Five years after Envor Hoxha’s death his restrictive dictatorship fell apart releasing Albania and allowing its people freedoms they had all but forgotten (Ahmet Zog was the president and king of Albania prior to Hoxha’s regime). Many immediately fled to nearby European countries and Chiara Tocci was witness to this exodus.
Albania today is a quite different place to that left behind by many after the fall of the People’s Socialist Republic. The orthodox culture is aligning itself with that of the west and trade links between it and the EU are ever increasing. Agriculture is still a huge part of Albania’s way of life providing a fifth of the country’s GDP and tourism is also on the rise – due in part to the preserved national identity and its impressive landscapes.
As the culture of old Albania collides with that of the west we see an inevitable separation between the older inhabitants and traditions and the younger more westernized generation. Nowhere, I feel, is this separation more poignant than in the gender roles that culture employs. The majority of Albanians are Muslim and the second largest faith is Catholicism both of which in traditional belief promote masculine identity and prominence above that of the feminine.
The demographic of female faces that Chiara has photographed do seem to symbolize this trend with the older females appearing placidly in domestic settings or veiled in religious significance. I wonder how the younger generation has taken to the religions of old Albania. Indeed there is a subtle theme in the work that hints to religion. The lighting and colour palette in many of the portraits is undeniably Caravaggio esque and the poses and compositions seem infused with religious significance.
The clothing of the younger people in the book is obviously more Western – one lady photographed playing the piano, in pink high heels, seems the quintessential modern female; educated and fashionable. The younger females of the book present themselves rather confidently whilst the few males photographed remove themselves to the depths of the landscape and appear deep in contemplation.
My favourite image is that of a young girl in a rural setting. She stands tall and proud, her gaze is strong, confident and abrupt. As she matures into adolescence the changes she is experiencing is emblematic of the wider cultural changes that the people of her nation are passing through.
Two young children are shown here asleep in their cots, both covered by colourful western polkadot blankets. Juxtaposed on the page to the left is a photograph of a sizeable pile of discarded drinks cans. Out of the pile Amstel, Cocacola and Fanta cans are clearly discernible and the colourful mess of the cans directly mirrors that of the children’s blankets. As they sleep it is clear that their future and that of their country is now entwined with the western world.
Tocci’s work speaks softly of a proud nation that is moving into the future without a defined horizon. Their religious and social beliefs are being questioned and re-evaluated by the younger generation whilst the relics and old hierarchies linger on. The closing image exemplifies this perfectly. It portrays a dilapidated room of stately origin, littering the floor are wooden panels curved with moisture and decay. The old regime is now a crumbling artefact for the young generation of Albania.
After enjoying the Foto8 ‘story of the week’ feature I noticed the book showed an edited version of the series. This edit has worked very well in shaping a better narrative throughout the series. Juxtapositions balance wit, colour and symbology throughout the book. This spins an intuitive tale through the pages exploring a land and its people without agenda or bias. This openness allows Albania to speak of itself in the modern world and the viewer can begin to grasp its changing identity. I sense the warmth and depth of character that the Albanians have and this feeling is repetitive of other countries I have visited which the ‘developed world’ in comparison considers less advanced.
However the series doesn’t lie in a traditional documentary vein as for me there are too many portraits and images of settings. There aren’t many images of things really happening around the photographer and as such the book feels a little stationary. Im not sure whether a lack of explicit social scenes is a nod to the fact that she was photographing mostly in lower populated mountainous regions, but whether this is the case or not the work feels a little sparse. The book, for me, just doesn’t go far enough in describing Albanian culture in a wider sense.
Chiara has produced some beautiful and varied photography for this series that I have very much enjoyed. Despite my criticisms this is a lovely book and I will be following her future work, alongside a number of other emerging photographers, with great interest. She has not chosen an easy subject here and Albania is an almost uniquely unphotographed country. With an eye for special themes like this I am sure we will see much more of Chiara Tocchi in the future.
Chiarra Tocci’s ‘Life after Zog and other stories’ forms the second book of Schilt Publishing’s promising Grey Matters series, which aims to provide an inexpensive platform into publishing for emerging photographers.
The Foto8 presentation of Life after Zog can be viewed here: