An Albanian Mining Community Suspended in Time
Elton Gllava returns to his native Albania to document the forgotten mining town of Bulqizë, focusing on both its rich history and stark modern challenges that stem from local corruption and global capitalism.
Elton Gllava was originally born in Albania, but he relocated to Italy at a young age. The photographer has long been returning to his homeland intermittently, and during one trip in 2013, he visited Bulqizë - a small town in the north-eastern hinterland of the country best-known for its abundance of chrome. It was an encounter that took him back in time, and so was born Where the crows would have sung.
The series began with a fixed idea - to document the miners - but it evolved over time and flourished into a blend of childhood memories and an understanding of the locals’ everyday life. Gllava says that the town has been defined by some as a social ghetto, but to him it represents a reservoir of cultural archetypes.
Where the crows would have sung is almost like a window into the past when looking at the aesthetics and characters. What do you think of this? Was this a conscious act while photographing?
With the architecture, it certainly was a conscious act/decision. The first time I went to Bulqizë I was struck by its appearance. It is a small city with many old districts and seeing the grey buildings lining the roads took me immediately back in time. The times of my childhood. Memories became even more clear.
I am not from Bulqizë, but that greyness is difficult to forget (I always asked myself what happened to the colours and why communist architecture is so grey). Then getting to know the people, taking photos, I realised that I was opening a window into the past and the values that comprised my upbringing too - respect, solidarity, friendship, hospitality and sense of community.
You are originally from Albania yet you have lived in Italy since the 1990s. What does it mean to you to go back and photograph your homeland?
I have been living and working in Italy since the beginning of 1993, but I often go back to Albania. Taking photos there is part of a journey, telling the stories of human beings living there, which is often about the suffering. This personal photographic journey is one that affects me in different ways and with strong emotions. My story is a mix of love and hate towards my country.
Are you looking to document different perspectives of the miners and domestic life in Bulqizë? Why is that so?
In truth, I finished this project during 2017, yet I am now working to publish a book with the work. The idea was to offer an insight into the city and the people who live there. It is important to document because it brings us back to a more human dimension, which is represented in this slow tempo and what I call authentic lifestyle. In a super organised, frenetic and individualistic world, I suddenly found myself in contact with simple people that, despite having nothing, were always ready to help, welcome you, respect you, and at times share their stories.
Has it been important to you to portray the richness of chrome or the actual emotional state of the workers?
I was certainly attracted to the idea of portraying the emotive state of the workers. To wake up early in the morning, to have a coffee with them before climbing the mountain to go to work, to enter into the mines with them and see with my eyes their working conditions, to eat with them, chat, watch a football match or some news, to play and joke together. This is what I was interested in portraying: their life.
Would you say the people of Bulqizë find a certain pride in the richness of their land? If so, is this an important matter for you to photograph and why so?
The people of Bulqizë are well aware of the richness/wealth of their land. They know that they are sitting upon a “golden chair”. Despite that, the miners go to work with the fear that they will not come home due to the lack of sufficient security measures.
Their city is violated by the tyranny of corruption and by the iron dynamics of profit, and yet, this mining industry represents 25% of the entire Albanian GDP. Little or nothing is invested in the future of the city, in its infrastructure or in its welfare state. It is a mechanism that even they do not understand. Seeing the poverty in which this town lays has made me reflect upon the dynamics of new Albanian capitalism, and for this reason, it has been difficult for me not to bear witness to the paradox of such a situation.
Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.