Stars of Albania

Albania during the communist times. The country is totally sealed off from the outside world. Landowners have been expropriated by a radical collectivisation drive. “Exorbitant” capital goods have been confiscated. A kind of generalized paranoia is reigning all over the country. It is whispered that you can even receive the death penalty for having one chicken running around the house. When the smell of a fresh leaf of bread, baked for private consumption, reaches the nostrils the secret police (Sigurimi), the courageous baker will vanish into a labour camp.

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© Matthias Aschauer

Freedom of movement is something very abstract for Albanians. It is forbidden to move out of their home town without formal permission. Anyway, Albanians are not even allowed to have their own bike. In the 1980’ies there are only 300 cars driving through the streets of the Tirana.

The Albanians are the last of the Europeans to wake up in the so-called free world. Eventually, Enver Hoxha’s statue is toppled in december 1990.  Consumer goods and western values start flooding the country. In the years thereafter, the new economic is still very frail and there is social unrest but the spirit of the nation quickly shifts from “everything is ours” to “everything is mine”!

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© Matthias Aschauer

In times of uncertainty and chaos, it is natural for  human beings to look up for a star that will show the way to move on.  And here we have Sterne Albaniens (Stars of Albania), a very original photobook by Austrian photographer Matthias Aschauer. The title is beautifully explained in the introduction (David Staretz). The book is about stars that are guiding Albanians through the cultural shifts their country is undergoing.

To be more precise, it’s about one very specific star: the emblematic star of Mercedes-Benz. This is because – since the collapse of its stone age communism – Albania famously has attained the highest concentration of Mercedes-Benz automobiles in the world. It is estimated that 60 percent of the cars and trucks in the country are Mercedes-Benz! Sure enough, there is no room for discussion in Albanian families about about what should be number one on their priority lists. A Mercedes-Benz will always come before the washing mashine!

And the funny thing is that  Matthias’ book contains dozens of pictures made in the streets of Albania in 2010 and 2011 that (how did he do that?) depict ONLY Mercedes cars. Most of them are private cars but there are also taxis, learner cars, hearses, busses, vans…..

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© Matthias Aschauer

 

With their long noses, spacious trunks, solid doors, typical radiator grilles, chrome lines and big steering wheels they present themselves in everyone’s subconsciousness or dreams as archetypes of what a car should be. They are not only symbols of success and prestige but they also stand for total reliability, safety, durability and – most importantly- also sovereignity. All what is needed during the chaotic aftermath of the communist era, full of hardship and terror.

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© Matthias Aschauer

 

What I like about Sterne Albaniens is that it seems to be conceived as a book of typologies. The annotations with the pictures don’t mention the time and place where Matthias made the shots. Each picture is only provided with the official factory references and the period of construction of the  vehicles (e.g. Mercedes-Benz E-Klasse (W211) 2002-2009). The main focus is on the wide variety of Mercedes-Benz types that he found in the streets.

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© Matthias Aschauer

As it goes in a book of typologies, there is no story line in this book. The sequence of Sterne Albanniens seems to be (at first sight) a purely random one. In a way this book brings to  mind the famous books of typologies from the German culture, like the ones from August Sander or the Bechers.

The concept of the graphic designers (Knis Steizinger and Simon Walterer) is maintained till the very end. In the back of the book all the references are grouped in an index. In a way, with its sober and neat outlook, they made the book also look like a prospectus for professionals. You may even say that the book design is reflecting the sober -German- design of the cars themselves. (BTW, the type that shows up most is the Mercedes-Benz W123 series (1975-1985), this oxymoronic ubiquitous luxury car of which you may have some good memories.)

At the same time, Matthias Aschauer offers us much more than a automobilographic overview of the different lines of executive cars, sedans or limousines that once have left the factory in Stuttgart. The book is also ethnographic. We get intriguing glimpses of the Albanians and how they behave in the public space. Time still seems to be on their side! We see many persons who are enjoying a friendly chat and the state of strolling idleness. In spite of the turmoil from which they are coming, in spite of the barrenness of their country, they seem to consider the public space as a very pleasant social space.

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© Matthias Aschauer

That there is time, also might have to something with the absence of economical drivers that allow the country to move on. But, as Matthias is showing, Albanians always keep up the good spirit and they have found their own stylish ways to move on. So, if the country is doomed to be some economic wasteland, I would say “Oh Lord, why don’t you buy them ……”

Thank you very much, Mr. Aschauer!

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DAKAR: a photo-essay by Helmut Tezak

Amnesty International has warned us earlier this week that populist politicians are busy creating a hostile climate for refugees and migrants. “Toxic political agendas are dehumanizing and scapegoating entire groups of people.” Of course, most politicians still pay attention not to cross any red line of overt racism or hate speech but their underlying messages (even from those in government positions) are easily decoded as well: ” Migrants (especially Muslims and Africans) have different norms which they have to throw away if they want to become ‘one of us’. There are too many migrants around anyway. And we will shoot from the hip at those who tell you something else.”

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© Helmut Tezak

With their persistent tweets and declarations they are all the time trying to infuse our mindset and to drive a wedge between “us” and “them”.

In the light of all this, I have taken an older photobook from the shelves that is investigating how “our” perceptions of “them” are built and how we live by our anticipations. It’s one of these rare pearls that would have been forgotten by the wheels of time, were it not saved from the yellow bag by one of my favourite antiquarian booksellers in town.

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© Helmut Tezak

DAKAR by Mr. Helmut Tezak (born in 1948) was published in 1983 with Camera Austria and has the ambition to shed a light “on the ordinary day-to-day life of the inhabitants of an African city.”  And, good to know, the African city, does not refer here solely to the Senegalese capital or to some remote spots on the African countryside. It also refers to the African quarters of Paris and Brussels. It refers to all the different realities that build the contemporary African city!

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© Helmut Tezak

Mr Tezak has dedicated DAKAR to the Senegalese ethnologist and film director, Mrs Safi Faye who is still admired today for her poetic and realistic reports from Africa in the 70’ies and 80’ies. This dedication sets the tone. We don’t have to look for evidence of an aestheticizing or idiosyncratic style. The work is old-school humanist (street)photography.

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© Helmut Tezak

Following the photographer’s footsteps we can have a rest from the heath in a dusty village, we can have a funny chat with a class of children under a tree or we can connect to the energy in metropolitan Belleville (Paris). But we can also take a breath and a pensive look at the Atlantic Ocean. The images are gritty and the realities they depict are tough.

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© Helmut Tezak

But, through the eyes of Mr. Tezak life is never miserable. It is as if the photographer is trying to show that comfort can be provided as well by the warm and natural contact people maintain with each other.  It’s very much about maintaining the humanist standards and not accepting the spiteful, negative and divisive ones of populists or hidden populists! Mr. Tezak’s final words to the book, where he is looking back on the intense two years period that he needed to produce it, are a reminder: “Ladies and Gentlemen, it’s fucking great to be alive!

Mr. Tezak’s photographs are unmistakably also meant to illustrate well-defined and highly theoretical reflections. He describes his book as a “photo-essay about masks, roles, behaviour and anticipation“. There is an “explanatory afterword” where he is presenting the reader with a number of concepts from domains like semiotics, sociology and culture studies. Roland Barthes’ famous texts on contemporary mythologies are mentioned (among other authors), implying that the book is meant to reflect on the myths that we – white Westerners- are imposing through the channels of publicity, television and press on the inhabitants of the African city.

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© Helmut Tezak

And on page 26, in the middle of the sequence of images, we find the following quote by Paul Parin: “The attribution of roles to others is one of the most important, perhaps the most important, instrument by which relationships in society are operating; by which relationships are maintained or changed; by which people are manipulated.”

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© Helmut Tezak

Throughout the book we also find a story line with enigmatic interactions between parents and their children. It takes the scope on a higher level. DAKAR is also a reflection about interactions between the strong and the weak. It’s about learning to listen to the messages of the weak as well.

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© Helmut Tezak

And then there is this spread with Accatone and Antigone. Is Mr Tezak suggesting that one has to be born with the genes of these two gorgeous European rebels in order to really resist the agendas of the strong and powerful? In order to engage in a genuine and regular interaction with the weak ones (including the new migrants who came to live around the corner)?

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© Helmut Tezak

The other day, I found a curious quote tagged on a P.O. Box in my street “the ruling norms are too narrow to imagine our realities“.  And when I am looking now at the photographs Tezak has made in Brussels, I remember again, why I adore this place which the US President elegantly described as a hell hole. There are so many different realities. It’s still so unpolished. The ruling norms are questioned all the time. The city is a constant invitation to defy the political agenda! I am not Accatone but I am happy to have read this book. And, it’s f*cking great to be alive!

Thank you very much for your photo-essay, Mr. Tezak!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

reporting on the art of the photobook