Harun Mehmedinovic remembers the hungry wild dogs clawing through the snow, trying to get to frozen bodies of victims of the siege of Sarajevo. He was 10 years old. The Bosnian war was in its second year.
Less than 15 years later, the war was over, and Mehmedinovic had graduated from UCLA film school and earned a master's degree from the American Film Institute, where he wrote and directed his thesis film, "In the Name of the Son."
The 25-minute short helped the young filmmaker become the first student in AFI's history to win both its top directing prizes, the Franklin J. Schaffner Fellow Award and the Richard P. Rogers Spirit of Excellence Award. The film showed at more than 150 festivals, including Cannes, Shanghai and Telluride.
Mehmedinovic, now 29, has spent the last year on a photography project called "Bloodhoney."
After AFI, the filmmaker had managed to sell a few pitches for low-budget indie movies, but had grown weary of the solitary and creatively constrained screenwriter's lifestyle. He had been shooting photographs since before having gotten interested in film, and thought that going back to still pictures would allow him to take risks and create spontaneously.
The photographs feature amateur models — often female, dressed in flowing gowns — posing in locations they select themselves. The pictures have appeared 30 times on the Vogue Italia website, twice as its "Shot of the Day." The collection was part of a gallery show at the Key Club in Hollywood in March curated by Raw:natural born artists, and will appear in solo shows in June at Stoneworx Gallery in Calgary, Canada, in September at Gallery MC in New York and in October at the Art Cube gallery in Laguna Beach.
In one set of photographs, a blond woman in a full-length black dress scales the Urban Light installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In another, a woman in a blood-red dress stands in a snow-covered field, windmills and heavy storm clouds behind her.
On the shoots, the slight, dark-haired Mehmedinovic follows his models for 10 to 15 hours, taking pictures as they lunge into sparks of fires in Georgia's Lake Lanier, sprint through hailstorms on the Angeles Crest Highway or remove their clothes on Civil War battlefields in Virginia.
"They're not thinking. They just do it," the photographer said over coffee recently at a restaurant not far from his West Los Angeles apartment. "This has been kind of the magical element of the whole thing."
After immigrating, Mehmedinovic and his family lived in Phoenix before moving east. His father, Semezdin, had come to prominence in the 1990s as the author of the book "Sarajevo Blues," an account of the family's time in the Bosnian capital. These days, his father is a producer for Reuters. Mehmedinovic's mother, Sanja, helps place refugees in the United States for the Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The photographer's current project concept came from lessons learned during the war, which had its start 20 years ago this April. The pictures are meant to reflect instances of what Mehmedinovic calls the "sublime" and to contain the transcendent quality of miracles.
During wartime, Mehmedinovic experienced a total breakdown of the social structure. He had to learn to live by his wits and instincts — which he found liberating in the same way that he'd hoped to liberate the models in his photographs. He encouraged his subjects to embrace the dangerous and taboo.
"You have to risk something," he told them.
It's not empty theory. As children, Mehmedinovic and his friends would gamble to see who would get to run across the street first, when a sniper might be caught off-guard. The others would have to take their chances and follow when the sniper was alert.
One day, Mehmedinovic ran across the entire city, not getting shot at once. "I knew I was doing something I wasn't supposed to do," he said. "So it was like engaging in a certain taboo."
Compared with life in war-time Sarajevo, life in America has been "numb," Mehmedinovic said. Maybe that's why he and his models take risks.
"If somebody took me to a location, I'd probably do the most dangerous thing," he said. "But that's me."