With more than 10 years of experience reporting on events like the U.S. military occupation of Iraq, the capturing of Mosul by ISIS, and the ongoing refugee crisis in Syria and throughout southeastern Europe, it’s hard to believe anything could make freelance photojournalist Marko Drobnjakovic nervous — much less a conversation with this cub reporter. “You think I’m used to giving interviews?” Drobnjakovic tells me after I apologetically inform him he’s my first Skype call ever. “I’m sort of petrified,” Drobnjakovic continues. “I better watch my language as well.” Instantly relieved by his good humor and our shared proclivity for swearing, I assure Drobnjakovic that there’s no need to hold back.
Fortunately, holding back doesn’t seem to be Marko Drobnjakovic’s style. Born, raised, and based out of Belgrade, Serbia, the 37-year-old father, freelancer, and Instagram community member says he landed his first journalistic assignment by lying his way into a bread factory. “By my education I’m a mechanical engineer, but I found mechanical engineering...not the best fit for me,” Drobnjakovic tells Bustle. “I tried to change something, and then all of a sudden I remembered my fond love of photography.” It wasn't long after this realization that Drobnjakovic enrolled in a photography seminar hosted by a friend of his. “I enrolled in his seminar and we discussed photography a lot and he gave me some assignments, just for practice.”
Drobnjakovic says the bread factory had always intrigued him, but it was ultimately his friend’s encouragement that got him through the doors. “That place...was always interesting for me but I never dared going inside,” Drobnjakovic tells Bustle. “But then talking to my friend...he emboldened me to...widen my perspective on things, and to try and, you know, be inquisitive,” Drobnjakovic says. “So I just went to the bread factory and lied my ass off, and they let me shoot some pictures.” After returning to the factory a few more times, Drobnjakovic says he was able to produce the work that finally made him believe he could be a photographer.
Since then, Drobnjakovic has established, and continues to cherish, a working relationship with the Associated Press (AP) and various other news agencies and media houses — both foreign and domestic. Between his work in the Middle East, his coverage of the Syrian refugee crisis, and his own memories of growing up during the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Drobnjakovic has become an expert on multi-ethnic societies — and documenting what he sees on Instagram.
I asked Drobnjakovic about everything from his childhood to his views on Trump’s proposed refugee ban. Here’s what he had to say.
How The Breakup Of Yugoslavia Has Shaped His Work
A Syrian boy rests in a Belgrade park.
"I haven't really experienced firsthand war apart from the 1999 NATO bombing," Drobnjakovic says when I ask how growing up during the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia has shaped his work. "It's not comparable to what other people in Yugoslavia experienced...but I got to experience firsthand what it means for a country to dissolve and what comes after the dissolution."
Drobnjakovic was 11 years old when the Yugoslav Wars began in 1991, but he says watching his country fall apart still disturbs him to this day. "For somebody that young, this whole society went from some sort of semblance of normalcy and decency to the exact opposite," Drobnjakovic says. "I was lucky enough to be a child and to be spared of open conflict and things like that, but I was unlucky in a way because it deeply disturbed me...I think it's fair to say that I've become more cynical, and also more inquisitive." Drobnjakovic says it is because of his background that he doesn't tend to see things in black and white, nor does he attempt to simplify the complicated subjects he covers as a journalist.
On The Importance Of Journalism In An Era Of Post-Truth Politics
Refugees march in Serbia at dusk.
"We’re living in a very weird point in time, aren’t we?" Drobnjakovic says. "…We are now sort of in the middle of a debate about the importance of truth and truthful reporting, which is sort of flabbergasting." Though he is careful not to overgeneralize the issue, Drobnjakovic says he doesn't understand how objective truth has managed to become so undervalued in today's political climate. "I know truth is not a very simple word, nor does it come in just one shape and size and color...and I'm all for debate, but this is getting ridiculous here."
Drobnjakovic says he checks his phone for news alerts first thing every morning, but that doesn't mean he never doubts the importance of news in post-truth societies. "Sometimes I do doubt my own abilities and I do doubt the importance of news," Drobnjakovic admits. "...It seems the biggest problem we have is people not really being interested in being informed."
Drobnjakovic says he doesn't always know how to reach people who don't care about current events, but he's determined to keep providing truthful information for those who seek it. As for everyone else, "It’s very important that people who are not into journalism, and who are not into getting the news, that they understand that it’s the job of journalists to basically bring accountability."
On The Syrian Refugee Crisis
A moment of absolute chaos in Croatia.
When he started covering the Syrian refugee crisis back in 2014, Drobnjakovic says he did so partially because it mattered to him on a personal level, but also simply because "it was something that could not have been ignored by any journalist." "I saw that the number of people going through my hometown was increasing by the day, and I sort of had enough experience to know that this was going to be a huge story," Drobnjakovic says.
In 2015 alone, more than 200,000 refugees passed through Drobnjakovic's region on their way to the Turkish coast — and there are still thousands of refugees currently stuck in his country. "We have about [7,000] to 8,000 people currently stuck in Serbia who are trying to go up north to Hungary and further...but their basic human rights are being denied by governments left and right," Drobnjakovic tells Bustle. "I still think it's a very important story to be told...the thing is, nobody pays attention anymore and a lot of people seem to think this refugee crisis is over when it's probably in a lull."
On Trump's Proposed Travel Ban And The Possibility Of A Border Wall
A refugee pauses to pray near the shores of Lesbos, Greece.
"I don't think [Trump's] travel ban, or building the wall, will amount to any sort of good or productive situation, that's for sure," Drobnjakovic tells Bustle.
“This whole 'build a wall' thing is so surreal it just escapes any logic or common sense...I know very well that people coming from Mexico, in many cases, make the backbone of American economy," Drobnjakovic says. "They are doing jobs that are important on a very, very basic level." He's right. Not only do economists tend to agree that immigration is good for the economy, recent studies show that immigrants actually create jobs — they don't steal them.
On Covering The U.S. Occupation Of Iraq
Women and children visit a graveyard in Mosul, Iraq.
“I don’t think it’s very important to highlight my own personal experiences while covering stories of the utmost importance,” Drobnjakovic says when I press him for personal anecdotes involving his time in Iraq. Instead, Drobnjakovic tells Bustle how working with Iraqi photographers has impacted him. "To this day they are my heroes and they are the heroes of this trade, and I wish more people would pay attention to their work."
Drobnjakovic says it was part of his job to assist Iraqi photographers while covering the war in Iraq. "There was the photography part...but there was also the editing part of the job in which you would spend some time trying to coordinate the network of local photographers who were working for AP." Drobnjakovic says "doing that job and trying to be their support...helped me develop a better sense of the things that were going on around me." Drobnjakovic says witnessing the courage and work ethic of those Iraqi photographers has pushed him to be both smarter and braver than he was before meeting them.
His Advice To Creatives Who Want To Make A Difference
Young refugees play with soap bubbles in Serbia.
Drobnjakovic's biggest piece of advice for other creatives hoping to affect positive, social change with their work? Don't be ignorant. “I think it’s of the utmost importance that people do be informed, even on a basic level," Drobnjakovic tells Bustle. "...The more people are informed on news, the better judgement they might have on subjects and issues of the utmost importance," Drobnjakovic says. "[Issues] that will not only touch lives of some distant people on other shores of some other oceans or whatever...but that will also influence news readers as well.”
Check out more of Drobnjakovic's work on Instagram.