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The Gjirokaster National Folklore Festival (Festivali Folklorik Kombëtar i Gjirokastrës) is one of Albania’s most important cultural events, held every five years atop Gjirokaster’s ancient fortress. The weeklong festival showcases traditional costumes, dance, music and songs from all of Albania’s regions, Albanian communities in other Balkan countries, as well as the diaspora. There is perhaps no better location to host such an event, with the castle providing jaw dropping views of the old city below, and the Gjerë mountains across the valley.

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Gjirokaster was the first town I visited when I came to Albania in 2013, and I remember it being a sleepy city with people seeming surprised to see a foreign tourist wandering around. This year was a little different, with streets being jam packed with performers, family, friends, spectators, journalists and a handful of foreigners. Every evening crowds of people made the journey up to the fortress, vying for the best seat to take in views of the performance as well as the spectacular sunsets. Continue reading ›

I’ve started my trip of southern Albania in Pogradec, a relaxed city located on the shores of Lake Ohrid, bordering Macedonia. The city was a favorite hangout for Albania’s ex-king Zog, as well as communist dictator Enver Hoxha. When coming down the Thane pass, one notices the village of Lin, situated on a small peninsula jutting into the lake. I ended up spending a few days in this quiet fishing village. Wandering down the narrow lanes felt like stepping into the past. Old women sat in doorways to escape the afternoon sun, quietly chatting or knitting. Children roamed the streets playing football, while the distant drone of fishing boat motors mixed with the ringing of a church bell.

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It was here that I first met Mihal Gjora, riding his donkey Marko, on his way to a plot of land outside Lin. I asked if I could take his photo and he laughed in a hearty way that I would become accustomed to during my time with him. Shy at first, he was surprised I could speak Albanian and invited me to come with him to feed his animals. We walked the trash littered lakeside, greeting farmers working in their fields and talking about life in America. America is like the promised land here, a place of opportunity, wealth, freedom to be who you want, and progress. I sometimes feel as if I see more American flags flying here than back home. Continue reading ›

 

I’ve returned to Albania to start what I hope will be an ongoing project for a year or two. When I speak to people back in the US about Albania, most cannot even imagine what it’s like here, much less find it on a map. From my previous time here I have found Albania to be an incredibly interesting, culturally rich and beautiful country. It is also still one of the poorest countries in Europe, and very much in the midst of transforming itself from over 40 years of communist rule. So I’ve decided to work on my first book documenting modern Albania, it’s transition into modernity, and how it’s people are reconciling their tough past while trying to hold onto the traditions and customs that make this country feel so unique. I’ll be living in the town of Shkodër for a few months before traveling around the south of the country. Albania still seems to be a little known country, even in Europe, and it’s fascinating to spend time in a place that hasn’t been overrun with foreign investment, development and tourism. Unfortunately it is these very things that stand to improve the lives of the average person in this country, but will also be instrumental in vastly changing the landscape and customs here. I look forward to bringing you periodic updates and the eventual publishing of my book. Stay tuned.

Yesterday saw more protests throughout Albania, against the US’ request to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons there. The issue greatly mobilized and united the people of Albania, who came out en masse to voice their objection to the offer. Thousands took to the streets in Tirana yesterday as the government was set to make an announcement of their decision at 5:00PM local time. Here in Shkoder the demonstration was smaller, but the people no less determined to make their voices heard. Starting at 3:00PM, people gathered in front of the local municipality building, making speeches, singing, playing music by John Lennon and Michael Jackson. While people were firm in their convictions, the overall atmosphere of both the protests here and in Tirana, was peaceful. They were not anti US protests, or even anti Albanian government protests, it was simply the people of Albania uniting in their opinion that they did not want dangerous weapons brought to their backyard. In the end the government listened to them.

In my opinion, this was a huge, mature step forward for Albania as a country. Rather than sitting back and allowing the government to make an unpopular decision out of apathy, the people united and the prime minister listened to them. I think this is the first step in restoring some level of trust between the people and their elected leaders. It’s a mark of a functioning democracy to have the common people tell their leaders how they feel about an issue and have them respond appropriately. It’s also a sign of self respect to have stood up to the US’ demands and not accept their country becoming a dumping ground for harmful chemical agents, regardless of what incentives might have been on the table. I hope Albania can use the energy I saw in the last few days, and take pride in this victory, and use it to keep moving forward. They have the potential to be every bit as successful as their EU brethren to the West, if only the people will it.

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I was in Tirana yesterday afternoon to shoot the ongoing demonstrations there, against the United States’ request to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile on Albanian soil. The issue has brought Albania into the international spotlight recently, and the outcry from the public here seems to have been a resounding “NO.” The issue is a tough one for the new prime minister, Edi Rama, who is torn between keeping placating the constituency who voted him in, and keeping good relations with the international community, who expect Albania to “pull it’s weight” as a member of NATO. Either way Albania currently lacks a proper facility to handle the over 1000 tons of chemical agents that need to be destroyed or neutralized. Albania was the first country to dismantle it’s chemical weapons stockpile in 2007, for which they built a facility capable of handling the 16 tons of weapons. Firms in the United States, France and Germany are already making bids to build a facility large enough to handle Syria’s considerable stockpile. The prime minister has promised transparency with the public about the government’s decision on the matter, but has yet to come to any arrangement with the international community about the issue.

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I had a productive week last week. Upon arriving in Shkoder I contacted a local NGO, the Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace, who do a lot of outreach work with blood feuds and other issues. I was told they were heading out to meet with some isolated families in the villages outside Shkoder and that I could join them to take photos. This was quite lucky as they often have a difficult time contacting and finding families.

Blood feuds are not unique to Albania, they have been a common practice throughout the Mediterranean and other cultures throughout history. However, Albania is one of the few places where feuds are taking place in any large scale, with violence occurring from ongoing feuds, and new feuds happening yearly. The practice is part of an old system of Albanian customary laws, known as the Kanun, which was codified around the time of the Ottoman invasion of the 15th Century. The Kanun was widely observed until the 20th century as a means for the Albanian people to retain control over themselves and their culture in the face of outside occupation. It’s observance faded during the time of the communist regime, but since the regime’s collapse in the early 90s, there has been an increase in the practice of blood feud and other traditions surrounding the Kanun. In the case of blood feuds, it is largely symptomatic of a lack of functioning in the legal and judicial systems of the new democratic government. Mistrust of the government is rampant, so people are more willing to take matters of justice into their own hands. The government has chosen to stay out of matters involving blood feuds, often leaving families to settle the matters themselves, with tragic results.

Feuds can start from something as trivial as who has the rights to a path running between two properties. Often a heated argument will get out of hand, a man will kill another man and the feud starts. The victim’s family seeks revenge to pay for the “debt” by going after the killer, or as is often the case if he isn’t around, other male members of his family. Aside from the loss of family members, blood feuds often result in abysmal economic situations for the families involved. Usually the breadwinners in the house are either killed, in jail or go into hiding and are unable to provide economic assistance. One family I met with had been in hiding for the better part of 3 years. The father had been driven to alcoholism due to stress from being in the feud, so the wife had to work a low paying job to support her family. She and her sons live in a two room house in the outskirts of Shkoder, the family sleep in one room together and have only a basic stove, refrigerator and very small TV set. The children had been unable to go to school for some time because they feared being killed, but have recently started going to school as the other family said they would not kill them. Their mother is still concerned for their safety and pays a private driver to take them to school daily, and bring them back to the house when they are done. Continue reading ›

Shkoder is the idyllic country town. Here people get up to the sound of roosters crowing at 4am, huge flocks of sheep in the road cause traffic jams, families help each other in their fields, men spend the day distilling rakia with the season’s grape harvest, and stray dogs chew on the discarded entrails of cattle in the streets. Oh Albania. It’s Eid al Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, and the call to prayer is filtering through my open window. The early autumn sunlight through a thin layer of clouds has given everything a very film like look the last few days, which I used to my advantage yesterday with a good photo walk. I found a lovely local market tucked down a few alleyways, where I’m almost certain most tourists visiting would never go.

I wandered into a small warehouse where butchers were selling freshly carved meat, but was told to leave by a heavyset man. I get a lot of odd looks here from passers by on the street. Those who speak English usually ask where I’m from, often assuming Germany, and then usually look confused and ask why I came here when I tell them I’m from the States. When I told a man yesterday that I like Albania he let his cigarette sort of drop out of his mouth for a few seconds, then shrugged and said “But your country is more better I think.”

I’ve had an almost unbelievable run of good luck thus far. My project on blood feuds stems largely on gaining access to isolated families currently involved in feuds. I’ve been quite nervous at my ability to get that access, but upon contacting the Justice and Peace Commission (an outreach group I’ll be working with up here) they immediately got back to me and told me they were meeting with a family today and invited me to join. This should be an important opportunity for me to get an idea of the situation and mindset of some of those involved in these feuds.

I’ll post more about the experience later, until then enjoy some photos of the lovely place I find myself in.

 

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The first few times I visited Tirana I wasn’t impressed with it. It’s not one of those cities you can point to as having some distinct landmark or experience to  have as a visitor. Having spent a few more days here though, I realize that this is one of the reasons I enjoy it. It’s a lovely place to hang out and enjoy just being. There are endless cafes, bakeries, markets, and antique stores to discover. Walking around and trying new places is a great way to find things in the city that become important to you, rather than some landmark that you are supposed to visit because a guidebook tells you to. There’s no pressure to hurry and see everything, you just learn to sit back and take your time sipping coffee, chatting with locals or fellow travelers. One of my favorite places is a small restaurant down the street from Milingona hostel, where they serve excellent Tru, cow brains fried up with egg. It probably doesn’t sound like the most appetizing dish, but each bite has a wonderfully light and buttery crunch to it. For less than $2 US, it’s hard to go wrong. Time to jump on a furgon (local minibus) to head up north to Shkoder.

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I arrived in Tirana late yesterday evening. I’m staying here at Milingona Hostel, where I had previously stayed during a visit last Spring. Juli, the owner of the hostel, is a welcoming, knowledgeable, and gracious host. It’s one of the cleanest hostels I’ve ever stayed at, and is well situated for exploring all of Tirana’s sights. I had planned to head up to Shkodra today, where I’ll be staying for the next month or so, but ended up staying an extra day in Tirana to see the Albania v. Switzerland football match. This afternoon I went out to the Pellumbas Cave near the village of Ibe, which proved to be more of a hike than I had planned for but was very much worth the trek. The countryside is beautiful here, and I walked along the trail gorging myself on perfectly ripe figs that were practically dropping off the trees. I almost forgot how friendly complete strangers are here, stopping to say hello, even while I had inadvertently wandered onto their property. I used to think that people were only friendly to me because, being an American, I’m a bit of a commodity here. However, in general it seems people are very friendly and open with each other, there’s much more of a sense of community and common identity than people have back in Southern California. That’s part of the reason I’m staying for the football match, you really can get a sense of the pride people have for their country and culture here. Hoping for a win for Albania!

 

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Albanian Love
I remember the look on my parent’s faces when I told them I wasn’t going to law school, that I wanted to pursue photojournalism instead. It was February 2010 and I had arrived twenty minutes late to dinner, after shooting at a protest outside UCSB’s Campbell Hall where Karl Rove was speaking. I was coming down from the rush of being around so much energy, and I was extremely giddy. My parents however, were not so thrilled and looking back I can’t say I blame them. I was essentially telling them I was giving up the pursuit of a lofty, noble, often well paying profession for a vague, highly competitive and more often than not low paying profession. It almost seems crazy to try to pursue photojournalism in an environment where newspapers are sacking entire photo staff, publications are moving online, and everyone seems to be saying they have no budget for photos.

I’ve been told by many in the journalism industry that this is a lifestyle more than a career. Thus far I’ve treated photojournalism as something ancillary to my life, but now I’m making the decision to embrace it fully. I could have gone back to school to study photojournalism, but I’ve decided to take a different route. I’ve sold my car, weeded down my possessions to a few cardboard boxes, loaded a backpack and my camera bag and purchased a one way ticket… to Albania. Where’s Albania? Right above Greece, across the Adriatic from Italy. It’s a small former communist country, that at one point was as isolated from the rest of the world as North Korea is today. I’m going to work on a photo essay focussing on the issue of blood feuds in the northern part of the country, a practice that has seen a resurgence since the communist dictatorship fell in the early 90s. I visited Albania almost by accident while I was traveling in the Balkans this last May. I was very taken with the culture and the system of honor and tradition that still persists in modern times, a system that unfortunately allows blood feuds to continue in some areas. I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks.

I plan to live very simply out of a backpack, so that I may move around at a moments notice if I need to, with as few distractions as possible. I’ve taken at least one multi week solo trip to a foreign country, every year for the past four years. I’m comfortable traveling alone and being in strange foreign situations, and I’ve been wanting to take an extended trip for a long time now. So for me, this is the culmination of several desires, my desire to travel, to live simply, to write and to devote myself fully to the pursuit of photojournalism. I’ll be working on a story that fascinates me, as well as thinking of others to work on in the area. I plan to work on stories that interest me, and then find places to get them published. I will try to update this blog somewhat regularly with my progress, travel info, interesting cultural tidbits, and of course photos.