For his latest body of work, Before They Leave Us, Hungarian photographer and Central Saint Martins alumni Balint Barna returned to his native Budapest to explore and document the lives of the city’s Generation Z – one relying on phones, social media and digital interfaces as means of self-expression.

The raw and intimate images are representative of the sense of hopelessness this generation feels towards a country that is now far from its post-communism era, but that has fallen into the hands of one of the many conservative, populist movements permeating Eastern Europe. Capturing this sense of negativity among Budapest’s young residents – eighteen and nineteen-year-old fine artists, sculptors, tattooists and skaters – Before They Leave Us delves into the country’s imminent brain drain while documenting these young creatives’ lives, from techno parties to drugs and love stories.

Accompanying the book with a short film, titled Rot and exclusive to HERO, Balint Barna talks to us about the inspiration behind the images, the importance of Instagram for Budapest’s Generation Z and his future plans.

Emma Pradella: What was the starting point for this body of work?
Balint Barna: When I started to think about this project, I really wanted to reflect the Gen Z in Budapest as I felt like Hungary is a little left behind when it comes to the portrayal of Eastern European identity, both in fashion and in the arts. We always hear about Russia, Ukraine and Poland, but never about Hungary.

EP: What fascinates you about Gen Z in Budapest?
BB: When I was a teenager living in Hungary, it was very different – there was no social media, while now it’s obviously booming. I’ve realised this generation is really into self-creation, they really care about the way they curate their virtual presence and the way they represent themselves on Instagram. I feel like what I’ve done is basically report on an artificial subculture – it’s all for Instagram as a sort of self-branding tool. They haven’t lived the post-communism era, as most of them were born in the 2000s, but it’s weird as they almost live it with more nostalgia than those who actually experienced it, perhaps because the eastern European aesthetic is trendy now.

EP: What does the title Before They Leave Us say about Budapest’s Gen Z?
BB: I cast all the kids on Instagram, and everyone I met wants to leave Hungary. They’re all eighteen or nineteen so they’ve just finished high school, but they don’t even want to apply for university in Hungary, they want to come to London, or they want to go to Berlin. It’s kind of sad because they don’t even consider living here, and the book is called Before They Leave Us because that’s probably the last time I got to meet them before they move elsewhere.

EP: How did you approach the casting?
BB: It all happened through Instagram. I put up a casting call in July, and many of them just wanted to partake in my project. They’re all part of the Budapest creative scene – one of the guys is a sculptor, there are a few fine artists and then there’s also a tattoo artist and a make-up artist. In terms of locations, they’re all photographed either in their homes or places they feel close to.

EP: How did you approach the short film and the book differently?
BB: The video is more of a collaborative project, in which I had a creative director role, and it happened a lot earlier than the book, so that was a preface, in a way. The book is more personal, I did everything on my own, and of course, it’s a more in-depth body of work.

“I’ve realised this generation is really into self-creation, they really care about the way they curate their virtual presence and the way they represent themselves on Instagram.”

EP: What are the challenges you faced while shooting both the images and the short film?
BB: The video location was very hard to find, as all the Soviet and Post-Soviet architecture is being demolished or gentrified. So, for this reason, I had to shoot the video 100 miles from Budapest, on the border with Slovakia. For the book, the hardest part was the amount of images I shot – I had to select from over 3,000 images and portraits so it was a very difficult choice.

EP: What’s coming next for you?
BB: I would love to continue this series in the countryside. The difference between Budapest’s urban teenagers and those who live in the countryside is very strong – the internet culture hasn’t permeated as much there as it has in the capital, so I think it would be interesting to capture that contrast.

Follow Balint Barna here.

Book credits:
Publication design by Alastair Vanes
Words by Sadie Bargeron