Stuart Griffiths

When the flight got to Tirana I could see the smoke lingering over the mountains with glimmers of illumination reflecting through the winter evening.

The light was getting low, but life was still visible. We shared a cab from the airport into town; whilst chatting away on the flight I decided very quickly, that to make my trip work, the best thing would be to hang out with someone who knew the place well.

There were broken down cars, donkeys and carts, makeshift homes, people milling around in black leather jackets, slip- on shoes and wedge haircuts; everyone seemed to have dark hair in Albania.  I noticed concrete mushrooms all around.  “These are air-raid shelters built for every family during the Enver Hoxha period! He ruled Albania until his death in 1985 and a air-raid shelter was built for every single Albanian family for fear of a nuclear attack from the outside world, he was a very paranoid man!” Eno explained.

What little I knew about Albania was that it was once a Communist country and its allies were not Russians but China and the British comic actor Norman Wisdom was a cult figure in Albania; he was one of the few western actors whose films were allowed in the country under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha.  Eno suggested that I stay at his Uncle & Aunties place as they had plenty of room in their apartment.  But before I’d meet them, we met up with Eno’s father in an apartment block somewhere in Tirana to drink Rakia, an Albanian traditional custom.

My idea was to somehow get to the Kosovo border where tensions were running high between Albanians and Serbians.  When I enquired about getting to the border the reply was blunt.  “You will be shot dead once you enter the Kosovo border”.  I left Tirana in the early morning getting a coach to a town in the Northwest of Albania called Shkodra. Shkodra was famous for its blood feuds.

Here I met people from a charity, with whom I would travel with in the Balkan Mountains to see more of the mighty ‘Land of the Eagles’.  I was given an address of where I could stay.  Nearby I could see strange massive statues of men with guns; these were The Five Heroes of Vig, and commemorate five martyrs who died for the communist cause in 1944 and Isa Boletini, an Albanian nationalist figure and guerilla fighter.  I was given this information when I photographed them the next day with the help of the landlady’s daughter, who spoke English.

These statues loomed large against the cold December cloudy skies as if they would, any minute, come alive like in a Ray Harryhausen visual effect movie.  I also photographed massive Coco Cola bottles, evidence that America had very much already arrived.
— Excerpt from Photography & Culture, Volume 6, Issue 1

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