MICHEL SETBOUN: THE END – THE BEGINNING (ALBANIA 1981 – 1991)
Interviewed by Gresa Hasa
Michel Setboun is a French photographer and photojournalist. He has traveled the world as a reporter, first for agencies and then independently. As a war photographer he has captured some of the most important moments in world history, such as the 1978-1979 revolution in Iran, the fall of the dictatorship in Albania in 1991 and the Kosovo War in 1999. His work has been praised and published in many important newspapers and magazines in the West. Setboun is holding an exhibition in Tirana at the Center of Openness and Dialogue in the Prime Ministry, until September the 2nd. The exhibition, The End – The Beginning (Albania 1981- 1991), includes 99 photographs from this period.
The following conversation took place on July 21st in an open café in the center of Tirana. The questions, and the subsequent conversation, reflect an interest to understand Setboun and his work from a contemporary perspective.
Mr. Setboun, what was your first contact with Albania? Moreover, what made you visit an authoritarian state?
When I came to Albania for the first time, I was a war photographer. It was right after the end of the Iranian revolution. I had just come back from Iran and I was looking for strange places with strange stories, something difficult. At that time, Albania was a little bit like North Korea today. It was interesting. I was attracted to it and I said, why not? Also, I had read Kadare’s books translated in French and I already had a taste of the country. But to get to Albania at that time was very difficult, almost impossible; unless you were a member of these Marxist-Leninist Associations of Friendship. I had to go to the respective association in Paris and talk to the people there, so that it could be properly evaluated that I wasn’t against the Marxist ideas, otherwise I couldn’t get in the country. Getting the permission and the plane ticket wasn’t easy either, because it had to go through these associations of friendship in different countries before everything was settled. It was a long trip. Once I landed in Rinas, it felt as if I was in the middle of nowhere. I remember the first time I got here, I didn’t stay in Tirana. They arranged me in the Pioneer Camp in Durrës from where I had to travel everyday to the capital.
Your pictures of Albania during the dictatorship carry historic value. They aren’t just a good artistic and professional work. Through them, it seems that you have been able to grasp the essence of a totalitarian regime: its violence and oppression; its fear, misery, hypocrisy and later – during its fall, the rebellion and hope. What is the political status of these photos and how can we translate that into context of Albania today?
It is difficult to answer your question. I didn’t have this political point of view in my mind. My goal was only to report and make a big story, which I did in the GEO magazine in France. We called it: The forgotten country of Europe. I knew it would be interesting because this country was so different. It was another part of the world. Then it was also interesting from an artistic perspective because Albania was a very photogenic country. But, to do that story for the magazine, I had to come several times. I met a guy in the Albanian Embassy in Paris, a pure communist but friendly. Albanians are nice and friendly people, despite what kind of regime is in power. I remember he was very poor, so poor he didn’t have enough money to even buy coffee. Also, he was supervised even though he lived in Paris. The guy next to him was working for the state police, you can imagine… He knew my profession and he couldn’t give me a visa as a photojournalist. That’s why he suggested for me to organize my own group of tourists. That way it wouldn’t be as problematic to get a visa, he said. And I did that. I managed to come back to the country several times through these tourist groups. In 1988, Albania was less of a dictatorship than it was in 1985. It was under Ramiz Alia and it was easier to come to Albania when he was in power. Albania back then was very different and that’s why these pictures are valuable today because they’re a memory of the past.
The People’s Socialist Republic of Albania means a repressive state apparatus where everybody without exception is supervised and a target of the state-party, including foreign citizens, especially western ones. We’re talking about a very difficult and critical time. What are some of the most challenging moments that you remember during your stay at that time?
I remember that while having coffee in a café with the guide on my side, the people – the citizens – were sitting seven meters away from us, so that we couldn’t have contact with one another. They were there with me but at the same time they weren’t there with me. Moreover, I couldn’t go wherever I wanted and I was never allowed to travel by myself. There was always somebody accompanying me, a guide or a translator. Every day was organized by them. I could, of course, express my desire to visit this or that thing and they would reply to me if that was doable or not. I remember when they sent me, and the group I had come here with, to the Atheist Museum in Shkodra (which no longer exists), without us asking for it.
I took whatever they offered me, every opportunity, because when you have no information about the country, when nobody knows what’s going on there, once you show up at the border, you must behave properly, you must be friendly and conform to the rules. You don’t rebel, you don’t act stubbornly otherwise you can get arrested. I don’t think I had troubles. I believe I managed it pretty well. You have to be quick! For example, if you wanted to photograph a bunker, it wasn’t good for you to stare at the object for like 10 minutes and then take several shots of it. You could be perceived as somebody suspicious. All you had to do was take a few shots immediately and then walk away, acting uninterested. I had a friend who was a photojournalist like me and who came to Albania for the first time with our tourist group in 1986. He used to spend more time than he should have had, staring at the objects and they questioned him.
I wasn’t allowed to see much. I could see people working in the fields, students going to university but I couldn’t see the prisons, I couldn’t see the workers camps, I couldn’t see Enver Hoxha. I wanted to see Hoxha in 1981. I wanted to see everything! However, I wasn’t in touch with the reality and the people. I was only allowed to see the propaganda and I didn’t get a chance to see anything else behind that.
What did the camera not catch? What are we not able to see today?
Photography is complicated. You think that you’re seeing the reality and the truth but in fact, it is not that. Everybody perceives an image differently. If I look at my own image, I don’t look at it the same way you look at it. This is speaking from a general perspective on the image. According to the system, they wanted to show me the factories, how good they were and how socialism was working perfectly. From their point of view, they thought that they were showing me something great. But for me, what they were showing represented a turn backward. The same thing had a different meaning and purpose from their side and another one from my side. Sometimes, when you want to control something, you end up controlling nothing…
Are there any pictures of that time that have been lost forever during your stay here and if yes, in what circumstances did they disappear?
They didn’t check my camera at the border because they were controlling everything along the way; what we did, where we went, what we captured. They couldn’t imagine that we would do something forbidden. This other photojournalist, my friend who travelled with me in one of these visits, grasped the situation quickly. In less than two days we could understand each other very well just by looking at one another: he knew that we couldn’t behave as we wanted. But he wasn’t a Marxist- Leninist tourist, like I had presented myself in the country since the very beginning. He was asking questions like: “Oh, did it use to be a church or a mosque there at those ruins?” And they would reply with discomfort: “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, but that was a long time ago.” And they always chose not to talk about it. I remember I had a picture of a destroyed mosque in Elbasan. It may seem like nothing today, but back then that was forbidden because it was considered symbolic.
A haunting detail from your pictures is the facial expression on people, more precisely, their look. In the pictures during the regime, these faces are generally terrified, sometimes naïve and shy; very often sincere. In the pictures during the fall of the regime, their eyes are full of hope and at the same time, anger. Usually they approach the camera smiling. At other times, they look at it angrily as if threatened by it. All these images are emotionally heavy. Did you have any contact with your subjects or the only communication with them was through silence, through the camera’s lens? Is there a moment that’s been strongly stuck into your memory, one that you will never forget?
In 1991, when everything collapsed, the situation was similar to that of a sci-fi movie. It was pure madness! People were destroying everything, cooperatives were dismantled stone by stone; factories; whatever was getting into their way. I always had a translator with me and we were interacting with people. What’s most important, they wanted to talk to us. They wanted me to capture and record everything. They wanted to let me know that they were free but they had nothing, they couldn’t go anywhere. It was the end of the world for them. And for real, it was the end of a world. I was in the middle of it, witnessing everything. The fall, the difficult rebirth that was taking place.
Nonetheless, I have one good story. I went to a center for handicapped kids in Shkodra, you know, children with autism. What I saw was very depressive… A nightmare! It was cold and people from the nearby village were taking the glass from the windows and everything else from this place. These children, the mentally disabled children, were in shock. I took pictures. That was my job. What else could I do? This story was published in a British magazine. Six months later when I returned to the same center to see what was going on there, a woman, the main nurse, together with other women working there, to my surprise, came to hug me and kiss me. What had happened is that after the publication of that story, a British NGO had chosen to take care of that place, the kids and the hospital. Their life had changed. Now, that wasn’t my goal. Myself, I have done nothing! It happened completely by chance. For them it was a miracle. Anyway, after 1991 the magazines in the west started having less and less interest in Albania, because now it was on the way to become a normal country like many other countries.
As for my time in Albania during the dictatorship, I couldn’t communicate with people. I didn’t have a chance in doing so and those few times that I would exchange a few words with some of them (like this director in the city of Elbasan that I met and with whom I remember having raki together), all I could get from them was just a mumbling of the classical propaganda.
These pictures and this exhibition are very important for Albanian society. They are evidence that contributes into our collective memory. Why did you choose to introduce your work at the Center of Openness and Dialogue in the Prime Ministry’s setting and not in the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana or anywhere else for that matter?
I chose nothing. For a long time, I have wanted to do something in Albania. I wanted to show my work but I had no connections. And then the people who made possible for this exhibition to happen, came to me and said that they were interested in presenting these works. They were going to be the ones taking care of everything. I said whatever you decide, is fine by me. It was very important for me to come back, emotionally. I wasn’t looking for recognition. It was a personal story, a way to give back to the people what they gave to me. It was emotionally very powerful! I had an exhibition in the village of Derviçan in the south of Albania, two years ago, curated by Toni Milaqi. Eleana Zhako was the manager of this project. But when Eleana wanted to do something in Tirana, we couldn’t find the money. It seemed that nobody had the money, nor the interest. The Ministry of Culture didn’t respond to us, the Minister herself didn’t even show up at the opening of the exhibition at COD. The City Hall didn’t support us and neither did the French Embassy. The French Ambassador came to the exhibition but he didn’t support it at all; didn’t grant us not even a cent. The only place who accepted us was The Center of Openness and Dialogue. And I thought, this is better than nothing at all.
Don’t you think that COD affects your exhibition negatively? This space inside the building of the Prime Ministry has been harshly criticized as a propaganda tool. Prime Minister Rama, regularly trumpets on his transparency and the democratic communication with his citizens. COD itself was created to reinforce this idea. But the reality on the ground is something else. For example, eight of the students protesting against the government’s neoliberal reform on higher education were sentenced to two months of jail for doing so. Usually, citizens choosing to peacefully protest against the government are belittled, stigmatized and often arrested and sentenced to jail illegally. Don’t you think that by exhibiting your work at COD, you – maybe unintentionally – legitimate the current government’s propaganda and at the same time, you lose contact with the everyday people, the ones who would truly be interested in your exhibition? Many people refuse to come see the exhibition just because it’s being held at COD. I find this troubling for the exhibition and for you as an artist. What is your stance as an artist towards this?
My answer is very simple: I’m not a politician. I would be more than happy to have had this exhibition in another place. The point is, there was no other offer from anywhere else. The choice was between nothing and something. From my point of view, it was better to have something rather than nothing, because I thought that at least people would talk about it. They may not agree but there is something on the way. As a photojournalist, you always play a game with the government. Even when we publish some pictures with the refugees in France… The way you do it… You’re always part of the political system, whatever you’re doing. I didn’t know what COD was, but it was the only opportunity. If someone else would have said they wanted to do it, I would have said yes, was it a party or whatever/whomever else. The Democratic Party, my friend Besnik Mustafaj (who didn’t come to the exhibition, at least for as long as I’ve been here); the Ministry of Culture, even the French Embassy… In 27 years they didn’t do anything. They could’ve said that we could do something together, they could offer a space for these pictures. There was nothing. What can I say? I don’t know why their reaction has always been like this.
Don’t you think that there is something losing from your work, through the propaganda? Isn’t there something that vanishes when art it is mingled with political propaganda? Don’t you think it builds a wall between the people and your work?
Yes, but it is a prize you have to pay when you are a photojournalist. It is not a dream country because there are still many difficulties. But it is the same in France. If you want to have an exhibition you have to have connections, otherwise it is very difficult, almost impossible for you to present the work. I’m not a politician. I’m not an activist. I’m purely interested in the artistic perspective. I take pictures. I report. It is for the public to choose its own position towards them. Some may say this is good, some may say it is not good. I have published in Figaro Magazine which is a right-wing magazine in France. The left magazines, most of the time they don’t usually produce stories. You have to choose between nothing and something. You have to deal with the system. And if you don’t like it, you stop. If you think it is worth it to continue, you do it. You find your own balance. And the balance for me is that something’s better than nothing. Maybe, I’m wrong. I don’t know.
Rama is a leader and a politician. He has his own point of view. He’s interested in the political aspect. Again, I’m not a politician and I’m not an activist. I’m a photographer and a foreigner. I cannot moralize about a country and its government; about how things are. I take pictures. I report the pictures. If someone is offering me the opportunity to show the work, I would take it when I think there is something interesting and valuable to be shown through the works.
We know the audience these pictures target in Albania. What about outside of Albania, who’s usually interested in these materials?
Nobody. Albania is still a forgotten country. It is a pity. I have written that story many years ago, but it is the same today. If I go to a magazine and tell them that I want to publish something about Albania, that I have some very good material, I’m sure nobody will be interested. It’s a pity because the pictures are captivating not only from the political perspective, but also and especially because the images themselves are very interesting. I got many ideas and pictures but nobody’s interested. Nobody will do an exhibition about it in France.
Mr. Setboun, thank you for the interview! Do you think you’ll visit Albania again as a photojournalist, this time to capture another sort of violence, the one that has sat comfortably in the country since 27 years; the violence of capitalism and the mafia cliques in the head of the state; that sort of violence that has replaced those looks full of life and hope that we notice in your pictures at the beginning of the 90s, with depression.
No, I’m not. I don’t think so. I’m not an activist. I will do my work again. People will decide themselves. It’s the same with the attitude towards the communist regime: one can say whatever they want about that time, praise it or criticize it. I don’t participate in the debate. My work is to take pictures and report them.