Documentary photographer Nick St. Oegger has been living and working in the Western Balkans since 2013. Since moving to the region, he has found inspiration in unexpected places, from documenting the way of life of the shepherds in the Albanian alps to his latest project capturing the reality of an environmental crisis in Sarajevo Bosnia’s capital city.
Through his work, Nick aims to shine a light on the region’s beauty and cultural heritage and the struggles to preserve its natural environment. Nick’s latest project, “The Big Smoke,” allows us a look at a historically important European city plagued by a dense cloud of smog during its winter months.
Most people who haven’t been to Sarajevo associate the city with the war. The reality is that a lot has changed in the last 25 years, and the city is truly unique in Europe. It has a mix of architectural styles, a geographic location that results in the city climbing up the surrounding mountainsides, and a rich history of art, culture, and religious tolerance.
When Nick moved to Sarajevo at the end of 2019, he immediately became enamored with the city due to its physical location. Sarajevo sits snuggly in a valley surrounded by the Dinaric Alps. When the skies are clear during the summer months, the city’s sweeping vistas can be impressive, especially with its unique architecture and mountainous surroundings.
For me, it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. When I first arrived, I was sort of high at how in love I was with the city, but people kept telling me, “Oh, just wait until winter; you’ll change your mind when the smog comes.”
The idea for the project came about in January when Nick started to notice a distinct difference in the air quality. In just a few months, the atmosphere of the city had changed. The town had gone from a charming Balkan city with clear skies to being ranked the most polluted city in the world.
There were week-long stretches with particularly terrible air quality. When walking outside in the morning, the sky was bright orange, and you couldn’t take a full breath of air. It smelled like someone was having a giant barbecue.
Much to Nick’s chagrin, the locals were right about the change that would happen come winter. He was surprised to learn that air quality is still a huge issue in Europe. This is especially true of Eastern European countries where there is still a significant amount of mining and widespread use of coal power.
I had always associated poor air quality and images of dense smog with megacities or major industrial areas in Asia. This wasn’t something at all that I associated with Sarajevo beforehand, much less anywhere in Europe.
The poor air quality in the area is due to a lack of stringent environmental standards and political conflict. Even after many years, the economic situation in the area is still precarious, and authorities have been wary of enacting regulations that would ban the use of cheap materials and coal for heating houses.
I think there’s a fear that the country simply can’t “afford” to be more environmentally friendly, but the reality is that there are other more complicated issues at play. I think for the powers that be, air quality issues aren’t very high on their priority list.
Documenting these conditions was challenging, in and of itself, due to the physical demands of being outside this heavily polluted environment. While this was a new experience for Nick, the intense conditions are just something the locals have become accustomed to over time, so they were prepared with masks well before the pandemic began.
It wasn’t always pleasant — the smell, the difficulty breathing, the burning in your eyes, I would come home smelling like I had just smoked two packets of cigarettes.
I had bought a great mask to filter the PM2.5 particles just before the pandemic hit, so I was already used to walking around with a mask by the time they became mandatory. I found that many people were prepared because they were used to wearing masks on heavily polluted days.
To aid with planning and capture the smog, Nick had an application on his phone to track air quality levels. Just as trying to capture photography in various weather conditions, smog can also be unpredictable. This meant that Nick had to be flexible and “play it by ear” to capture this collection of images.
There were many days when the air quality was technically very hazardous, and you could smell it when you went outside, but it just wasn’t coming across in the images. I found that moving to higher ground made a difference.
Because of a phenomenon known as temperature inversion, the smog is often trapped in a layer of cold, low-hanging air that can’t escape through the warmer air at higher altitudes. You can see this in a couple of my photos that show a “sea” of smog engulfing the city, with blue skies above it.
The haziness created by the smoke in some of Nick’s landscape images is especially beautiful but eerie, as no one appears to be around. While there’s usually a sign of life beyond – a house with a flickering light, cable car moving, or a chimney with smoke in the background, the beauty of the surroundings simply takes over.
I loved the challenge of trying to make beautiful images out of something really ugly, it’s something I’ve done in other projects in the past, and I always like having to work with those extremes.
However, when the smog is paired with scenes featuring people going about their daily life, it creates an intriguing juxtaposition, creating a landscape that appears to offer a glimpse of a long-forgotten time but is very much alive today.
Photographer: Nick St. Oegger