Albania’s Journey of Transition and the Photographs of Jutta Benzenberg

When Albania’s communist regime disintegrated in 1991-1992 we were told we had embarked on a transition. We all imagined transition as a kind of road, if a long one, starting in one place and ending somewhere else, or as a ship ploughing through the ocean of backwardness towards a haven of prosperity and the rule of law. In our bedraggled state, we were leaving behind socialist Albania for capitalist Albania, for a European Albania. Transition would be a metamorphosis, changing the country’s appearance and its whole essence. Twenty years have since passed, and not only have we not reached our destination but we do not even have the impression that we are on a road leading anywhere. On the contrary we are faced with many reasons for despair, such as the destruction of the environment, the decay of our cultural heritage, the exodus of the country’s elite and its young people, and the deep corruption of political life and state administration, which lead many to think that the previous system was superior to the present one. Indeed, the country is changing, and parts of it, such as the capital city and other large urban centres, at bewildering speed, but all without any sense of direction, of a journey, or deliverance. Many of these trends and transformations are contradictory, unplanned, and unwelcome: our coastline is disappearing under concrete, our villages are deserted, and the cities expand chaotically. There is something illusory and deceptive about the concept of transition, at least in Albania’s case. In this it resembles the static or eschatological vision of communism, the New World that was to arise after the foundations of socialism were laid. In 1991, the majority of the Albanian population was rural. But what happened to this rural population? What was transition like for them? A large number flocked to the towns and settled on the outskirts of Tirana, Durrës, Vlora, etc., or emigrated to Greece and Italy. The agricultural population abandoned the socialist cooperatives, but did not join forces in new ones. Few people still farm and even fewer earn a decent livelihood from their produce, because the Albanian market is swamped with imports. The labour force that might have developed Albanian agriculture now works in construction and in small businesses, or sits unemployed in the large towns. Many villages both in the north and the south seem frozen in time: only a few elderly men in the village café and old women carrying wood on the village street or tilling their small gardens show that there is still life here. Is this the transition that the Albanian countryside wanted? And what sort of transition was there for what was called the working class of the large socialist industries? Albania today has little in the way of industry. Almost all the old factories and mines were dismantled, and very few managed to survive in a skeletal form under capitalist conditions. The only enterprises with any kind of success today are small ones, usually producing for foreign firms. Where did this great army of workers go? They too emigrated, or created small businesses, or they sit out of work in cafés, like the former farm workers. For them too, the transition has had unexpected and undesired results. We might go on to describe the transition of the elderly, war veterans and pensioners, the transition of the former victims of political persecution, the transition of young people… but our picture would become increasingly grotesque. People’s lives have changed, often dramatically and in exciting ways, with satisfactions and pleasures that were once unimaginable and the thousand joys, opportunities and disappointments that freedom brings. But nobody can say that we started in one place and will arrive in another. Unfortunately, in contrast to some other countries of the former socialist East, such as East Germany, which after an accelerated, even over-strenuous transition is today little different from the other part of the country into whose fabric it has been woven, Albania shows little sense of direction, if we set aside the tiresome government propaganda about integration into Europe and the Atlantic alliance. Few people make confident plans for the future, and what might be called master plans or national strategies are non-existent. Within the country it is often said that the communist regime lasted forty-five years, and we will have to struggle for just as long before Albania totally overcomes the trauma of this era and becomes a normal European country. This recalls the alleged prediction of the dictator Enver Hoxha shortly before he died: You will mourn me for five years, curse me for five years, and remember me all your lives. The implication behind this is that Albania followed a normal European course of development until 1944, when the catastrophe of communism struck and derailed the country from its natural, pro-Western destiny. Linguistically, Albanian is a semi-Romance language, and historically we recall Skenderbeg’s alliances with the Pope and with Venice against the Ottoman invader. However, there are certain misconceptions here, which are worth touching upon briefly.

The different parts of the new state that was created just before World War I were very diverse and unequal. With their prosperity and civic traditions, some mercantile centres in the south such at Korça, Gjirokastra, and Berat differed little from the towns of northern Greece. Elbasan in central Albania and particularly Shkodra in the north had also grown rich through trade, and their educational and cultural institutions were of special importance in nurturing a national consciousness. But at the same time the provinces were extremely backward, oriental and Anatolian in character, with primitive agriculture and large areas of swamp-covered plains. In the 1920s and 1930s, the close ties between Zog, first as prime minister and later as king, and Fascist Italy brought about a certain development in the capital cities and along a few main roads, and it might be said that by Mussolini’s invasion in 1939 the little Albanian state had to some extent taken shape. But the north of the country remained as if sunk deep in the middle ages, ruled by the code of the mountains, under which the population took the law into their collective hands, and the authority of the state went unrecognized. What would have been the course of Albanian history if the Allies at the Yalta Conference had left the country in the Western sphere of influence, like Greece? The south would no doubt look much like Greece itself. But there such speculation is pointless if we think of history not as a series of coincidences but as a development of logical consequences. It was no accident that communism and the partisan movement struck such deep roots during World War II and soon seized the advantage over the nationalist and monarchist forces. Communist propaganda with its talk of prosperity and a new world quickly enthused the population of this extremely backward country, with a primitive organizational structure. Upon seizing power, the communist regime confiscated private property, nationalized everything, and artificially fostered the growth of industry, sundering all ties with the past. The ban on religion and the profound isolation of the country between the 1960s and 1980s completed the experience of a trauma which has had protracted consequences. When it came to an end, Albania’s despairing and disoriented people did not find their hopes revived, but boarded ships in the ports and stormed the borders in an exodus of biblical proportions.

So where is Albania going now? The country has set its compass north and west and is bent on joining Europe, with such determination that one fears that it might founder on its voyage like the Titanic and sink to the bottom of the ocean. This determination has been poured into concrete, a mass of solid grey that looks so ugly and incongruous in a Mediterranean landscape, which has covered the entire shoreline of Durrës and Saranda, received the blessing of the government with the promise of eight new cement works between Fushë Kruja and Shkodra, and is now spreading across the entire country. Symbolically an extraordinary concrete ship lies anchored near a small town between Fier and Berat, where it stands, a challenge to all the laws of marine engineering. It is as if poised to embark one day, casting off all the hawsers of history, breaking all the chains of the Ottoman and communist past, challenging all the prejudices of our neighbours and the commissions of the EU, on a voyage to the heart of the continent. It will not ride the waves of the sea, for that would be a roundabout route reminiscent of the humiliating exoduses of 1991-1997, but will follow the land route, valley by valley and hill by hill, in a straight line. Jutta Benzenberg photographed this extraordinary unfinished vessel in its Roskovec shipyard in June 2010. It is planned to have many cabins in the shape of cafés and restaurants, billiard halls and slot-machine casinos, and it will welcome not government delegations and presidents with their pretty aides at their elbows, but representatives of the working and non-working people of the entire country. There will be no need for hundreds and thousands of people to drag it across the mountains, as the poor Peruvians of long ago dragged their ship under the orders of the mad rubber-baron Fitzcarraldo in Werner Herzog’s film. No. Powered by 550 years of resentment stored in Albanian hearts since the wars of Skenderbeg, when we were brutally snatched from Europe, it will proceed under its own steam, making up for lost time, and when the peoples and states of united Europe see this Albanian concrete ship, this industrial dream of the 1960s which has become a reality in the 21st century, they will welcome it with respect. An old lady smiles at the photographer with this ship in the background. It is hers: her son is turning into reality an idea that has been so many centuries in gestation and now finds expression in this country in so many ways. The projected journey is sometimes a hesitant one, and we are unsure of the itinerary and means of travel. For instance, in the town of Kavaja, about thirty kilometres to the north, the chimney of the old nail and screw factory has been turned into a minaret, with a balcony and the muezzin’s loudspeaker facing east. I suggested to the photographer the caption “Ahead with the past” because I noticed that in most of her pictures, especially those taken in the last two years, after two decades in which she has handled Albanian themes, the past is constantly present. The country is progressing, of course, and in people’s external appearance you no longer see the same tension and barely suppressed violence as in 1991. That period of chaos and destruction has passed, and it is not common to find the people reduced to skin and bone that Jutta captured in “Albanian Survival” (1993). But the past somehow still grips all the people in this book. Who knows, this may be one of the country’s inherent traits. Most albums of Albanian photos show superb landscapes, or people in clean, colourful, bland and up-to-date environments. But Jutta has caught people in the struggles of their everyday lives, in scenes which bear the marks either of the socialist past or of Albania’s age-old poverty. Some illustrate unsuccessful endeavours to overcome both, in the shape of a newly-acquired kitsch prosperity, with shimmering satin and floating tulle curtains. Sometimes the subjects of these photographs, still in thrall to the past, are not people, but buildings, rooms, railway stations, mining towns, dogs and horses, forests and lakes. Unlike tourist photographers who attempt to exclude every blemish and stain, and all the rubble and debris of the past, Jutta consistently includes these things in her vision, or rather finds them wherever she goes. Are these the struggles of Albania, her fractures and rents, or are they the photographer’s? I cannot tell, and I need not decide this question as long as the photographs speak for themselves. But this is not all. The characters in these photographs may be bound to the past, but they have their own deep inner world which the photographs bring to the surface. They do not present a persona, in the original sense of the Etruscan word, persu, meaning a “mask”, which later came to mean “nobody”, as in the French personne. They do not hide their secrets, and indeed they seem to ask the photographer her own. Notice merely their eyes, how they glitter with a dark film: they do not focus on the outside world as much as they suggest deep wells that draw the spectator in. This is true of the pictures of young people, the disabled, of children, the Roma, the elderly, the ballet-dancers, and the circus acrobats and clowns. If their surroundings remain mired in the past, the characters themselves express an emotion that is entirely of the present. Perhaps it is a longing for what they might have, but do not have, or a longing for beauty which brings them life and gives them trust in life. If the environment in which they live is impoverished and stark, scarred by all the traumas Albania has suffered in the modern age, their inner life is still astonishingly rich, and they possess a dignity and pride not to be found anywhere else. This is as true of the old people of the poorest regions of Albania such as Dukagjin, Puka, and Malësia e Madhe as it is of the disabled with their deformed limbs, or the two- or three-month-old baby bound in iron hoops like a wine barrel, but also the artistes of the circus or opera in the gloom of their socialist backstage corridors. Consider a single photograph from the series devoted to the Hotel Dajti. The young woman, who could have stepped out of a story by Edgar Allan Poe, stands in front of a background whose décor testifies to the imperial grandeur of the building, constructed by the Italians in the early 1940s and intended to be the largest, most beautiful hotel in the Balkans. The walls with their paintwork from the socialist era are covered in damp and stains, the light fittings and plugs are broken, the floor is littered with shreds of plaster, evidence of the destruction of 20 years of transition. The woman’s beauty has nothing to do with her surroundings, yet this environment locates her against at least seventy years of history. Her beauty becomes part of the mystery of these walls, which have seen so many balls, receptions, delegations from fraternal countries of the Eastern bloc and Marxist-Leninist parties of Western Europe and Latin America, intrigues, and poisoned coffee cups, with surveillance apparatus and the spies of the Sigurimi on all sides. Astonishingly this does not detract from her beauty, but emphasizes it. Many of the photographs are like this. The pictures taken in remote mountain villages or in the narrow corridors of the Opera are like scenes from fairy tales, helped no doubt by the composition of the scene and the masterly use of light, recalling the Dutch masters, which floods though the window, illuminating the characters just enough to set them forth clearly, before it fades among the stairways, passageways and dark corners where anything is imaginable – an assassin in wait with an axe, a witch mixing her brew of herbs, bark, and nail-clippings in her cauldron, a great frog of a prince watching the girl from behind the door while she searches for him with her gaze fixed towards the window. Several albums of photographs of Albania have been published in recent years. Those produced by Albanians are aimed at tourists, and seem to display the country as if in a shop window, while those by foreigners are generally the result of short visits they have paid to Albania. But Jutta’s work extends across an entire twenty-year period. In October 1991, she took black-and-white photographs in the internees’ villages of Lushnjë, in the former prison of Spaç, and on the roads as the migrants poured toward the Greek border at Kakavija and Kapshtica. Now in 2010 she has compiled this book, which contains mostly photographs from the last two or three years, but which are nevertheless connected to her earlier work. In between, she accomplished work of extraordinary value, with characters, situations, and landscapes that charted the country’s destiny year by year. Tragically, her collection was entirely destroyed by fire in 2007, but she started again, determined to make up what she had lost. The public can see at least a selection of the results in this book. Meanwhile, she has lived on intimate terms with different people, including many of the best-loved characters in her photographs, with long-suffering minorities such as the Roma, orphaned children, and the disabled. Few people are aware of her efforts to improve conditions at the children’s home in Tirana, and to bring roads and schools to the remote villages of Mokra. I would not count Jutta among the Albanian photographers who have decorated the national shop window, or the foreigners who have taken a whiff of the country and gone away. She ranks with the Marubis, the great photographers of Shkodra. Today we consider the Marubis as Albanians, but at one time they arrived in the city of Shkodra from Venice. Jutta too fell in love with Albania when she arrived here from Munich, and set herself, like Pjetër, Kel, and Gegë Marubi, to discover a world and its people.

Ardian Klosi, July 2010.