photographs, sometimes assuming the point of view of the fictional photographer. They are intimately and deeply connected with the book, but they also speak of something that is beyond its limits.
For what interests and attracts me is what is not in the photograph – the absence that the photograph signifies. If home is the place where somebody notices your absence, then the photographs are home for the worlds we have lost.

The Lazarus Project was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award as well as a finalist for the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Images here are presented alongside the quotes from the book.


Why do you want to know? You know nothing about these people, Brik. Nothing about the war. You are a nice bookish man. Just enjoy the story.

When I was a kid and played hide-and-seek with other kids, more than once I found myself seeking my playmates at dusk, looking for them in the bushes and basements and behind cars, chasing shadows.

It's a long story. My great-grandparents came to Bosnia after it was swallowed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

I could laugh at myself (ha ha ha ha ha ha!) for being stupid enough to have ever embarked upon a journey with this two-bit gambler and ex-gigolo, this wanna-be war veteran, this Bosnian nobody. The seat of his fucking soul was that camera.

There are so many stories that could be told, but only some of them can be true.

Everybody imagines that they have a center, the seat of their soul, if you believe in that kind of thing. I've asked around, and most of the people told me that the soul is somewhere in the abdominal area--a foot or so above the asshole.

I convinced myself that he knew what he was doing, that, being native, he had a special connection with the aboriginal roads.

I needed to imagine what I could not retrieve; I needed to see what I could not imagine.

She would one day die, and so would Rora, and so would I. They were me. We lived the same life: we would vanish into the same death. We were like everybody else, because there was nobody like us.

The thing is, everybody who has ever been photographed is either dead or will die.

Rora reloaded the film in the camera and said, I have no idea what they were just saying to me.

His camera was not there; he was not there; I was there.

From what I could understand the song was about a wounded Cossack who was nursed to health by a young lassie, but then cruelly left her once he could ride again; he quickly forgot her, but she never forgot him. Hear my sorrow across the steppe, the pensioners sang. Hear my sorrow, may it break your Cossack heart.

Some part of my life ended there, among those empty graves; it was then that I started mourning.

Death was experienced here.

If you can't go home, there is nowhere to go, and nowhere is the biggest place in the world--indeed, nowhere is the world.

We spoke slowly, whispering, acknowledging the necessity of slumber.

The same coffee list, the same pastry selection, the same frail waitresses.

A couple of boys were washing a white Lada in the middle of the street.

I imagine my life to be big, so big I cannot see the end of it. Big enough for everyone to fit into it.

I relished the Sarajevo pavements under my feet, the asphalt felt softer than on any other street in the world.

They spoke with each other with surprising vigor, something was at stake. I wondered what it was and I realized that I would never find out.

After the dinner, we roamed Vienna; we held hands, the hands were warm, the night was cool, the streetlights glinted.

I proposed a year later in front of Monet's breathtaking water lilies. She was beautiful; my breath was taken; we were still lonely; she said yes.

You've never been married, so you don't know, but it is a fragile thing. Nothing ever goes away, everything stays inside it. It is a different reality.

She had the bright, open face that always reminded me of the vast midwestern welkin. She was routinely kind to other people, assumed they had good intentions; she smiled at strangers; it mattered to her what they thought and felt. She was often embarassed; she dreamt of learning a foreign language; she wanted to make a difference. She believed in God and seldom went to church.

I told her Lviv was depressing; I told her about the natives not using deodorant, the women not shaving their legs, which ought to have discouraged her possible jealousy.

I listed enough grievances to make her feel that I was working hard.

You see nothing, Rora said.

"So what language do you want to speak?" he asked me once we were inside. "What do you have?" I asked him in Ukrainian. "Russian, Romanian, Ukrainian, Yiddish, German, and a little bit of Hebrew," he said.

I take pictures because I like to look at the pictures I take.

It is so much easier to deal with the dead than with the living.

What about the lives worth living? We need new stories, friends, we need better storytellers.

So I had a crazy, liberating feeling that my life was neatly divided: all of my now in America, all of my past in Sarajevo.

Where can you go from nowhere except deeper into nowhere?

The man and woman had thrown the dog in the garbage container full of bottles and then must have watched it writhing, shredding and slicing itself, trying to escape.

I will never know you, nothing about you, what has died inside you, what has lived invisibly.

If you wait long enough, something will happen--there has never been a time when nothing happened.

I had never heard him talk so much; it was as though moving through the verdant, depopulated landscape prompted his stories; indeed he would take photos, lazily, without interrupting his narration.

The armpits, the rolling hills, the gun up the ass, the empty villages, the bullet an inch away from the heart, Rambo sitting on a dead Bosnian soldier, my dry mouth, Rora's world-weariness, the precociously nefarious teenager, the heartbreaking stench of it all.

We walked downhill, past the houses I had not noticed before, the dogs now barking at us angrily, past the park where children who had not been there swung on the swings and slid down the slides

Why not? Every face is a landscape.

Your nightmares follow you like a shadow, forever.

The darkness was overtaking everything, and we had no map; we simply sought the less dark streets, guided by the rare, arrhythmic streetlights.

The one thing I remembered and missed from before-the-war Sarajevo was a kind of unspoken belief that everyone could be whatever they claimed they were--each life, however, imaginary, could be validated by its rightful, sovereign owner, from the inside.

It was different in America: the incessant perpetuation of collective fantasies make people crave the truth and nothing but the truth--reality is the fastest American commodity.

What I like about America, I said, is that there is not space left for useless metaphysical questions. There are no parallel universes there. Everything is what it is, it's easy to see and understand everything.

Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes.

We wandered through the musty museum, ambling solemnly as though in the wake of a coffin.

I had no choice but to remember just minuscule fragments, well aware that in no future would I be able to reconstruct the whole out of them.

You're making up these stories, I said. I wish, he said. You should write it all down. I took photos. You must write it down. That's what I have you for. That's why I brought you along.

Home is where somebody notices your absence.

Did some idle provincial philosopher working as a custodian of regional memory seek to suggest that death was undatable, that it was always the same thing?

The only one who was not me was myself.

He had always been a slow man, but after he has sunk into the aquarium of darkness, he became even slower; now time flowed differently for him.

In such a world I would stop caring what I promised, what I committed myself to, because I would just not care who I was and become somebody else on a whim. And I could do it whenever I wanted. I could be the sole meaning of my life.

My country's main exports are stolen cars and sadness.

The air stank of lead-based paint and suicide.

Nobody in Lviv was going to have memories of us.

He produced a particular kind of silence: it was not heavy, not accusing, not demanding. I imagined that was the same kind of silence as when he waited for a picture to appear on the photographic paper sunk in emulsion.