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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 ›

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.

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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.

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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.

Church bells mingle with the call to prayer as smoke rises from chimneys and sunlight pours through clouds. Sarajevo is a city of contrasts that somehow come together to make something very special. I must have missed something when I came here in the summer, maybe walking the hills in the stifling heat deterred the development of any romantic feelings for the city. I’ve been staying the last week here with good friend and fellow photographer Cat Norman (http://catnorman.com), who’s shown me lovely tree lined parks, small neighborhood mosques with rugged wooden minarets, a smoke filled speakeasy-esque  bar (that’s technically not allowed to be open right now for some reason), and of course where to find the best burek. It’s a city teeming with life and smiles, but also harsh memories of the past. Children play next to buildings riddled with bullet holes, while the hillsides are dotted white with tombstones in what were formerly public parks, filled up with bodies from the 1992-1995 siege. I’m always taken by the dates when I walk in these cemeteries, they all end in 1992, 1993, 1994, a stark reminder of the great tragedies that occurred here twenty years ago.

But all that’s in the past now and the people of Sarajevo have made great strides to pick up the pieces of their city and turn it into something truly lovely. It’s got all the beauty and style of cities in Western Europe, with half the price tag and half the crowds. Some magazine called National Geographic put it on their list of hot places to go in 2014, and I’d definitely put it on my list as well. Plus if you come later in the year, my friend Cat will have opened the swankiest new hostel in town. Should be exciting.

I’m heading to Istanbul tomorrow and will be joining a Reuters journalist down in Gaziantep, near the border with Syria. We’ll be investigating the situation with Syrian refugees trying to integrate and survive in cities along the border. It’s something I’ve been interested in working on for a long time now and I can’t wait to get down there and start working. In the meantime, below are some reasons you should visit Sarajevo!

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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.