One of the things I love about photography and photographers is their endless curiosity about the world, their need to see it, explore it, experience its difference, and document it for others to see. Nick Dantona’s The Balkan Dispatches project is the embodiment of that curiosity…that willingness to be in the world, to see it for himself, and share his wonder with others. The stories and text are presented in an exquisite, beautiful, and remarkably thoughtful way. Much more than just a book, or folio, The Balkan Dispatches is an experience, to be savored over time…just the way that Nick photographed it.
Working in photography is to engage in a lifelong love affair complete with all that entails – the road is never smooth, the path shifts and changes constantly, and the rewards are never certain. The gifts and joys of photography come in their own time and often unexpected ways.
Being one of six people to receive The Balkan Dispatches, this exquisite and deeply moving document of a grand adventure, was humbling. It’s a gift that I will treasure always, and not just the book itself, but the generous, loving spirit in which it was made and given…Nick Dantona’s indomitable spirit. -Barbara Griffin
Barbara Griffin: Nick, I’ve been enthralled with your project, The Balkan Dispatches, from the moment I first saw it. It’s a stunning and unique compilation of a photographic adventure, encased in a lovingly made case reminiscent of something Indiana Jones might have carried on an archaeological dig. It’s quite marvelous, but in all honesty, I don’t know what to call it…is it a folio, is it a book, is it a collection? What I do know is it’s wonderful to experience.
What inspired you to travel through the Balkans? It’s not everybody’s top of mind travel destination. In fact, I don’t know anyone who’s been there, and I’m fascinated that you chose those locations as a place to go. What led you to travel through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro and Albania?
Nick Dantona: Well, it was chosen for me. I’d planned a trip down the Croatian coast, where I could stop at resorts and have drinks with umbrellas and then eventually make my way to a ferry across to Italy where I could visit cousins. My friend Brian Hinchcliffe called and asked me what I was up to. When I told him he said it sounded terribly boring, but since I was going to be on that side of the Adriatic, why don’t we, (he was now inviting himself), go someplace interesting like Kosovo, Bosnia, Montenegro?
We’re both Alan Furst historical spy novel fans, so he said, “Look, we’ll buy fedoras, wear trench coats, we’ll go in the winter.” (laughs). So, I said, “Let’s go, that’s fine, but I don’t want to do the fedoras, I don’t want to do the trench coats, and I definitely don’t want to do it during the winter”. So, I started researching the area and came up with a travel itinerary. And that’s how it started.
Barbara Griffin: So, it didn’t start as a photographic journey?
Nick Dantona: Well, every photographer is always on a busman’s holiday. I mean, we’re always working, so I anticipated making photographs. As a matter of fact, I had six months to prepare for the trip. I tested different types of equipment, different types of clothing. We were going to trek the Alps, which are called the Accursed Mountains of Albania. So, there was a little preparation in terms of what I was going to bring photographically… but not so much as to what I was going to photograph.
Barbara Griffin: I wondered if you had a clear sense of what you wanted to accomplish photographically. If that wasn’t the case, at what point did it evolve from simply taking pictures as you traveled? At what point did it begin becoming something else?
Nick Dantona: What an important question. A couple of years before the Balkan trip, I had done about a month in eastern Turkey, where it borders Iraq, Iran, Syria, Georgia, the Black Sea, and it turned out to be a photographic disaster. Although I came home with all the photographs that I had in mind – by bribing hotel managers and fixers to get me here and there – when I looked at the photographs, even though many of them were good, they were typical. There was the Blue Mosque, there was Istanbul across the Bosporus…
Barbara Griffin: The typical postcard images…
Nick Dantona: (laughs) I couldn’t believe I had done that. My early influences are definitely from National Geographic, and that’s what I came home with. I couldn’t believe I had spent all that time, all that money, all that effort. I had forcefully imposed my expectations on the experience. The thing that made me painfully aware of that was when I got home and received an art card in the mail from a gallery I didn’t know. It was announcing an exhibit for George Georgiou who had spent three years in eastern Turkey. There on the card was the photograph I should have taken. I saw this scene again and again and shrugged it off as a snapshot type of thing. But of course, it was the real story. It was the thing that was presenting itself.
Barbara Griffin: What was the picture of?
Nick Dantona: In eastern Turkey, they’ve built modern developments, that look a lot like, well if you’re from New York, like Co-op City. High-rises, maybe 20-story apartment complexes and there would be maybe 10 of these buildings that constitute a little city. And coming down the road is a little tuk tuk with a farmer in it. A scene that was indicative of the old Turkey at the foot of this complex of shiny new apartment buildings and it told a lot more about the Turkey that I was witnessing than the beautiful photograph I took of the Blue Mosque.
Barbara Griffin: Certainly, more about the changing culture. It’s clear on reading the Dispatches that you did a lot of research before you traveled. For one thing, you describe the places with a real sense of what’s going on politically and how that’s impacted each of the regions that you’ve been to. And, at the same time, I get the feeling that you’re discovering it with a fresh eye. Seeing the culture shift, how did that impact your writing or the pictures you took on this trip?
Nick Dantona: That was a gift really. I was trying to remain open, not just to what I was seeing, but also to what I was hearing from people. Engaging people, and letting them tell the story of their survival through the 90’s war, or how they’re interacting with the Serbians – then something magical and unexpected began to happen. I thought I would write myself an email on a daily basis or near daily basis, just to remind me of what I was doing, like a journal, but what came out was not that. It became more of a chronicle, something between reportage and commentary, a snapshot of that moment in time, in that place.
Barbara Griffin: You also observed cultural changes and a renewed energy as people have come together, with a more hopeful feeling about the future.
Nick Dantona: Well, what a people. I mean, this is four different countries that have really put aside those terrible years to be able to move forward, if not for themselves then for their children. They are shoulder to the wheel about it, it’s hugely inspirational to see. Their years as Eastern Bloc countries hindered their economic growth and social matriculation into the larger western community, in my opinion.
Barbara Griffin: I remember going to Lithuania for a project the year after the wall came down and how dour and serious everyone seemed. Almost a year later, we went back for another shoot and it felt as if people had lightened up tremendously in just such a short period of time. Yours sounds like a similar experience where people have struggled and are now seeing positive momentum.
Nick Dantona: I know it sounds corny, but the power of liberty is not to be underestimated. People react to that like a plant to sunshine.
Barbara Griffin: You’ve traveled extensively as a photographer, throughout your life and career. What was different about this trip than any trip you’ve been on before?
Nick Dantona: I traveled with my friend Brian, who was unfamiliar with the process that a photographer goes through to make an image that’s more than a snapshot. So, I felt a little pressured to be decisive and quick. That turned out to be a benefit because there was no time to hesitate. I would notice someone, meet someone, observe a scene, and just go into the mode of making a photograph. That was new for me. Usually, I cozy up to it. I circle it a little bit. And then,
Barbara Griffin: Come back around?
Nick Dantona: And then come back around and decide whether I’m going to make the photograph or not. I felt a little pressured to get stuff done in a decisive fashion.
Barbara Griffin: Do you think that being a little more spontaneous allowed you to take un-expected pictures, not just the postcard pictures, but images that are a little bit more heartfelt?
Nick Dantona: Yes, that, and making a concerted effort to push myself out of my comfort zone. I’m not comfortable making portraits of people. I like the calm of landscape photography in that I’m not bothering anybody, I can choose the time of day…
Barbara Griffin: (laughs) A landscape is not going to argue or worry about how it looks.
Nick Dantona: No. It’s there if I want to come back a different day. So, this was photography by instinct as opposed to photography by craft.
Barbara Griffin: That’s awesome. And at the same time, you were experiencing a lot of travel snafus (laughs) on this trip from snags and surprises like flat tires and unreliable ferries and mountains that were just as hard going down as they were climbing up. How important was it to give up control? How necessary was it to have the willingness to go with the flow and let things organically happen?
Nick Dantona: I think any experienced traveler, whether you’re a photographer or not, finally recognizes that it’s those snafus that you wind up remembering. That’s really what you take home. Everybody wants to see the Pieta and marvel at its beauty. But when the big German guy steps on your toe and breaks it, that’s what you remember. It adds to the adventure, it adds the texture to the traveling. Oh, we missed the ferry, now what?
Barbara Griffin: And something amazing happens…
Nick Dantona: We unintentionally insulted our driver by challenging his assertion that the ferry was not running that day. So, he just pulls over and kicks us out the car. Mind you, we’d just come out of the Accursed Mountains and were not in the mood for shenanigans. Also, Brian had to leave the country that day to speak at a conference, so timing was important. Somehow our guide locates another driver who informs us that in fact the ferry is not running until later that day. However, he has a cousin with a boat. We dubbed him, Captain Cousin.
Barbara Griffin: Describe what happened with the boat, because it sounds like a hair-raising experience. (laughs)
Nick Dantona: So, Captain Cousin shows up with not much of a boat, and when we get in the boat, along with all our stuff, the boat is nearly submerged. So we have to go slowly, otherwise we’re going to sink in the very deep Lake Koman of Albania.
Barbara Griffin: And was it cold?
Nick Dantona: It’s cold. It’s deep, it’s beautiful. It’s cold. So, we’re putt-putting along and, of course, the putt-putting allows me to make some pretty cool photographs. Then we have to do a boat swap because …
Barbara Griffin: In mid-lake?
Nick Dantona: Mid-lake.
Barbara Griffin: Oh gee.
Nick Dantona: Captain Cousin says, “We’re not going to make it in this boat. We’re burning out the engine, but we can get another boat from my father’s dock.” So, off we went to Captain Cousin’s father’s dock where we thought we were going to get a boat. Instead, what we got was this big-ass canoe-
Barbara Griffin: Oh no…
Nick Dantona: With an eight-cylinder motor on it. And, yeah, that transfer (laughs) was a little harrowing … but that canoe with its eight-cylinder engine just flew. I don’t think it even touched the surface of the water.
Barbara Griffin: Were you holding on for dear life?
Nick Dantona: Yes, but there was no seat. It was just a piece of wood laid across the width of the canoe, so every time we hit a bump, the piece of wood – the bench – would rise and fall … but we made it, and Brian eventually made it to his plane on time. It was a great adventure.
Barbara Griffin: You certainly encountered a number of logistical challenges along the way. Climbing up the mountain thinking you’ve got this, and then, realizing that going down the mountain was a whole ‘nother story.
Nick Dantona: Yeah, that was going into northern Albania, into the Accursed Mountains. I’ve been working hard to get in shape from a health care issue. I had the right backpack, with the right camera equipment, and the right guide and I’m ready to go. Brian looks like he just stepped out of an Orvitz catalog.
About 45 minutes into it it occurred to me ‘this is probably more than I can handle’. I bit off more than I could chew. That was a little frightening because there really weren’t a lot of rescue options built into this plan. Our guide, who I lovingly call The Viking-
Barbara Griffin: (laughs) I’ve got to know more about The Viking. Everyone needs a Viking in their life.
Nick Dantona: The Viking is a 26-year-old architecture student who’s also a mountaineer, but damned if he doesn’t look like a Viking. And so, we never called him his name. He and Brian were very calming and they said, “We’ll just go at our own pace.” So, we slowed the pace, and I got to build up a head of steam. It took some doing, but we got up into the mountains and I made some unusual photographs up there, including some portraits of the mountain folk.
Barbara Griffin: Was the Viking the one who told you that getting down the mountain would actually be harder than going up?
Nick Dantona: Yes. That was not encouraging. We made it to the Valbona Pass, which is the top – the peak – of the path we were taking. And I thought, wow, we made it! Hard part’s over! It’s now downhill!
Barbara Griffin: It’s all downhill from here.
Nick Dantona: The Viking had gone ahead, he came back to report, and said, “Well, listen, two things: Number one, to get up a hill just requires strength, Number two, to get down the hill requires skills that you don’t have.”
Barbara Griffin: (laughs) Good to know.
Nick Dantona: As a matter of fact, we had just run into a group, at the Valbona Pass. There was a woman in her 30s, looked in pretty good shape, but she was on her knees retching. So, we offered help and her guide said something, which the Viking translated to say, “There’s nothing to help. She is only gripped with fear.”
Barbara Griffin: Wow. I can’t blame her.
Nick Dantona: Later, we’d come to know that fear was justified. (laughs)
Barbara Griffin: Oh my God.
Nick Dantona: The Viking would go ahead a few paces and stomp big holes in the snow pack on the side of the mountain and then we’d literally follow in his footsteps, stick our feet into those holes and lean into the mountain. That’s how we got past those snow pack areas.
Barbara Griffin: And was it a sheer drop?
Nick Dantona: Sheer drop.
Barbara Griffin: Holy cow.
Nick Dantona: The thing is that you become so focused. The snow wasn’t everywhere, just in certain patches and, eventually, we got below the snow line and it was downhill from there, thank God.
Barbara Griffin: So, Captain Cousin…the Viking, it sounds like you met some really amazing characters along the way.
Nick Dantona: Yeah, things kind of fell in place. What you said before, Barbara, is absolutely true. It’s so much more interesting when you let go and just go with it. That’s why this particular trip was so fruitful.
Barbara Griffin: Yes, so many people get so overly concerned with the technical aspect of photography that they aren’t letting go and shooting real-life moments. There can be a big difference between an image that’s technically perfect and one that has something to say emotionally.
Nick Dantona: That’s true. I can’t overstate how important it is, especially for young photographers, to learn the craft so well that the technical side becomes instinctive. When the moment presents itself you’re ready, you’re not having an” oh my gosh, how do I do this?” moment, your fingers are moving and working the equipment, and your eye and your mind are composing and developing the story.
Barbara Griffin: That’s where the more unforgettable photographs come from, instinct.
Nick Dantona: I believe you know it in your heart when it happens.
Barbara Griffin: We’ve been talking about the experience of The Balkan Dispatches project and about the journey, so where did the inspiration for actually putting this collection together come from, and can you talk about the process that you went through to do that?
Nick Dantona: Yes. The images really told the story. They guided me in determining the color palette, the patina, the paper. It was arduous making those decisions. The pictures did not want something typical. They wanted something appropriate for them, and so we landed on this photographic rice paper.
Barbara Griffin: It’s lovely, and beautiful to touch.
Nick Dantona: Yes. And the photographs are composed as 8 x10, so they have a really classic aspect ratio, but I couldn’t see them framed that way. The thought occurred to me about scrolls. How scrolls could be rolled and put in a pouch, especially the written dispatches.
There turned out to be eight written dispatches. So, I spent the better part of the summer experimenting, and wound up printing them on 12-inch-wide by 24-inch-long scrolls of rice paper.
The inks just sank right into the paper, almost like a watercolor. They infused the paper with a feeling. So that worked out well.
What didn’t work out so well was the scroll concept. I was reluctant to let that idea go until a friend introduced me to Britt Stadig, a fine art bindery artist in Nashville who took a look at the work. Britt has a pedigree that is far above my station. She has to really love a project to take it on. She said, “Wonderful pictures, nice writing. Lose the scrolls.”
I said, “I like the scrolls.” She said, “We’ll come up with something different.” One of the big lessons I learned in doing this project is collaborating. Photographers are mostly lone wolves. We shoot the stuff ourselves, we print the stuff ourselves, we frame the stuff. You know, collaborating is not a strong suit for many of us.
Barbara Griffin: Right.
Nick Dantona: But I let go again, and followed her lead, and she came up with a unique enclosure that allowed the written dispatches to be rolled into scrolls and stored in a tray – and then below the tray lie the eight sets of images that are on the 12 by 24 sheets of paper. And it closes up and it looks like something from the eastern front. It looks like it’s from that area.
Barbara Griffin: Or, from an Indiana Jones movie… Or, a foreign dispatch from a world war…
Nick Dantona: So it’s, in-and-of itself, a work of art. It doesn’t look like a book. It’s certainly not a box, or something you put on a shelf. It’s unique, and defies description.
Barbara Griffin: The best way I think, and talk, about it is as a ritualistic experience. Physically opening the box, I mean – just looking at it is a pleasure. First of all, it’s so beautiful with the leather bindings, the color palette, and the attention to detail throughout. The fabric that it’s encased in is perfection, I have a feeling of reverence before opening it up. You know there’s going to be something important and significant inside. Then when you open it you see the map of where you traveled, the scrolls all lined up in their tray. I especially love the little graphic on each scroll’s belly band that specifically relates to a matching graphic on the picture sections. It’s just so beautifully done, with each graphic tied to an aspect of that particular dispatch.
Nick Dantona: Yeah, I think the experience that you’re talking about harkens back to the 19th century or before. Amateur botanists or butterfly collectors would spread their collection out on a table, examine the contents, organize it into a collection. Live with it. Actually, make a bit of a mess of it. And The Balkan Dispatches are meant to be handled. I don’t want it to be too precious, or put on a wall and admired, I want you to get finger prints on it. Hopefully, it’s built for generations and maybe two generations down the road, someone will say, “That’s grandma’s thumbprint on there” or ” Oh, someone spilled tea here.” I think it’s meant to be spread out, enjoyed over a weekend or over a period of time.
Barbara Griffin: That’s one of the things that I find so intriguing. When you first showed it to me you told me not to read it all at once. My usual tendency would be to read all the scrolls at once and get the whole story. But I deliberately resisted the urge, and tried to savor it over a period of time.
Nick Dantona: Yes, (laughs) I think that’s part of its unique nature.
Barbara Griffin Just the opening up of it takes time. Then there’s time spent matching the scrolls and the photographs and putting it all back correctly. It takes time and thought.
Nick Dantona: And even that’s fun. Britt designed the iconography as a guide to match what written chronicle goes with what images. Things are numbered, and the icons coordinated, so that once you take it apart, you can put it back together again. I think you’re right, Barbara, I really like the term ritualistic that you used.
Barbara Griffin: Once Britt showed you the final piece, and it was all together, you only made six. What was your thinking there?
Nick Dantona: Throughout this whole process … I don’t want to sound corny or weird … but I was guided through the process. And, toward the end, I got this notion to make five. To make five gifts … and these are not easy to make –
Barbara Griffin: Clearly.
Nick Dantona: They’re not easy to print, they’re not easy to cut, they’re not easy to spray, they’re not … Britt’s part is amazingly difficult. So, I thought, let’s make five, actually six, I made one for my kids.This “notion”, this guidance came with specific recipients. And the weird part is, although I know all the recipients, we’re not best buds. I mean, I have brothers, and friends for 40 years who once they found out five of these went out, they all went-
Barbara Griffin: “Where’s mine?” (laughs)
Nick Dantona: Yeah, where’s mine? (laughs) Who’s that person? Why did she get one? Why didn’t I … and I don’t have a good answer. You know, I don’t know. But the notion came to me as clear as a bell. And, I can’t express the joy of presenting these gifts… they were all surprised of course, these five recipients…
Barbara Griffin: I’ll say.
Nick Dantona: …and the effect it had on me is something I’ve never experienced before. It was an exhilaration, a connection not just with that person, not just with that recipient, but something larger. The thing that was guiding me throughout the whole process that was like this cosmic, “Ah”…as if something had been completed.
Barbara Griffin: That’s amazing, Nick.
Nick Dantona: I’m not that kind of guy, I’m the city kid from the Bronx. I don’t believe in that crap.
Barbara Griffin: (laughs) Yet, here you are.
Nick Dantona: It overpowered me.
Barbara Griffin: When you invited me to lunch (laughs) I was so excited to see you and Mark Mosrie. It was funny, when I walked into the restaurant, and the host led me to the private dining room, you guys were the only ones sitting there, and I thought, “This is interesting…” (laughs)
Nick Dantona: (laughs)
Barbara Griffin: But I was so glad to see you, and delighted to be invited. You’re one of those people, Nick – and we’d not known each other that long – you’re one of those people that it never fails, I see you and it just lifts my heart.
Nick Dantona: Aw.
Barbara Griffin: I know how passionately you love photography, as do I. So, (laughs) I’ll start crying here ….. When you presented me with this amazing gift I was honored. And now, almost a year later, I still am. I’m still stunned and humbled. As you can imagine, I have a million photo books – they’re everywhere in my house. The Balkan Dispatches sits on a bench in my living room, proudly. And there are probably 20 other photo books stacked all around it. But when people come in, they don’t pick up those books, they want to know what that is.
Nick Dantona: (laughs)
Barbara Griffin: And then … I open it up. And they go through it, and I tell them the story and they’re just … they’re blown away. So, sharing the experience down the line has has been amazing.
Nick Dantona: Thank you. You mentioned earlier, Barbara, that when you open yourself up it’s amazing what comes in. And what I got to witness, which caught me by surprise each of the five times I gave one of the five Dispatches away, was that this showed up at a time in that person’s life when it was absolutely the thing that needed to show up in that person’s life.
The five recipients are very different people. I mean, they’re all Vikings themselves in terms of their love of photography. In how they forward photography as an art form, how they are fearless about it, and not apologetic about it. And, so, this shows up, and that’s what I got to witness. Each of them told me something similar.
Barbara Griffin: For me it was very affirming. I was at a point of trying to figure out what was next for me, where is photography going. I was conflicted, and when that showed up … I was so used to putting photography out there and helping others with theirs, so this was such a gift to me. It was kind of hard to take in. And, of course, I cried the whole way home…
Then I had to sit there for a while before I could even really open it up. It was, in a way, overwhelming, but it affirmed to me why photography matters, why I do what I do, you know, how much I love sharing photography with everybody around me.
Nick Dantona: Yes.
Barbara Griffin: I just have to say thank you.
Nick Dantona: Well, you’re very welcome. It was as much a gift for me. A dear friend of mine who tutors me in writing was not a recipient, but she did see The Balkan Dispatches and she said, “Gosh, Nick, it’s such a metaphor for you.” I said, “Stella Sue, I don’t really know what you mean by that.” But I was facing some difficult challenges and making this was about overcoming those. How do you face it…what do you do? Do you give up? Do you try to climb the Accursed Mountains and get to the other side when you have pretty good reasons just to give up?
I feel good, I made it over the other side of the mountain, if you will.
Barbara Griffin: Yes, you did.
Nick Dantona: I’m here to tell the story with you about it. So, maybe it’s not just a metaphor for me, but a metaphor for everybody. I mean, (laughs) part of the snafus of travel are part of the snafus of life. Those snafus give life texture.
Barbara Griffin: It’s funny, are you familiar with the writer, Neil Gaiman? He’s a wonderful English author. He gave a college commencement speech where he basically was saying, what do you do when things aren’t going well, when times are hard, “Make great art.”
Nick Dantona: (laughs) Yes.
Barbara Griffin: That’s what you did, Nick, you made great art.
Nick Dantona: It’s the making of it and the giving of it.
Barbara Griffin: Making it and putting it out in the world. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.
Nick is a child and a product of the Sixties who has had the good fortune of a successful, multi-faceted career as a creative professional and artist. His work is influenced by the music, events, and message of that generation:
Love is the most powerful force in the universe.
His artwork represents a decades-long journey as TV cameraman, photographer, producer/director, writer, creative director and interactive media pioneer.
Mr. Dantona was born in the Bronx, NY and has studied Theater, Film, and Communication at Emerson College, Suffolk University, SUNY and NYU School of the Arts. He is a Director on the Board for the Brentwood Photography Group and the Society of Nashville Artistic Photographers. He currently lives in Franklin, TN and continues to photograph and exhibit in the U.S. and internationally.
You can contact him at:
Barbara Griffin is an independent Creative Director and Photo Editor. She serves as Board President for Atlanta Celebrates Photography (ACP), a non-profit arts organization which produces the largest annual community-oriented photo festival in the U.S. Formerly, Barbara was senior vice president of Image Management for Turner Broadcasting, responsible for all photography created globally for Turner’s entertainment, animation and news networks.
Currently at work on multiple photobook projects, she also served as photo editor for Sweetheart Roller Skating Rink, the award-winning fine art book by photographer Bill Yates. A frequent speaker on professional photography, she’s a member of the International Center of Photography, APA, ASMP and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.