Burri i dheut
I visited Albania for the first time in October 2007. I went to Kosovo, where an Italian NGO hosted me. At that time I was working for a press agency and my intention was to photograph the long-awaited independence of Kosovar Albanians.
I travelled throughout Albania to reach Peja-Pec, from Durrës to Shkodër.
During the journey I stared at the Albanian landscape, flat and uncultivated wastelands interrupted by small villages, with their gray, geometric, square-shaped houses.
Albania had always been the land on the opposite side and being there hit me violently, in a way that I would never had thought.
I spent over a month in Kosovo and in December of the same year, during the Muslim celebration of the sacrifice of Isaac, I hitchhiked from Peja-Peć to Shkodër.
After a few days in the city, inspired by the stories of a friar who hosted me during my stay, I decided to explore the northern mountains, in the Shala Valley in Dukagjin.
Among the Albanian mountains I found exactly what I was looking for: a whole new world. Small districts with 2, 3, up to 6 families, which looked like spots in the valley.
The first contacts with the locals were extraordinary. They welcomed me in their houses and offered me food and a shelter from the harsh Albanian winter. The language barrier that separated me from these people collapsed immediately as soon as I sat on a sofa drinking a hot coffee and a grappa, which are the real cultural and linguistic mediators in those places.
Their smiles, direct glances and unconditional hospitality were the signals that I was going the right way. I had reached one of those microcosms where authenticity and dignity still survive, protected from homologation and consumerism.
However, I was realizing that the dynamics related to the urbanization were taking hold in Albania, as well. People were leaving the mountains to follow the dream of modernity in the hope of escaping from that harsh life and finding in the city the comfort they had heard about.
That first time I remained in Albania until spring; afterwards I came back there every year.
The following year I rented a house in a district, a seven-hour drive from Shkodër and then an hour and a half walk through the woods. The whole winter I devoted myself to reading, walking, listening to nature and receiving visits from locals, who, attracted by the smoking chimney, wanted to know who was living in that house left abandoned for so many years.
Many locals invited me to their house. Rumors began to circulate that I was an Italian fugitive. I tried many times to explain my real intentions, my desire to narrate, through photography, the stories of these places, which represented a healthy lifestyle and the link between man and land. However, due to the lack of terms of comparison, what really emerged was a great shame for the modesty of their lives.
Many called me the Italian writer, since they saw me taking notes all the time.
Until 2015, I returned to Albania whenever I could. I began to travel among the mountains and the suburban areas of Shkodër, where these highlanders were moving. Sad places lacking basic services, small European-Balkan slums where people coming from the mountains were left on the margin of society with unemployment, alcoholism and violence on the rise.
The hard but healthy and ancestral life in the mountains, which despite trials and tribulations conferred to those people a great dignity, had turned into a limbo in the streets of urban suburbs.
In these images are the faces of extraordinary people who opened their heart to me there in the mountains and which I found later in the urban centers, where they had emigrated over the following 8 years, completely lost and suffering from an identity crisis.
Burri i deuth - man of the earth - is the story of a thin fragment of the life of these people, caught right in the moment when everything is about to change forever.
This selection of photographs includes both analog and digital images. The final editing is made up of more than a hundred pictures, mostly portraits, which is the type of photography I prefer.