Coming of age in the counterculture and New York punk scenes of the 60s and 70s, Robin Graubard’s intimate and striking colour approach to photography found a voice of its own when she packed up and embedded herself within Eastern Europe during the early nineties, witnessing the Yugoslav War, Bosnian genocide, and Kosovan uprising.
Nearly three decades ago, with her New York newspaper on strike, photographer Robin Graubard found herself with a free afternoon. With the day off from covering court stories or shooting glitzy red carpet events, she took a stroll down to her local neighbourhood park on the east side of Manhattan – Ralph Bunche Park.
Due to its location opposite the United Nations headquarters, the park is often a site where demonstrators gather. On this occasion, a small group of women were protesting the war in Yugoslavia, and Graubard struck up a conversation with them.
“I’d read a small article in the back page of a newspaper about what was going on in Yugoslavia, but there hadn’t been a lot of coverage,” she says. “And these women were really upset about what was going on and their relatives who were there in this war. I was kind of astonished that there was this war going on and nobody was paying attention to it.”
She quickly decided that she wouldn’t return to her day job, and booked flights to Prague in the newly-formed Czech Republic, before venturing further east into the Balkans – Yugoslavia, Albania, Croatia and beyond. Road to Nowhere, is a collection of her shots from the years she spent documenting the people and stories she encountered during her time in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s.
Shot in coloured film on Nikon FM2s, the photographs capture the grit, determination and humanity set in front of a backdrop of conflict and political instability. “Signs of war were everywhere,” she says. “The stores were completely empty, the money was worthless – people were just throwing money away, it was lining the streets.”
The Yugoslavian Wars were marred by nationalist divisions, ethnic tensions and genocide. Throwing herself fully into the conflict, Graubard found herself along the front lines of battle, in houses shielding persecuted Muslims and aboard humanitarian aid aeroplanes.
One particularly terrifying moment came when she found herself low on money in Sarajevo, which at the time, was the front line of battle. She used the last of her cash to book a room in a Holiday Inn hotel. “When I got there, a bullet went over my head,” she recounts. “I didn’t quite know what it was when it was happening – it was just this sound. And the people behind the desk were just very matter of fact about it.”
Despite this, Graubard says that she found herself “calmer than I’ve ever been in my life”. She says: “It was so scary that the only thing you could do was put one foot in front of the other. Every step could have been your last so you concentrated on each minute, each second.”
Graubard’s work was important in spreading awareness about the war to the west. Returning to New York, her shots were published in widely read magazines including Time and Newsweek. One day, while making copies of a photograph of Serbian soldiers she had taken on the front line, she received a tap on the shoulder.
A man asked: “Where did you get that picture?”
“I took the picture,” she replied.
“Well they just held it up at a UN meeting,” said the man.
Graubard explains that while publications were primarily interested in pictures of battle and the military, her goal when was to photograph women and children in Eastern Europe. “I wanted to photograph how they were affected by [war].”
Road to Nowhere brings these photographs to light, sharing the stories of ordinary people caught up in war. They feel particularly timely and relevant with the ongoing war in Ukraine.
“I can’t begin to tell you how I feel [about Ukraine],” she says. “But I think the reporters and photographers are doing an amazing job of reporting what’s going on there – they’re incredibly, incredibly brave.”
(Isaac Muc in Huck Magazine, May 2022)
Robin Graubard (b. 1951) was born and lives in New York City. She is a graduate of NYU Film School. Graubard’s work, over the past 40 years, has explored and blurred the boundaries between documentary and autobiographical narratives. In the 1980s, Graubard documented aspects of the Lower East Side punk scenes and the nocturnal hustle of a then still dangerous Times Square but also travelled to Eastern Europe, Jamaica and Hawai. Travelling both East and West on a political and poetical map, Graubard occupies a hard-to-define position in relation to her subjects. There remains a sense of the unresolved at play in both life and in art, a nagging sense that something is always occluded and remains unsaid. Her work builds drama through mixing up distant and conflicting realities and chronologies.
Graubard is a recipient of The Rema Hort Mann Foundation grant and has been nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes. Her photographs have been published by The New York Times, Paris Match, The Guardian, Time, Newsweek, Der Spiegel, Die Welt, UNICEF, the New York Post, and others. In 1976, Graubard produced, directed, and edited films of Talking Heads and the Ramones. Her work is included in the collections of The Bronx Museum of Fine Arts, The Whitney Museum, and others. Her work was recently featured in Greater New York (2021) at MoMA PS1, and solo exhibitions include Random Access (2019) and Take a Picture It Lasts Longer (2018) at Office Baroque, Brussels, Jungle at JTT (2015), Incomplete at White Columns (2011) and The Doll Hospital at Anthology Film Archives (2010).
130 photos have recently been published by Loose Joints in the monographic publication “Robin Graubard: Road to Nowhere”, 2022, 228pp.
On the beach in Malibu, I met a guitar
player today from Paris in a band called
Thich Nhat Hanh passed away while I was
sitting on the beach listening to his meditation
from Plum Village in France, which he founded.
I hear there is trouble brewing in Bosnia
again. Putin has troops on the Ukraine
border. Things seem to go full circle.
I’m currently living down the street from
the house where Joni Mitchell wrote
Ladies of the Canyon and probably Circle
Thich Nhat Hanh was 95. My dad is 96.
How much time is in a life? It seems like
L.A. is a bit of life on the edge. So many
houses on cliffs - fires, droughts, and
earthquakes. I stand on the edge, look at
the view and hope not to fall. This precarious
world. So much change. So little certainty.
We try to build a house that can’t be
knocked down, and then it is. I take a picture,
it lasts longer.
- Robin Graubard, January 2022