The smell of marigolds and candle wax was heavy, as I carefully tiptoed between graves in the town of Atzompa, early in the morning hours of November 1st. This was the third cemetery I had visited that night, and the atmosphere was something far removed from the first two. San Miguel cemetery, in central Oaxaca, and the Panteon Nuevo in Xoxocotlan had seemed almost like county fairs. Children screamed on carnival rides of varying quality. Venders sold tortas and tamales to drunk tourists who fell over each other, attempting to navigate the maze of families and dimly lit graves. There was too much noise, there were too many people. In Atzompa, there was relative calm. There were no tourists, no carnival rides, no rock bands. Families were diligently decorating the graves of loved ones, or huddled close together talking and sharing stories.
I reached a point where I could no longer move forward without lighting myself on fire from a bevy of candles, or stepping onto someone’s final resting place. In America, doing the latter would be a sign of utmost disrespect. As I contemplated this moral conundrum, a group of young locals came running up behind me, looked at me as if I were a huge imposition on their fun, and then ran passed me trampling over the grave. Death is a little different here.
After several months hiatus in the States, taking a few classes and doing some work, I’m back out into the world. I’ve come to the state of Oaxaca in Mexico, where I’m studying Spanish as well as covering the Dia de los Muertos festivities and trying to put together a reportage about poverty in the surrounding pueblos. I’ve been interested in coming to Mexico for some time, simply because I only ever hear negative things about it in the States. I don’t know much about Mexico, I’ve only ever been to tourist areas in Baja as a child, but I’ve gotten the impression it’s a very misunderstood and misrepresented place. That being said, the danger talked about back home does seem to be real, if not as widespread as people imagine. Police presence is huge, there is talk of murder and “disappearances” all over the news and in the streets. People have been more than candid in telling me these events are carried out by those in the government, as well as the drug cartels. I’ve been here in Oaxaca for about a week and there has been at least one major disruption, march or protest every day for a variety of issues. The tension in these dark issues seems to be balanced by the beauty of cultural and religious rituals. For every story of death I’ve seen on the news, I’ve seen something equally beautiful. For every look of fear I’ve witnessed, I’ve been greeted with a smile. Turn a corner after a police truck goes flying by to some distance crime scene, and there’s a massive, colorful parade for a saint. Mexico seems to be a place of intense forces of opposition with the general population straddling the line between light and dark, just trying to get by, pray, and celebrate in the midst of corruption, a fading drug war, and massive poverty. Just the kind of place I love to work in.
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 ›
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.