Nick St.Oegger first visited Albania on a whim, with no knowledge of the natural beauty and people he would later become enamoured with. He has since developed a strong connection to the land and the people, documenting the catastrophic impact that the hydropower boom is having on the livelihoods and culture of local communities in the Albanian Alps.
Words by Eleanor Scott
Photography by Nick St.Oegger
Engendered with a love of the natural world thanks to childhood journeys with his mountaineer grandfather, documentary photographer Nick St.Oegger’s work chronicles the close relationships people develop with the land they live on. Currently based in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, he has spent several years working in the Western Balkans and curates the popular @everydayeasterneurope Instagram account in an effort “to change some of the stereotypes of the region by showing the beauty of the landscape and people here”.
Particularly interested in highlighting communities threatened by environmental issues, his Kuçedra and The Lament of the Mountains series’ are the first two works in a three-part project that aims to reveal the negative impact of hydropower dams in the Albanian Alps. The major issue being that with climate change pushing countries towards renewables, over 3000 dams are planned or under construction in the Balkan peninsula, with little regard for the environmental impact of this boom. According to Nick, the Alpine rivers under threat by the dams provide critical water supply to the region and support its uniquely high biodiversity. They’re also “central to the lifestyle and cultural identity”of the highland Malësorët people, who have a unique connection to the land, “rooted in agriculture and pastoralism”.
We spoke to Nick about why he first became interested in the area, the importance of building genuine relationships with the communities you’re photographing, and why renewable energy should be tailored to the needs of a region.
“It’s the last part of Europe that hasn’t had its rivers completely developed.”
When did you first visit Albania and what led you to create some of the works you have there?
I visited Albania on my first trip to the Balkans in 2013. I actually hadn’t planned to go there because people told me it would be difficult to travel around, that it was dangerous and there was nothing to see there anyway. It was true, at the time, that it was hard to find a lot of information about Albania, and I essentially had no visual reference point for it. But one morning I woke up at the hostel I was staying at in Athens, and the first thought that came to my mind was that I had to get to Albania, so I packed everything and got on the next bus I could find. I thought I would stay for a couple days as I made my way to Montenegro, but I stayed for close to two weeks.
It was a really beautiful experience of discovering a country and landscape for the first time without any preconceived notions of it, I felt like a child again. But I was also struck by how the reality didn’t line up at all with what people had told me. When I came back from Albania I couldn’t stop talking about it and people just didn’t understand until I started to show them photos. So, it’s been this place I’ve kept going back to because I feel a very strong connection to the land and people and I’ve felt compelled to share that. [I want to] show that it’s a country that’s very much in the midst of a lot of change, trying to modernise and join Europe while still holding on to their unique identity.
How did The Lament of the Mountains come to be?
This was a follow up to my project Kuçedra, both of which are looking at the issue of hydropower development. This is a big problem in the region right now, as it’s the last part of Europe that hasn’t had its rivers completely developed, so there’s a boom in hydropower construction and not all of it is being done responsibly. I was at a conference on river protection where I saw a presentation about the Kelmend region in northern Albania and the Malësorët – who are the highlanders who have inhabited the area for centuries.
Right now there are dozens of small-scale hydropower dams being built on rivers in the Albanian Alps that are threatening the water supply for this population, who rely on it for agriculture and their livestock. It’s one of only a few places left in Europe where transhumance is practiced, the seasonal migration of shepherds with their herds to alpine pastures in the summer. My previous project had very much focused on a particular landscape that would be altered or destroyed by hydropower, so this seemed like an opportunity to instead show a specific culture that would be threatened by these dams. The mountains have always been such an important part of Albania for me, they’re so remote and untouched, so when I learned about plans to build dams there I felt I needed to do something about it.
“For a lot of them, there isn’t an option to just pick up and move somewhere else.”
You mentioned on your Instagram that there’s currently a campaign to build solar infrastructure in Kutë, one of the villages from your Kuçedra series. What’s the current situation there and can you explain why dams are an issue for these communities?
Yes, that’s right. So Kutë is a village on the Vjosa river in the south of Albania, which is one of the last undammed rivers in Europe. The village has become the epicentre of the fight to protect the Vjosa, and locals even successfully sued the government to block construction of the nearby dam that would flood their agricultural fields. Part of the problem is that a lot of these rural areas have been in decline for some time and there’s a lot of poverty. During communism, Kutë and the surrounding villages were major centres for agriculture and received a lot of support from the government, but since the collapse of the regime in the 90s that has all stopped. A lot of people have left, but those who remain are essentially working the lands that their families have always had; and for a lot of them there isn’t an option to just pick up and move somewhere else.
Dams become an issue because they would create a huge reservoir, flooding most of the land around Kutë, meaning people would lose their only source of livelihood. Additionally, most people don’t even have the proper documents to show they own the land, because they were never issued them after the end of communism. This makes it pretty much impossible for anyone to claim compensation for the land they would lose, leaving them in a pretty desperate situation. So the solar campaign in Kutë is important because the goal is to show that there are alternative energy options available that are less destructive and tailored to the energy needs of a particular area. Solar is a great option in a country like Albania because they get so much sun every year, but it’s definitely still an expensive option and there aren’t as many local companies who are familiar with implementing that kind of infrastructure. The hydropower lobby definitely has a stronger grip in this area. The idea is to use Kutë as a model for what might be possible in the future.
“There are alternative energy options available that are less destructive and tailored to the energy needs of a particular area.”
One of the aspects of the series I enjoy is how unguarded people seem in your images. How did you go about making connections with the people and communities you photographed?
I’m glad that comes across in my photos. Connections are probably the most important thing for me in my creative process, but I can also be very introverted and shy, so sometimes it’s a challenge. Learning the language has helped because it removes that barrier of having a translator, I can speak directly to people and I automatically become a person of interest because, as you can imagine, there aren’t many foreigners rocking up and speaking Albanian. I think a lot of people are curious about me, and I think having learned the language shows them that I have respect, which is very important in Albanian culture. I try to make myself vulnerable; I talk about myself, show people photos of my parents, and also ask them to talk to me about their lives and families.
With Lament of the Mountains, I made an especially close bond with one particular family of shepherds who I stayed with. I think a big part of this was that they saw how comfortable I was in the mountains – I’m a big fan of mountaineering – and how much I understood about Albania, so they got this sense that they didn’t have to take care of me, that I wasn’t this person who had parachuted in for a couple days and was just going to disappear. There had been other photographers they had dealt with who did this and I went into it knowing they were wary of me. They tested me at times, in very subtle ways. I definitely had to earn their trust by becoming a part of their lives, not just being a fly on the wall.
What were you hoping to capture and achieve with the project?
I really wanted to convey this sense of connection between the Malësorët and the landscape, to show that they have a relationship with it and a use for it that is valuable and so intertwined with their lives. I get the sense that the politicians or developers who want to build these dams just expect people to leave because it’s a poor and undeveloped rural area, so they should move and join the 21st century. But this sort of rural culture is disappearing all over Europe, so I thought it was important to document it – especially the elements of shepherding, which have become much more mechanical and industrialised in Western Europe. At the same time, I wanted to be careful not to overly romanticise their lives, so I’ve tried to find a balanced set of images that hopefully convey the beauty of this place and the people, but also give a sense of what can at times be a harsh or isolated existence.
Could you pick one or two of your favourite images from the series?
The photo of the herd of sheep coming up the road in the evening light is one of my favourites from this series. This was actually the day I did the transhumance with the shepherds, walking 45km up to their encampment in the high pastures of the alps. It was definitely one of the experiences that I had romantic notions about, but the reality was that it was an extremely hard day, blazing hot, and I actually spent most of the time having to herd the sheep with a big stick rather than shooting. This was a rare moment I was able to get ahead of them and everything lined up perfectly before I lost the light for the evening.
There’s also the photo of the main shepherd Gazmend carrying all the branches to make a shelter for the animals. This was a really quick shot, but I like it because it’s one of the photos that illustrates their connection with the land, in the way he’s literally become part of it, blending in with the forest in the background. You can also see he’s smiling, not for me, but just because of the joy of the moment. I loved how much the shepherds didn’t take their lives or where they lived for granted, there were lots of moments where they expressed this sense of appreciation for being there and that’s what this shot represents for me.
“This sort of rural culture is disappearing all over Europe.”
What cameras and gear do you use?
I actually completely adopted the Fujifilm X system several years ago now after having been mainly a Nikon shooter, and a very disappointing fling with Leica. I wanted a camera that gave me the physical profile of the Leica with the reliability, performance and image quality of the Nikon and I found that with the Fujis. Both these projects were shot with the X-Pro 2, and mainly a 23mm (35mm equivalent) lens. I’m a minimalist in general, so I don’t have a huge lens collection, I mainly shoot with a 23mm, occasionally with a 50mm for portraits and I’m pretty satisfied with that setup.
I’m not very gear obsessed, but I really do love my Fuji cameras and can’t imagine using anything else, I feel like they perfectly suit my personality and the way I work. The colours are also amazing; most of my photos are straight out of the camera with just some tweaks to contrast, shadows or occasionally white balance. I hate sitting on the computer and editing, so being able to get things right out of the camera is great.
Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?
Right now I’m based in Sarajevo, so I’ve been spending some time shooting in the mountains around Bosnia. I’m hoping to be able to get back to Albania sometime this year if the situation permits. I’d like to complete what I see as a trilogy of projects about hydropower development there, this time focusing on areas that have already been flooded, where villages have been lost and people displaced. I think if I complete that, I’d like to publish another book using elements of all three projects, and also produce some exhibitions to further raise awareness about the issue.
Nick St.Oegger is a documentary photographer whose personal work explores the relationship between people and their natural surroundings, often focussing on communities threatened by environmental issues. he takes on assignments for international NGOs, editorial and commercial clients including Vice, Reuters, Suitcase Magazine, Culture Trip, and Patagonia.