Once again I took a dive into the internet archives of artwork and photography from Albania, in order to bring you relatively unknown work. For this article, I want to focus on women, because I realized that my last one presented you with mostly male artists. Having said that, the options are fairly limited. It seems difficult to be an English-speaking user of Google searching for Albanian work. I came across a lot of amateur photography, but in terms of more established artists, there was internet silence. Maybe this indicates that there is not much of it, or more likely I am ignorant as to the best way to find it.
What I did come across, however, is endlessly fascinating. So this article will integrate two very different concepts and styles of photography, governed by three broad themes: gender, photography, and Albania. It could also be argued that there is fourth theme creeping in around the edges, which is identity.
The first incredible project is by a portrait photographer named Jill Peters, whose complex and difficult work explores questions of gender identity and social acceptance. I recommend viewing her project called “third gender”, which documents the Indian hijra.
Peters herself is American, but she travelled to Albania to photograph a puzzling gender-bending tradition wherein women in the north decide to become sworn virgins, and to take on the social role of a man. This essentially involves a gender transition. The woman dresses like a man, wears her hair short, in some cases even changes her name, and is allowed to partake in the social positions occupied only by men in Albania. As I understand it, this is a dying tradition, so Peters’ work is particularly relevant as an historical document. A short video (must-see!) on the website describes the different reasons why women choose to take on this role. It mostly has to do with the fact that in traditional Albanian society, they are not considered social equals to men, and are basically in the power of their fathers, brothers, and later husbands. The sworn virgins sacrifice their sexuality and gender identity in order to work independently, to provide for their families, or, as the video states, to be free.
Obviously, this project opens many questions and problems about the nature of this transition, but it does not necessarily seek to answer them. The portraits are straightforward, often posing their subjects with landscapes of Albania in the background. It shows them in their everyday clothing, in the process of doing work, or in their homes. What the project exposes in its best photographs are the subtle non-binary physical attributes that blur the lines of gender and present the viewers with something entirely new. It is a deeply complex situation to choose, or be pressured into, and so the photographs achieve something significant which is to probe and disrupt the visual and intellectual vocabulary of their viewers.
The second woman I discovered is named Eni Turkeshi, who is a contemporary photographer and artist from Albania’s capital, Tirana. Her work has been featured in many publications and group exhibitions, all of which can be found on her Flickr account. She works in all mediums of photography but specializes in alternative processes; cyanotypes, albumen printing, and other analogue techniques. Because of her interest in these processes, her photographs often take on the blurry, romantic, and layered qualities of darkroom mistakes. But for Turkeshi, this has become an entire aesthetic. In their less developed forms, the photographs appear to be amateur, but at their best, they are intricate portrayals of emotion and self-awareness and display a talent. Part of why I was so excited about her work is because I found her on many different online websites, none of which are particularly edited or curated, so I was able to take part in her process. This is, for the most part, experimental. I could see her attempts, which were more and less successful. She has seemingly endless amounts of projects posted on her Behance account, most of which are titled from songs or poetry. She makes many self-portraits, and photographs other women as well. This combined with the romantic and soft aesthetic led me to understand that her work has a distinctly feminine undercurrent, where she explores her own identity. Find a selection of her photographs below: