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Lost in Translation





WILL WALKEY, HOST: And now for the next installment in our commentary series...Reporter Lauren Peace recalls the time she became the accidental perpetrator of a nation-wide controversy.


LAUREN PEACE, BYLINE: About two years ago I got a Fulbright grant to spend 9 months in Prishtina, Kosovo.


I had planned on writing a series of magazine stories on the women’s movement there. Kosovo is a traditional, patriarchal place, and I wanted to highlight stories about women who were trying to change that.


But once I was there… I hit a wall. I found myself immobilized by the feeling that I was an outsider parachuting in.


So instead of writing, I decided to photograph and record women telling their own stories. The only problem was I wasn’t sure how I could get anyone to pay attention….if I held an exhibition in a gallery, the only people who would show up already supported the movement.


I wanted this to be something EVERYONE would see, so I decided to use a public space.


There’s a famous monument in Kosovo. It’s called the NEWBORN monument, it’s just 7 blocky letters 10 feet tall that spell the word. People think of it as a symbol for the new Kosovo...almost like Kosovo’s Statue of Liberty, but in the center of town, where thousands of cars drive by everyday.

It seemed to me the perfect canvas for the project, but I didn’t want to just tack up a few portraits discreetly. I wanted to cover the entire thing with the portraits of the women, and with the stories they told.


When I asked the municipality for their permission to cover the monument—something that hadn’t been done before—they surprisingly said yes.


For days, I stayed up all night making the giant prints… then the night before the opening I grabbed 50 rolls of black duct tape and four of my friends, and we stayed up all night, taping the prints to the monument. It was like wrapping a jagged Christmas present the size of a two-bedroom apartment.


But by the time the sun came up, we had DONE it… there on the monument were the faces and stories of 99 women ages 15 to 73. One of the woman displayed had founded the domestic violence investigations unit for the local police force, another was the first female filmmaker in Kosovo to finish a feature. There was a national team athlete, and women who were doctors and activists during the war.


We sat nearby, exhausted, and as the city awakened, crowds began to gather around the monument, interacting with the work.


The first two hours were GREAT. And then it all went down hill.


It started when Atifete Jahjaga, the former President of Kosovo showed up… with an entourage of press in tow…..


I hadn’t even thought about what I would do if the press came. I didn’t even have a paragraph of what to say. And now suddenly I’m standing next to the president, in front of the monument, Sweaty, sleepless and bewildered… I thought to myself... “what have I done.”


People saw the monument and were livid. Some of the women resented being on the sculpture alongside other women they disliked. Others were furious they’d been left off. Men were angry because images of women were taking up public space. Social media exploded. There was hate mail.


For the next week, the project and I were at the center of a national controversy that unfolded each night on the evening news. It seemed I had done the exact opposite of what I had originally intended to do… rather than elevate the stories of women, I had surrounded them with feuds and resentment and anger. The display was up for a week, then I took it down, and the next day I flew home.


“During that LONG final week in Kosovo, any time I saw a new article or post about the project, I cringed…But now, a year later, friends still occasionally send me new articles that reference the event… I see everything a little differently. While the initial reaction to the project was jarring, the aftermath resulted in ongoing conversations about equality and the representation of women in public spaces that weren’t being had before. Because of that, I can’t help but smile.”


HOST NAME HERE, HOST: The prints from the project are now taking up space in a closet in Lauren’s childhood basement. She stays away from national monuments, for fear of getting big ideas.


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