Book Review – Portrait of Vanished World of Rural

In the 1970s, Kosovo was experiencing something of a golden age. The Yugoslav Constitution of 1974 had given the province more autonomy, and the relaxation of central control from Belgrade had meant a more equal distribution of power and jobs for Albanians.

But villagers did not share much in this progress and remained poor, their economy based on farming and livestock. Photographers were not roaming around at weddings, or taking their portraits as children, adults, or old people – pictures to save as memories of one’s own past, or of loved ones. If someone wanted a portrait, the only way to get one was to drive to a photo studio in town. Ann Christine’s photographs are for many people the only record of those years.

She started taking photos as soon as she arrived in Isniq. There was a wedding at the Osdautajs, and for her it was easy to record the part of the ceremony that involved only women, who had accepted her almost instantaneously. We see them as they prepared the bride, with her elaborate gown and jewelry, who had to stand for hours without smiling, according to tradition, while all the others paid their respects to her and danced. We see hired Roma women playing the tambourine and singing, women dancing, others who sit silently in a show of respect, others still who wondered whether she would be a good wife and have many children, and then saluted her after the long festivity, at the threshold of the kulla.

It’s easy to understand why there was no objection to Ann Christine taking photos, and not only because the desire to have good photos of a wedding is universal. Everyone was eager to show to the outsiders the intricacies and beauty of the ritual as unique to Albanian society. In a telling photo, Miftar Daut Pajazitaj is shown as he re-enacts the bride standing still in front of the wall, making everyone around him laugh. As an amateur ethnographer who made his living as an accountant, Miftar spent an entire night explaining the wedding ceremony and performing it again for the education of Berit and Ann Christine.

I asked Ann Christine whether she ever felt like intruding into people’s private lives. The answer was No! She spent most of her time with women, as the private world of men was forbidden to her. She understood that women wanted to be seen by someone outside her family, and they trusted her. She had learned the same in Sweden, working on portraits of professional women, a project which generated some controversy at the time. On that occasion, the subjects of her work by Ella stood up to defend the photographer: they never felt exploited, they loved that, for once, someone had focused their attention on them.

Albanian women also loved to be seen because, as in the title of Berit’s book, they had always been closed behind stone walls. With some exceptions. The cover of Ann Christine’s book shows the portrait of an adolescent woman looking back at a very close camera, as she walks alone along a deserted road. Nushe Tahirsylaj was not alone. Berit and Anna Christine were walking her to school. Suddenly, Ann Christine thought of taking Nushe’s portrait of her, so she slowed down and called Nushe who was slightly ahead of them. Nushe’s look of confidence and self-possession is perfectly captured by this photo. In another photo, Nushe is at the center of a group of smiling young women holding notebooks; they were the first generation of women to complete high school in the rural world of Kosovo.

The same confidence appears in the portraits of women working in the house or the fields, as they look at the camera. They are proud of their poor but spotless houses, their strength in dealing with farm work, their dexterity with handicraft. She captures that pride in many images, including the ones focusing on men, in particular the solitude of the shepherds. As someone who comes from a town in a part of Sweden where the unspoiled landscape and the rhythm of work, despite all the differences, were very similar to Kosovo, Ann Christine understood the rural world. That she did not patronize it, by portraying always named individuals rather than indistinct groups of peasants, adds to her respectful treatment of her subjects de ella, as in the intimate moment between Ajmone Tahirsylaj and her young son, Dervish, in Pleqe that she captured so well.

Neither Berit nor Ann Christine was prepared for the complexity of the traditional mourning ceremony, vajtimi, which included ritual cries led by a hired or chosen head singer, the vajtore, and strict separation of women and men at all times. When she ventured into a men’s room (ode) where a meal was taking place, she did not think much of crossing a line. With her de ella limited Albanian and the unthreatening character of her gender de ella, she thought she had become herself “unseen,” “a fly on the wall,” as she told me. That was true until she entered the ode and the men shooed her away angrily. Was that a slippage? It resulted in the photo of men eating around their low round tables (sofra). Forty years later, editing the book, Ann Christine found no objections to that photo. It might be the only record that they have of that time and that space and the people who lived in them.

Albanian Village Life. Isniq-Kosovo 1976 (Tira Books 2021) by Ann Christine Eek, is available at the bookstores Dukagjin and Libraria Artini Toena in Prishtina and directly from the author at https://www.aceek-books.no/

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