I took this portrait of Gazmend Bikaj, a nomadic shepherd in Albania’s Kelmend region, while working on a project about the Malësorë highlanders in 2019. Inhabiting some of the most remote areas of Albania’s northern mountains, the Malësorë have survived and maintained many aspects of their culture through centuries of upheaval. Today they are some of the last people carrying on traditional pastoralism in Europe, migrating with large flocks of sheep into the high alpine regions, where they live with their animals until returning to the lowlands in autumn. Pastoralism is a highly sustainable form of agriculture, helping to preserve biodiversity, while reducing risk of wildfires by clearing brush and other flammable debris. Unfortunately, this practice is under threat from development of hydropower dams in the region, as well as increasing depopulation as young people leave to pursue other opportunities.
I was so grateful to spend time with Gazmend and his family. We shared a deep connection based on a common love and respect for the mountains, for nature, and the animals. I’ll never forget those months spent in the mountains with him, and I’m so pleased to be able to share his photo and story.