‘Kuçedra’ – photographing the last wild river in Europe

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In Albanian mythology, the Kuçedra is a dragon-like creature who brings great misfortune to the land and people: it blocks rivers, causes droughts and floods and can only be placated through human sacrifice.

‘Kuçedra’ is also the name of a photobook by documentary photographer Nick St.Oegger, who travelled to Albania to capture life along the Vjosa, Europe’s last wild river.

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The Vjosa has never been dammed or altered in any way and runs along its natural course.

 

It’s the only unaltered river left in Europe and it’s under threat from hydropower development.

These plans would not only alter the flow of the river, but flood entire villages and irreparably damage the biodiversity and communities of the region.

The book depicts life along the Vjosa river: the landscapes and the people  shaped by the river.

Through marvelous glossy paper, the book introduces the subject and goes deep into it.

Like the Vjosa, Nick St.Oegger’s photography meanders round its topic, hinting at the potential catastrophic consequences that the hydropower structures would cause.

Nick St.Oegger reflects on his creative process and travelling experience along the Vjosa river on his interview with Wayfarer Books.

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WAYFARER BOOKS – How did you learn about the Vjosa’s dam project? How did you become interested in the project?

N. S. O – I had been working in Albania on and off since 2013 and heard a bit about issues with hydropower in different parts of the country, but I didn’t seriously take notice until the end of 2016.

I was back in the US visiting family, I picked up a magazine and the first page I flipped open to had a map of Albania and a short article about the Vjosa, how it was Europe’s last undammed river and was threatened by hydro development.

I couldn’t believe it for several reasons, first that it was the last river in Europe without any dams, but also that this hadn’t gotten more attention.

So I started to do some research about hydropower, and it just opened a floodgate of information. I realised how complex and layered the issue was not just in Albania, but in the Balkans in general.

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I think growing up in the Western United States, I had always taken hydropower for granted and bought into the whole idea of it being a “green” renewable energy with few downsides.
When I started to look at the realities, a very different picture developed.

I felt this very strong urge to document the Vjosa as this last pristine European river, knowing that it could be forever changed.

The nature in Albania, their culture in rural areas and the strong connection people feel for the land have always been a huge draw to me. This became a very important and personal project for me.

WB – Could you tell the readers a bit about your travel experience while working on the book? How did you approach the trip? How long did you stay in the area for this work?

N. S. O – I moved to Albania at the start of 2017 and lived there for six months. I was living in the capital, Tirana, but I took a series of extended trips along the Vjosa, ranging from a week to a month at a time.

My first trips were mainly about travelling along the river, taking in the landscapes, villages, and looking at how the river itself changed.

I did have a list of specific areas I wanted to focus on, places that were under more immediate threat from the development.

I spent the most time working around this village called Kuta, which is in between two planned dam projects that would create a 6000 acre reservoir, flooding most of the agricultural land in the area.

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People in this area would lose their only source for survival.
There’s no other industry in the area but agriculture, and most people wouldn’t even be compensated for their lost property due to the fact they never received ownership documents after the end of the communist regime.

I made several trips to this area and had a lot of help from a couple of NGOs who brought in groups of scientists to conduct research in the area.

But I also spent plenty of time travelling on my own, going to villages or remote locations and speaking to people (I spoke pretty decent Albanian, at least at the time).

There was a lot of fluidity to the way I was working and traveling.

WB – There are many pictures of people’s living rooms in Kuçedra, which probably are proof of how open local people were towards your project. How did local people react when they heard about your project?

N. S. O – One of the things I love about Albania is the people.
Many of them have difficult lives, there’s still a lot of trauma from their history, but they are honestly some of the kindest and most hospitable people I’ve met.

I think a lot of people feel isolated or forgotten, so they were happy to have someone interested in them and who wanted to share their stories.
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It definitely helped that I had taken the time to learn Albanian, even if it wasn’t perfect.

The language is so important to their identity and it opened a lot of doors when I could go into a village and speak to people without a translator.

I think it showed them that I wasn’t just this person who had come to the country for a week to take some photos and then leave.

They could see I had a relationship with their country and culture and there was a lot of respect for that.

WB –  A bit now about the Kuçedra legend: folk stories such as his speak of a time when humans respected (and feared) nature. In contrast, your photography documents how many communities are threatened by humanity’s plan to control nature. What’s the main reason you linked your project with Kuçedra story?

N. S. O – I was lucky enough to work with a social anthropologist for some days on my project, who had been working in Albania for over a decade and knew a lot about the links between people and water.

Professor Nataša Gregorič Bon told me the legend about Kuçedra (there are a few variations on it) and it just struck me as such a perfect analogy for dams.

Just that idea of this looming physical force that blocks water, blocks the source of life for the people, who ultimately become a sort of sacrifice…
I thought it was a powerful metaphor for what was going on with the hydropower plans.

I think it also speaks to this idea of this strong outside source (modern infrastructure) coming in and disrupting people who are living so closely with nature, in a way most of us have no conception of living in more urban modernised environments.

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WB –  Can you provide any updates as in how is the Vjosa’s dam project developing? 

N. S. O – Back in May 2017 the High Court in Albania upheld a lawsuit brought against the government by people from the village of Kuta and several environmental NGOs.

They found that the government had fabricated the Environmental Impact Assessment for one of the dams, simply copying and pasting the results from another unrelated project.

Also, they hadn’t properly notified the local communities about what was going on. Because of this the court blocked construction of one of the dams.

This was obviously a huge victory for the people there, and a really uncommon case for the country, where the government usually wins in court.

Unfortunately the government is appealing the decision, and the very same day they announced this they opened bidding on another dam project that had previously stalled.

More recently, there’s been a pretty big campaign supported by Patagonia that has helped raise awareness about the issue and put pressure on the financial institutions that are helping fund these projects all over the Balkans.

There was a petition that got 120,000 signatures and was delivered to representatives of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in London, one of the biggest financiers of these projects.

Also at the end of last year the Bern Convention (a nature conservation treaty that Albania is a signatory of) opened a case against Albania because of what’s happening on the Vjosa, and they made a series of recommendations that the government should implement going forward.

Albania is meant to open talks with the EU later this year about their eventual membership, it remains to be seen if this issue will come up, but it’s certainly something that should be considered if they want to join.

So there are a lot of positive developments happening, and I think this has really given people in the country a lot of hope even if there are many other unsolved issues going on there.

 

WB – Are there any other books, documentaries or works of art that have influenced you in putting together Kuçedra?

N. S. O – I think one of my biggest influences has been the work of another American photographer, Bryan Schutmaat, especially his book ‘Greys the Mountain Sends’.

Bryan makes incredibly beautiful, lyrical, landscape and portrait based work, usually focussing on forgotten rural communities in the United States.

When I first saw his work it had a profound influence on me, and marked a real shift in my style.

From what had previously been more reportage/photojournalistic, I moved to a slower, more intentional landscape/portrait, based way of working that I felt was more in tune with my disposition.

Another piece of work that I really looked at for design influence was ‘Empire’ by Jon Tonks, which is another beautiful work of landscape and portraits, with a very clean design.

WB – Some of your other projects (like Bypassed) depict how human communities are threatened or altered by man-made changes in their environment. Any other exciting projects in the near future that you want to share with the readers?

N. S. O – Yes I’ve got a few exciting things in the pipeline this year. I’m actually returning to Albania to freelance for awhile.

I want to continue focusing on this issue of hydropower.
This time I’ll be working in several valleys in the northern alps, where rivers are quickly and quietly being developed with hydro projects at great threat to the local communities.

I’ll also be returning to the Vjosa, this time on the Greek side of the river.

I’ll be exhibiting my work from Kuçedra at the Vovousa photography festival and completing a one month residency in the village, again looking at the local community and its relation to the river and environment.

WB – Any other thing you want to add?

N. S. O – Just that I think working on this project from start to finish has really emphasised how printed material still can play an important role in storytelling, especially the publication of a photo book.

It was a lot of work to photograph, curate, edit, design and find sponsorship for production, but I think it was completely worth it in the end.

 

I’d encourage other people with strong story ideas to consider the photo book format and get involved with the self publishing community.
There are so many resources for bringing our projects to life and telling important stories that otherwise would go unheard.
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