MIDWOOD – Artan Ljukovic, 23, is white. He’s a man, too, and according to him, those are the first two things people notice. He is also queer, but he has found that is not something someone would pick up on right away and judge him for, especially in Brooklyn.
“I don’t get the experience someone like a trans-woman of color would get,” he told Bklyner on a rainy day. “I’m very privileged and I try to use my privilege as best as possible, but I try not to speak on behalf of people who don’t have the same privileges. I could use my voice to add to a conversation, but not to silence someone.”
Ljukovic has lived in Brooklyn since the day he was born and he isn’t planning on leaving anytime soon. He loves its diversity and calls it home. It’s where he learned his love for photography. It’s where he came out as gay to the world. It’s where he understood his identity and his privilege. And it’s where he wants to figure it all out.
Though Ljukovic was born in Brooklyn—Coney Island Hospital to be exact—his family comes from the Balkans, an area in southeastern Europe. Balkans are usually very traditional and conservative, Ljukovic explained. His family calls him Artie and he’s the eldest of four. He has twin brothers who are 20 and a four-year-old sister. According to Balkan culture, the eldest siblings are to be respected by the youngsters. The eldest siblings also have a duty to put the little ones in check. In Ljukovic’s family though, that’s not the case.
“This is a big issue in our family,” he laughed. “I thought it was my job to keep my brothers in check. But, they would run to my mom and tell her, ‘Artie did this to me,’ and I would get in trouble. Like, they totally defeated the purpose of me scolding them. Now, we have this weird relationship where they acknowledge that I’m the older brother, but we’re treated as equals. I don’t feel like an older brother, I feel like an equal.”
It is that kind of closeness that led him to come out to his siblings and his immediate family first. Ljukovic’s coming out story begins when he was 18. He had known since middle school that he was gay, but he kept it hidden until he was in college. Because one day, it was all just becoming too much to hold inside.
When he attended Brooklyn College, he was depressed. He also wasn’t interested in school and his grades showed that. It came to the point where he knew he was going to be dismissed. He had a spare mail key and every day he would check the mail for that dismissal letter. The one day he didn’t check the mail, the letter arrived. His mom opened it.
“She sent me a picture of it and she’s like, ‘Please tell me this is some clerical error.’ I told her it wasn’t,” Ljukovic recalled. So he went home, and as he expected, she was angry. She asked him what was wrong.
“I told her, ‘Listen, I’m depressed and I’m gay. These are the issues I’m dealing with and I don’t have time to deal with school right now because it’s not in my headspace,'” he said.
To his surprise, she understood. She also told him she knew all along he was gay. Ljukovic laughed recalling the memory. “Like okay, you could’ve told me a while back and we wouldn’t be here today.”
Ljukovic insists his little sister is his best friend. He’s super close with her, too. He had always wanted a sister and didn’t get one until four years ago.
“Being a little boy who loved playing with Barbies, I finally got my chance,” he said. “I finally got a chance, being out in the world, to proudly hold a Barbie in my hand and be like this is what I want to play with.”
It took a while to get his head back in the game and enroll in school again. He’s now a student at Baruch College and will graduate in January 2020. He’s majoring in Journalism with a minor in Sociology. Sociology because he’s interested in the way society works and wants to figure out the underlying issues nobody talks about. As for journalism? He thought he liked it, but two months ago, he realized he didn’t. Photography was where his head was at.
Around the summer of 2013, Ljukovic told his mom he wanted to go into photography. So, she went to Amazon and bought him a Nikon D3100. He promised her he would use it, but it ended up inside his closet for six years. Two months ago, he finally took it out. He was doing a multimedia assignment for one of his classes and after interviewing someone, he asked if he could take some photos. He did a small shoot and it turned out, the photos came out really well.
“That five-minute shoot turned into another and other people kept giving me more opportunities,” he said. “Not to pat myself on the back, but I was finally creating something that I not only enjoyed but having it come out good and the way I wanted it to.”
Ljukovic takes photographs of people. “What’s more beautiful than a person? I think people are so beautiful. Faces are beautiful. Personalities are beautiful, and if I can capture that in a picture, in one shot?”
One of his career goals is to work on album packaging. He wants to shoot Lady Gaga’s album cover. Or anyone’s album cover, for that matter, but Lady Gaga is on the top of his list. One can say he’s a huge fan (Selena and Britney Spears complete his top three list).
One of Ljukovic’s favorite photoshoots was with a model named Darnell. The shoot took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). The Met’s Greek and Roman art collection features various sculptures of white people, he explained.
“It was cool placing a dark-skinned black man in a room that’s solely centered on white statues,” he said. “It was beautiful. It was just occupying spaces that these institutions don’t let people occupy.”
Ljukovic’s photographs are extraordinary, and people aren’t shy about telling him. The comments under his photos on his Instagram are all positive. At one point during the conversation, Ljukovic laughed and said when he shows up to a photoshoot, he wants to act like he knows what he’s doing, even though he doesn’t entirely. His secret is that he shoots on autofocus. But that is only because he is horrible with the technical stuff like ISO and aperture. He said he’s waiting for the day he’ll mess it up.
“I hate watching YouTube videos. Every time I watch them, they contradict something that I do,” he said. “For me, it’s all about the perspective. I love to sit there and talk to the person to figure out their personality and what background would make their outfit pop.”
He absolutely does want to learn all the technical aspects a camera has to offer, which is why he plans on getting his Masters. “Let’s just hope I dont change my mind on what I want to do the last two months of my Masters,” he smiled.
On this particular day, Ljukovic was wearing a black t-shirt and shorts. His head is topped with beautiful curls and he has some light facial hair on his chin. He has a calm voice which occasionally falls into soft laughter. He loves the color purple and sometimes, when he’s really feeling himself, he’ll walk with a sway in his hips because he can. Oh, summer is his favorite season and humidity is also his best friend. He quite poetically explained, “I love when my skin feels moisturized. I love when the warm breeze caresses my body.”
Ljukovic wore a necklace with three pendants. His parents gave him one of them on his first birthday. It says his name on the front, with a “Love, Mom and Dad” on the back. The second one is something he bought at the New York Renaissance Faire. It has the Star of David, a cross, and a crescent moon attached to a star. “Co-existing,” he said. The third pendant is a cross by itself. He got it for his grandmother, the only Catholic woman in his entire family.
Ljukovic grew up practicing Islam. When his parents divorced, his mother told her kids to do whatever they wanted, to follow (or not follow) as they so desired. Now at 23, he feels he needs religion in his life.
“I’m trying to learn more about Islam,” he said. “I carry around the Quran with me and I read it here and there and try to connect with it. It’s a religion I am most comfortable with. I don’t really relate to anything else. I’d love to be a man of faith.”
Ljukovic tries not to think that far into the future; it gives him a headache. For example, would he ever have a family of his own? To that, he answered in a way that made it seem like he had thought about it for a while. “I’m 23 and I could barely take care of myself. By the time I decide to have kids, I’ll be 40. When my kids graduate high school, I’ll be a senior citizen.”
“If it happens it happens,” he said and then paused. “But I’m gay so I don’t know how it would just happen. It’s hard being queer. It’s hard being gay. Straight privilege is not having to plan a child. Many people wake up pregnant and can make their decision, unless one day the government decides to make it for them.”
Ljukovic does one day want to sustain the family he does have and loves dearly. He wants to buy his parents a house. He wants his mother to be proud of him. When asked if he’s ever asked her if she is proud, he answered, “If I ask her, she would say yes.”
“I want her to see something that’s mine, not know it’s mine, and really, really love it. I want her to think it’s beautiful,” he said. “Because I’m just never sure. If I show her something, she’s like, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful.’ But she’s saying it’s beautiful because she knows it’s something my name is attached to.”
But the major sign of whether or not he’ll know he’s made it will actually come from him. The calm man, whose eyes wander when he’s thinking and talking as if they’re picking up thoughts from the universe, wants to one day be proud of himself.
“I look back at what I do and I see all the mistakes I’ve made,” he said. “I want to be at a place where I look at something I did and feel that it’s perfect. If I ever get there, then I’ll know I made it.”