British documentary photographer Tommy Sussex travelled to the Guča Trumpet Festival in Serbia. The world’s largest gathering of trumpet players, this vibrant event says as much about identity and unity as it does about brass bands.
A three-hour drive from Belgrade, in western Serbia’s Dragačevo region, lies the town of Guča. This small town of under 4,000 inhabitants swells to more than 200,000 people each summer, as hordes of brass band enthusiasts arrive from across the globe to enjoy a cacophony of diverse concerts and witness the climax of the weekend: the band competition.
Also known as the Dragačevski Sabor, the Guča Trumpet Festival celebrates Serbia’s long-standing tradition of trumpet playing, which has its origins in the 19th century. Having led the second Serbian uprising in 1815, in 1831 Prince Miloš Obrenović created the first Serbian brass ensembles, enlisting the rousing music in the service of national identity formation following centuries of Ottoman occupation. Today, the trumpet plays a key role in Serbian culture and often makes an appearance at life’s key milestones: baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Knowing the significance of the trumpet in local culture, British photographer Tommy Sussex saw his trip to Guča in 2019 as an opportunity to reflect on wider questions of national identity at a pivotal moment in UK history. “These images reflect aspects of Serbian national identity, but also raise issues regarding my own and my future as a citizen of the UK, as the government seeks to strengthen a divide with the European Union and neighbouring populations,” Sussex explains.
The resulting images are an intimate portrayal of the people and places that make up the Guča Trumpet Festival, which has been running since 1961 and showcases music, dance and costumes from across the Balkans – a region fractured by inter-ethnic conflict. “I approached this environment with a quiet mind, allowing my personal experiences to shape the images I took,” the photographer says. “My curiosity led me to explore what life is like in Serbia for a community with such historic and formative events within living memory.”