Interview with Niko Xhufka

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The leader: a massive portrait of Enver Hoxha decorates the main entrance to the Palace of Culture in Scanderberg Square, Tirana, early 1970s. Original photograph taken by Niko Xhufka then retouched by communist officials.

 

Introduction

In May 2012 I reviewed a book, Rhythms of Albanian Life by Niko Xhufka in which I shared some of my impressions of his work. I’m delighted to say that Niko saw my review and got in touch with me to provide some additional information about his photographic practice and the context within which it was created. As I mentioned in my earlier review, information about Albanian photography during the communist era is difficult to find in English, so my piece was based mainly around my own impressions of his work.  To have the opportunity to learn more about his photographic work and career was a real privilege and I hope that this interview will contribute to a greater understanding and appreciation of Albanian photography.

Once again, I would like to thank Niko Xhufka for sharing his experiences and for providing these insights into his work as a photographer as well as the examples of his work seen here. And I would like to express my gratitude to Genti Gjikola for all his skill and hard work in preparing the English translation.

I think anybody interested in photography and how it operates in the context of a repressive regime is going to find this interview an absolutely fascinating read.

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You worked for ‘Zeri i Popullit’, the main Albanian newspaper during the communist era, for 30 years. Can you tell us a bit about what it was like to work in that environment as a photographer. 

I was a 16-year-old teenager when I started work as a reporter for the Albanian Foreign Affairs Ministry in the mid-1960s, working for the monthly journal ‘Shqiperia e Re’ [New Albania]. This was my start, I worked for about a month there, and then I moved to the ‘Zeri Rinise’ [Voice of the Youth] newspaper where I worked for nearly two years. It was here that I was ‘discovered’ as a talented photo-reporter, moving as a result in 1966 to the ‘Zeri i Popullit’ [Voice of the People] the biggest and most important paper of the Communist regime. My superiors appreciated my talent, but also my composure. I was quiet, reserved, got on with the job, didn’t speak much, carried out assignments without much fuss and objection, always at the low end of payment. I think for this job they had found the suitable person.

When I went there, I joined a staff of just one other person in the photo-reporters’ office. He was about 45 years old. Being on his own for a long time, he was used to doing as he pleased, and he made it clear from the beginning he didn’t like my company. I believe my joining the staff made him uneasy. I guess he feared the fact that so soon after joining, my photos were being published a lot more than his. This worsened our professional relationship, not that it was any good before, but still we hit a new low to the point where he threw acid on my films in the lab. I reported the incident to the chief editor, who then called in some forensic specialists who backed me up on my claims: yes, there was acid thrown on my films and it looked deliberate. As it was only the two of us using the lab, the culprit was not hard to find. The punishment would have been a lot more severe were he a lesser-connected man but they shifted him upstairs where he faded away to a second-hand role.

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Niko Xhufka, 1970s

Working conditions at ‘Zeri i Popullit’ were appalling at that time. There was a tiny photo lab with no suitable equipment. The cameras when they were not falling apart at the push of a button were forever faulty as they were second-hand bargains bought in Eastern European countries at a very cheap price. I worked with Praktica, Leica and Praktisix 6×6 cameras made in East Germany, or with Russian-made Zorki and FED 1. These were all my treasures as a photo-reporter. My travelling up and down the country was made atop of a Czech-made JAWA motorbike owned by the newspaper. On rare or urgent occasions or very important assignments I was given permission to use the newspaper’s car. There were times when I have used helicopters to take pictures and on some rare and frightful occasions I have even taken pictures on an Antonov – An2: an agricultural biplane used in forestry and agriculture.

The consignment of the photographs taken for the newspaper followed a strict sign-on procedure. The same procedure applied for use of film. The allowed amount of shots per subject was miserly, up to three shots per photo, and if I had used more shots than the norm they would deduct money from my wages at the end of the month. If anything, it shows how poor the country was at the time. In the beginning, I was being punished a lot for this but later on I learned the ropes and the tricks and got by. I think this made me feel differently about the photography process, as a sniper would when hitting a target, a single shot, maybe a second, and that’s that.

The developing and printing process also got me into trouble in the beginning. You had to be careful with the paper and the solutions. I developed on tiny formats, 5 x 5 cm, where I would see the main parts of the photo, contrast, light and depth. Only when I was pleased would I develop it to a bigger format for use in the newspaper. There was a weekly check and audit of the materials used in the lab, the tiny 5×5 proofs would be gathered and put together in a box with a label on it.

I worked at ‘Zeri i Popullit’ for a long time and had about ten different editors-in-chief. From all of them only Todi Lubonja, a member of the Central Committee of the Albanian communist party, supported my ‘artistic line’ in photography. All the others were rather cold or disinterested about art and photography. Todi Lubonja was arrested and given a long prison sentence in 1974 by the communist regime for ‘activities on behalf of the enemy’.

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Destruction: diptych made on the spiral staircase of the Palace of Culture, Tirana, 1997. The collapse of Ponzi pyramid schemes led to widespread destruction and looting by angry mobs and people with nothing to lose.

 

Photography in Albania during the communist period seems to have been a rare activity because of the difficulty in getting camera equipment as well as the suspicious attitude of the authorities towards taking pictures. So you must have been only one of a small number of photographers working at this time. Can you tell us the difficulties you faced as a photographer in Albania during the communist era, particularly in terms of the subjects you could photograph?

A photo-reporter in the communist era was under constant surveillance, heavily censored. Few people had photographic cameras, and the majority of them were old models in a sorry state. The state had a monopoly on the buying and selling of photographic cameras and equipment. Private property and private merchandising was forbidden. To take pictures of people in administrative and state positions, of foreigners, or of state events and proceedings, you first had to have permission from state authorities, otherwise you could end up in a police station. The person photographed had to have a clean biography, had to be checked and verified. Outside the members of the politburo, I did not have any difficulties in taking photos. Owing to thorough preliminary work by the newspaper’s editorial desk, everything was quite clear to me from the beginning: the theme, the subject, and the ‘category’ of the people I was going to photograph (i.e. the working class or miners). Usually I would choose the person to photograph within the ‘prescribed’ category, based on their portraits, bodies and facial features.

When you went to photograph somewhere, always the first thing to do was to stop by the Party’s offices in that particular place. These were offices within working facilities that knew everything, ran everything; they would then give you ‘orientations’ about everything. If the subject to photograph was a person, they would make sure to put forward a bunch of ‘Stakhanovite’ or ‘model workers’, those who had exceeded their work quota output, and that had a good ‘biography’. Otherwise just to turn up and photograph ‘as you wanted’, people whose features you felt drawn to, or work in ‘artistic angles’, or simply to work out of sync with the orders of the editor’s desk would land you in dire straits. To take pictures of prisoners or ex-prisoners, kulaks, or of ‘enemies of the working class’ could put you in a lot of trouble, quite possibly in prison.

I remember a case I would like to draw attention to. Years ago my little daughter was taking music lessons from a female music professor. The police called me to the Ministry of Interior headquarters and told me in a very clear manner not to let my daughter go to that person any longer, not to take any more pictures of them, and not to enter their house at all, as they had a bad reputation and bad ‘biographies’. The army of spies in the neighborhood had spied on me. The war of the classes’ had to be observed at all times. On this occasion, they also tried to recruit me to become a spy. But I told them clearly I was only a photo-reporter, that the camera was my only weapon and left. In hindsight, I believe they were not serious about recruiting me and the whole story was only a provocation to test my reaction.

But some of the portraits in ‘Rhythms’ are people not vetoed beforehand. Of course, the majority are the heroes of that time, people who worked full of vigor on different fronts of socialism, and factually most were ‘model workers’. But the majority of the old people in the book, who lived in high and remote mountainous areas, especially found towards the end of the book were uncensored people. I once remember walking on foot 70 km from Shkodra high up in the alps in the Vermosh region, in difficult terrain and dangerous weather, just to capture the faces of some very old Albanian highlanders. There was no Party office to turn to up there, and the houses were few and far between, scattered at a great distance from each other. Here I could do as I wanted. However, highlanders were not particularly much sought after, workers and work heroes, yes. For the paper, the highlanders were not that important. Children too didn’t get much censoring, but it was considered an advantage if they were children of communist fathers and work heroes.

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A beggar, Tirana, early 1990’s, right after the fall of Albania’s Marxist regime.

 

As a photographer, it must have been very difficult to operate under these limitations. Do you feel as if they restricted your creativity in any way?

It is inherent in the nature of dictatorships to censure every person and every undertaking, job, activity. Every artist back then, myself included as a photo-reporter, could only develop under the ideological straightjacket and clearly defined political boundaries the communist state had laid. My artistic photographs have been taken through ‘maneuverings’. There are some photographs people called cubist back then, those counter-lit (back-lit) photographs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Those made it through only by the backing and support of Albania’s League of Writers and Artists. The League had the authority to sign off on them. There was no chance to develop your creative language by taking pictures the way you liked, to experiment, or take pictures of whatever subject stirred your interest.

My duty was to make beautiful photos and compose them artistically. It is a bit difficult for me to explain what was meant by ‘beautiful’ at that time, but an ever-present element of beauty was: happiness, laughter, gaiety, joy. The human being had to be photographed always happy and involved. Thinking types were not liked and never made the final cut. You could only portray the Politburo members as concentrated in deep thought but not always. The rest of us had to be concerned with work, the future, the contribution, and action. Reflection in art was not allowed for there was censure everywhere.

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The old man of the Albanian alps, late 1960s

 

Can you tell us a little about your creative process?

I believe that before he takes a shot a photo-reporter has that shot it in his mind, in his brain; there is a certain angle, a certain expression you want to stress. The counter-light attraction was just natural for me; nobody lectured me on that, no one showed me books or journals. I searched out the counter-light photos, I hunted for them, because I felt them, but they needed also graphic composition. These considerations were needed to capture the movement, the speed, and the dynamic, not the status-quo of the subject. I can say I worked on instinct.

Portraiture and landscape attract me deeply.

The portrait expresses the beauty, the drama and the inner workings of a human being, which the surface does not show. I believe drama in photography comes from the state the human being finds himself in. The plastic side of a face for me is quite an important element. As a photographer, I preyed on my subjects and I believe I have stolen their portraits. The portrait shows me the inner man and I am attracted by the human condition and existence, the human soul; the portrait only speaks. When I went to photograph back then, the first thing after getting permission was to look for faces, peoples’ faces that did the work I was trying to capture. That was the first thing I had in mind.

Then there is the landscape. Landscape gets you down on your knees. Of course, you must find the essence, its core. The surface is usually dry; you must dig in, beyond the surface, where the real world begins. What you capture when you get under the skin of things and people is important but also there must be feeling. Without feeling there is no photo. I am like an actor who gets inside his role and lives in it. Only then I strike my photos away.

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Counter-lit. People and structures, triptych, early 1970s

 

Most political leaders are very conscious about their image and how they are photographed. What was it like to photograph Albania’s leader, Enver Hoxha?

It is only natural that public personalities divide opinion. Some of them look good and some not so good when they are photographed. I have to be honest and say that it was a great honour at that time to be able to photograph Enver Hoxha since, as you know, sometimes even cabinet ministers could not get close to him. I was appointed as a photographer that was to take Hoxha’s official portrait. This was beside my photographs for the paper. Hoxha’s portrait was easy to capture, dead easy. He was a born actor, a real master that slipped in and out of a role seamlessly. But it was hard too, the hardest portrait to take because if something in his portrait wasn’t right then you had problems, you were an enemy of the state, someone who wilfully is trying to distort the great leader’s image. Enver always had to be photographed smiling, strong, beautiful, a leader full of character and psychology, born proud and naturally wearing it. The publication of his photos was a job of the Press Sector, a structure within the Central Committee of the Albanian communist party. They received all material about him, written or photographed and held it under a microscope, so to speak. Every dot of Hoxha’s portrait was examined by them, every turn of the head, every light-shadow aspect. I don’t know who finally decided on the publication of the photo but I believe either Hoxha himself or his wife, Nexhmije Hoxha, did.

I don’t know of Hoxha, after he took the reins of the country, to have sat for photographs of him (apart from those in group photos). There are many photographs of his but in my opinion he did not ‘sit’ for those consciously. In his villa, you could not enter and the nearest I have gone has been the fence of his front garden. As I said already, it was nearly impossible to enter his house. All the photos inside Hoxha’s house have been taken by Sulo Gradeci, his personal bodyguard of thirty years, a rather cold and formal man.

There are few standout episodes I can recall. The Albanian political bureau was attending a music concert. My aim was to take a picture of Enver Hoxha so I got as close to him as possible, wiggling my way through. At that moment, an infuriated member of the political bureau shouted: ‘What is this person doing here with his small camera? Go, get away from here!’ Immediately the guards grabbed hold of me and dragged me away squeezing my arms, tearing my jacket. Enver Hoxha saw the scene and intervened shouting angrily to the guards: ‘What is the boy doing? Leave him alone let him work! If only others could work like him!’

There was a party congress in the city of Vlora, down south. Enver Hoxha was there. I took an instant picture of him without thinking twice for composure or lighting. He was talking to an old man, about ninety years old. But Hoxha noticed me and told the old man to turn around and face the camera, since there is a photographer taking pictures. ‘It will be a nice photo’ he said ‘and he will give it to us in the end.’ But the microphone was on and everyone in the room heard it. At that very moment, everyone assembled stood up and started applauding enthusiastically. It was surreal. The photo was published the next morning across the front pages of every paper.

Another time, it was election day in Tirana. The newspaper’s chief editor had told me not to turn up for work anymore due to the complaints of an arrogant communist chief in a position of importance. That day all the photo-reporters of the printed press and media went to the District’s Party’s Committee to get permission to photograph the Albanian politburo on election day. When he did not see me turn up to get the said permission the General Secretary of Tirana’s party committee ordered that I must report immediately for work. He then got on the phone to my paper saying I could not be laid off, and that was that, no explanations given. I went straight to the polling station where Enver Hoxha was due to vote. There were only three reporters present when Enver Hoxha came, myself, the guy from RTSH [Albania’s state television] and another guy from the ‘New Albania’ Kinostudio [Albania’s national film studio]. Next day it was my photo that was published across the front pages of the papers. The photo was very well received and got a lot of positive coverage in political and artistic circles. Then on the day of the publication suddenly Sulo Gradeci turns up. He told me that he was coming on the orders of Hoxha personally and wanted fifty copies of that photograph. Hoxha wanted to give it as a memento to the veterans of the Second World War. A week later Ramiz Alia, who was to follow Enver Hoxha as head of the country when Hoxha died in 1985, gathered all the press heads in a meeting to analyze the polling day dynamics and reports. Alia said that Niko Xhufka on the merit of that photograph alone shouldn’t be working for the next five years and still be duly paid by the paper, for the photo was excellent.

Another episode was when Enver Hoxha was returning home from the polling station on a different election day. I took the liberty to enter without permission the ‘Bllok’, [the famed and soldier-protected estate where the members of the Politburo lived in close proximity to each other] and got near to Hoxha, who at that time was playing with his little nephews and nieces in front of his house. Hoxha saw me and told me to get closer. I approached the scene uneasily, but he told me he wanted a picture of us together. He put his hand around my shoulder and Sulo Gradeci took a picture. For me this was a big thing.

xhufka8 Portrait of an Albanian woman, late 1960s

 

Your book, ‘Rhythms of Albanian Life’, was one of the few photographic monographs to emerge from Albania during this era. It provides a rare insight into a country that was hidden from the rest of the world. I just wonder if you could tell us a little bit about how this book came about and the process that went into making it.

As a member of the Albanian League of Writers and Artists, I could take two months a year for what was called back then ‘creative leave’. This creativity leave was given to everyone who was already a member of the League. There were various lengths of it but two months was considered to be quite generous. During the creative leave, I would travel up and down the country according to the project I had proposed. During this time, the League would pay my salary: about 1000 Albanian lek from the usual 700 I made a month at the paper. When I went ‘creative’, the correspondents of the Albanian Telegraph Agency would cover my work at the paper. The leave had its own rules, although it was not a nine-to-five job. We had to produce every receipt of every meal eaten, every hotel we slept in, every vehicle we boarded. The League was quite strict about such things.

The ‘Rhythms’ book was a project born out of collected photographs from several creative leaves. The decision to publish this book was entirely mine; there was no political pressure to produce it. If there was any pressure it was from the fact I had to justify my receipts of several leaves. However, before it got published I got the rubber stamp of the League to go ahead with publication. They would back me up if there were any problems, political or financial with the book after it got published. Their support was quite important, I would say vital.

In my opinion, ‘Rhythms’ has stood the test of time and has received just praise. To think, this album was published in 1976, at a time of great difficulty for Albanian art, especially after the 4th plenum of the Albanian communist party in 1973, a watershed moment in Albanian history, especially in the history of the arts. The album covers all the main themes of the time: portraits, children, miners, work, mothers, peasants, soldiers, youth and old age, but also compositions. The album has photographs that were difficult to publish at that time. I especially have in mind those cubist and counter-lit ones. But I managed to surround them, to ‘bury’ them, under those depicting the stable photographs of the march of socialism in Albania.

Many visual artists in Albania have used my photos for their works, to the point of receiving important national prizes. The finest painters and sculptors of that time wanted my company, because they understood my talent and wanted me to take the pictures of their works. Odhise Paskali, possibly the greatest Albanian sculptor of the 20th century, relied only on my effort to document his work and himself working. He would always pay me at the end of a session, almost to the point of forcing me to accept the money. He was the only one to do this, then almost an unheard thing in my profession. I have also photographed more than any other figures, Ismail Kadare, possibly the greatest Albanian writer of any time; Dritero Agolli, a very important writer and mentor for me, and Xhezair Spahiu, a great Albanian poet.

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Posters for Niko Xhufka’s photography exhibition, Berlin, 1993

 

During the 1990s and 2000s you had a number of exhibitions in Italy, Germany and France that were very well received. I wonder if you could tell me what it was like to show your work in that context?

After the fall of the totalitarianism in Albania, through a lot of financial hardships, I have managed to open some exhibitions, I would say successful ones, in Albania, Italy, France, Germany and Belgium. In Albania, I have displayed my work in exhibitions held at some of the most important artistic venues of the country such as the Historical Museum of Albania, Tirana’s Palace of Culture and the hall of Albania’s League of Writers and Artists. I have been awarded four first prizes and many second ones. In the Mediterranean Exhibition of Photography held in Italy in 2004, I was awarded second prize. I was awarded a prize in Cuba and the ‘Naim Frasheri’ Medal of Arts in Albania. In Rome, in 1993, I managed to display my work at three exhibitions simultaneously, all within the space of a month.

During a visit to one of my exhibitions an important director of RAI (Radio Televisione Italiana) stood in awe at one of my photographs, the one entitled ‘The Blue Eye’ (a famed 45 meter deep water spring in the south of Albania). He told me he could not believe that this was a photograph; he insisted it was a painting, and I had to open my negatives and show him that it was a picture I had actually taken. He told me that my work was one of the most striking he had seen in a long time and that, for me, was one of the nicest things someone has said about my work. Costanzo da Agostino, the great Italian publisher, who really liked my photos and chose ten photographs for publication in a special edition, visited the same exhibition. These photographs were accompanied by some delightful poetry, written by the former Albanian cultural attaché in Rome, the writer Visar Zhiti. For the other exhibitions in France, Belgium and Germany, there has been a lot of interest from the local and national media of these countries.

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Albanian landscape, early 1990s

 

As an artist in two different eras, can you tell us a bit more about the differences in the creative process then and now?

I have ambivalent feelings for that era. Not for the conditions we worked in, but for the art system the government of this country at that time managed to build. The conditions were hard and very unhelpful. I could only get second-hand equipment from the East. I didn’t have my lab, and I would always process photos by hand, never having enough solution for their development. And then there was the censorship. But on the other hand, it was a system built on a hierarchy of values within which personal talent and vocation, most of the times were influential factors, almost decisive ones. If you were an artist back then you had a different identity, you were important. Unfortunately this thing does not happen today in Albania. It continues as a pale shadow of that system without managing to create its own identity when compared with the past.

In my opinion, Enver Hoxha loved and respected art, of course using it to his own ends most of the time. But nevertheless you must love art and understand its power before you get to the point of using it for your own ends. I think he did things for the art of that time. The artists were given personal art studios, received titles and were handsomely rewarded. People received creative leaves, and most of the time there were real debates about the arts and their role in society. Whereas today nothing of this sort happens and no one cares about the arts or artistic creativity. If you are an artist today in Albania it’s embarrassing, it’s sad and I think you become a problem for your own family.

 

You also published ‘The Arberesh of Italy’ in 1996, which documents the Albanian community in that country. Can you tell us something about that work?

In Cozenca, Italy, the president of the Albanian Arberesh League asked me to work for three months on the development and the setting up of the museum of Arberesh. During this time, my task was to complete the album on the Arberesh of Calabria and Sicily. The book was published after the opening of the museum and had a very good reception both in the Calabrian, Sicilian and Albanian press.

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The ‘Blue Eye’, the 45 metre deep water spring in southern Albania, 1993

 

You say you’re still busy taking photographs now. Can I ask what you are working on these days?

Right now, I am working on an album about the castles of Albania, especially on those founded, defended or taken [from the Ottoman Turks] by Scanderbeg, our national hero. I am also working on an album of black and white photographs from the 1960s to the 1980s. As I am trying to include the majority of the photos that went unpublished during that time, this is a slower and more time-consuming process. It also feels a little strange to re-introduce those pictures from an era long gone. I guess this is a more historical process than the castle project, despite the fact that the castles date from medieval times.

Niko Xhufka, thank you very much for sharing your experiences and work with us.

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All images copyright Niko Xhufka and used with his permission.

Jugoslavija

Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists, was an entity born initially from the collapse of the old Central and Eastern European empires after World War 1. A loose confederation of a number of different ethnic and religious groups united under a monarchy during the inter-war period, Yugoslavia was invaded by the Germans, Italians and Hungarians in 1941. A violent war of resistance against the Axis invaders ensued with the communist Partisans under Tito, allied with the royalist (mainly Serb) Chetniks under Mihajlovic, in opposition to them (the Chetniks later became more worried about the communist threat and switched sides). The Axis powers dismembered Yugoslavia using the tried and tested technique of divide-and-rule while Croatia became an independent fascist state ruled by the notorious Ustase. As can be imagined this created yet another layer of deep bitterness to a region which has long been riven by ethnic tensions. Tito’s Partisans emerged victorious at the end of the war and he set about establishing a socialist government in Yugoslavia which, if it was to stay in power, entailed sweeping all the various national and ethnic divisions under the carpet.

Simply titled Jugoslavija, this book is a small undated red hard-covered publication with photographs credited to Foto Borba and Foto Putnik from Belgrade. Although no date is present, a previous owner has written 1947 in an inscription and the book has the feel and look of a publication produced around that time. The French language captions accompanying the photographs is the only text present (apart from a cyrillic proclamation.)  Design wise, this book is quite average with a straightforward layout consisting of a single photo per page. The only aspect that makes it stand out from the crowd is the metal Yugoslav state seal stuck on the front cover (it does make a nasty dent on the other books when you put it in the shelf though).

The narrative structure of the book is divided into three sections; the war, reconstruction and the paradise on earth that has been created (or, as the book puts it, ‘the land of sun and health’). A single unifying theme runs through the book; everything is designed to lend credibility to the official myth that everybody in Yugoslavia was united against the Germans and supported the Partisans. Alternative points of view or the fact that there were a number of different groups who strongly opposed Tito’s Partisans have no place in this official, and heavily simplified, version of history.

Myth making is integral to the creation and sustainability of nation-states. In effect history is written in such a way as to create a consensus that legitimates the core political ideology of the state in question. This in turn creates the perception that the current status quo is merely an inevitable, natural progression from these so-called historical facts. Mythical history, or the official version of it, creates the rules within which the political game is played within every country. Nation building (the formation and creation of a stable national identity in which certain values are regarded as being a natural and inevitable part of everyday life) lies at the heart of every artificial political entity we know as a ‘state’ or country and, without it, the long term viability of a state/country is impossible. Most of the people living in a country actually have to believe in (or at least go along with) the ideals and values that are part and parcel of the historical myth that in turn makes them different from all the other countries and peoples in the world. Yugoslavia failed to create this stable, unified national consensus. Instead, the various wounds and grievances were allowed fester beneath a facade of outward compliance to the state which erupted into violence once the control of the Yugoslav state collapsed in the early 1990s.

The first section depicting the war years is relatively straightforward; the barbarity of German soldiers burning villages and executing people are contrasted with the discipline and order of the partisans. A number of images show the partisans marching in step and holding political meetings which are designed to show that Tito’s group is the only genuine representatives of the Yugoslav people. The tempo increases in the final series of images within this section; Partisan forces massing for an attack, artillery blasting away, the smoking remains of a battle and finally the victorious Partisan tanks entering a town, all followed by images of celebratory crowds greeting their liberators are designed to construct a historical narrative. All these images are designed to reinforce the message that the Partisans alone defeated the Germans and therefore they are the only legitimate government.

Following on from the victory the book now shows us the reconstruction effort. Bridge building is an easy metaphor for people to grasp and it appears at the beginning of this section, followed by the inevitable images of people carting wheelbarrows, building houses, harvesting crops and happily working to repair the damage done by the war. Again, the message of these photos is crystal clear; the entire country has been united under Tito’s guidance and is working collectively to produce a new and better society for the future. The images of the toiling workers reinforce the idea that collective self-sacrifice in the name of a greater good will assuredly produce a brighter utopian future for a happy and content Yugoslavia.

The last section, ‘the land of sun and health’, is a succession of picturesque images of snow-capped mountains and lakes, old and modern townscapes as well as lots of women in traditional costumes.  Most of the various entities that made up the former Yugoslavia are represented in these images, which serves to create an illusion of national unity,while allowing a safe display of national and ethnic difference.  The celebration of different ethnic identities through traditional costumes and customs are permissible as long as they remain safely consigned to a backward past and do not threaten the Yugoslav ideal. Many of the captions accompanying the landscape images also refer to some battle or event that is a part of the new Yugoslav myth, making the new government appear as the inevitable outcome of what has gone before as well as linking it to the very land itself.

The photographs in this book are in themselves relatively mundane and the design is fairly pedestrian, but that’s not the point. The real purpose of the book is to convince the reader that what they are seeing is the truth (after all, the camera never lies) and photobooks like this are very effective at doing just that.

Der Staat Ohne Arbeitslose (The Land Without Unemployment) – Ernst Glaeser, F.C. Weiskopf, Alfred Kurella

Photography was an important tool in the consolidation of the Soviet state in the two decades following its establishment. Not only was it a vital tool for the dissemination of propaganda amongst a population that had low literacy levels, it also had the added cachet of being modern, which was something the Soviets keenly promoted to emphasise the contrast between their new egalitarian regime and the backward feudalism of the Tsar. Modernity was synonymous with progress and it was hailed as being the solution for all ills. The equation was simple; everything modern was good (factories, steel production, cars, industrial farming, power plants, aircraft, photography, movies) while everything old was bad (kulaks, exploitation, small farms, illiteracy, peasants, landlords, private property, imperial titles). The new modern USSR was also supposed to usher in the creation of a new ‘Soviet man’ who was destined to inhabit this centrally planned utopia of the future.

This book ostensibly purports to show the great strides made by the Soviet Union during the first three years of the Five-Year plan (1928-1933) during which the collectivisation of agriculture and a drive for industrialisation was supposed to make the country a world power and prove that communism was a viable economic system. The central idea behind this was to make farming more efficient and produce a surplus of food which could then be used to subsidise industrial development, regarded as a true measure of progress and power by Stalin. Having lots of food available meant that wages could be kept low and a lot of people could be freed up to work in factories rather than tilling the land. Industrial development, particularly heavy industry and steel, was seen as the only way for the Soviet Union to become a modern world power as well as build a true communist society. That was the theory; in practice it proved to be a catastrophe.

However we have to look at this book in the context of the time. Communism appeared to offer a serious alternative to capitalism during the 1930s, a time when European and American society was undergoing a deep systemic crisis thanks to the financial meltdown of the Great Depression. Mass unemployment, particularly amongst working class populations, in these countries reached dangerously high levels with the consequent increase in poverty and the ever present threat of social breakdown. Into this mix the Soviets step in with their propaganda which appears to show a working alternative to capitalism in which everybody has a fulfilling job and a decent standard of living because this society is supposedly fair and equal as there is now no exploitation by greedy bosses anymore. Obviously this only works if the flow of information about conditions in the USSR is tightly controlled to stop anything emerging that might tarnish the rose-tinted view being presented abroad. But for many impoverished and desperate unemployed people in Europe and America Soviet propaganda presented a very seductive vision of an alternative system that appeared to offer a real solution to the plight of poverty and destitution that faced so many during that dark decade.

Even the title of this book, The Land Without Unemployment, is ideologically loaded; here the Soviet Union is presented as a land of happiness where harmony reigns and conflict has been abolished. However, as we now know, this was far from the truth. Fear, terror, violence and brutality on a scale that is hard to imagine today was all pervasive.This book dates from the early years of Stalinism when Soviet society had yet to feel the full force of his reign of terror. Everyday life became a nightmare; as the state owned everything it meant that everybody was a public employee so if you were late for work then you could be charged with treason (attempting to wreck the economy and undermine the revolution) and sent to a concentration camp or even shot by the secret police. Denunciations and the threat of violence were everywhere. Soviet society during the 1930s was a nightmare.

Although it has been translated into a number of different languages (French, English and Norwegian are three others I know of – there are probably more) the book appears to have been produced primarily for a German audience; it appears to be an attempt to convince German workers that a better future could be theirs under communism. This has a particular resonance thanks to the life and death struggle between the Nazis and the communists for power in Weimar Germany which was to have profound results. It’s interesting to see what happened to the three authors who contributed to the book when the Nazis took power; Kurella and Weiskopf remained true believers and fled Germany (Kurella became a middling government official in East Germany while Weiskopf ended up as a Czech ambassador and head of the East German writers association after the war). Glaeser’s story appears to be a bit more complicated. He too left Germany after the Nazi takeover and fled to Czechoslovakia but he seems to have engineered a compromise with the new regime and he returned to Germany in 1939 and began to write pro-Nazi propaganda material for German military newspapers and publications during the war. Principles can be very inconvenient at times.

All the great names of Soviet photography in the 30s make an appearance in the book which  consists of a procession of (uncredited) images divided up into chapters depicting the successes made in developing the Soviet Union; oil, coal, industry, agriculture, education, the military, literacy and the modernisation of Central Asia. The sequencing is, to my mind, rather haphazard with images being stuffed into pages with little thought as to how they work together. It’s rather hit and miss; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But overall, the sheer number of smiling proletarian workers, collective farms and factories on these pages convey very effectively the message that the USSR is a happy place to live. However, in terms of 1930s Soviet propaganda design the book is quite restrained; apart from the cover (which may have been the work of John Heartfield) there are no attempts at montage and the images are, for the most part straightforward and unambiguous. (It should be pointed out that this book was printed by a German publisher rather than an official Soviet state agency so that may have influenced the design.) A few constructivist images do make it into the book but these are swamped by the sheer volume of the straight pictures which diminishes their visual power and effect. In many ways the layout and design of this book is quite similar to L’Italia Fascista in Cammino, another 1930s photobook which was meant to whitewash the excesses of another coercive system and delude gullible foreigners.

Women are heavily represented in the images, in depictions of factories, fields and everyday life. Although relatively unremarkable by today’s standards, female participation in areas traditionally regarded as male-dominated occupations was trumpeted by the regime as evidence of true equality in contrast to the grudging granting of votes to women by most of Europe and the US in the early part of the 20th century. The Soviets were also keen to rebut some of the anti-communist propaganda being bandied about which said that sexual relations had also been collectivised, assisted by the fact that on-demand abortion was legal until 1936 in Russia, something that was not going to go down well in conservative societies abroad where traditional family values were held dear. Feminine beauty is also emphasised in a number of the images as another charge made against the Soviet regime was that it produced ugly, brutalised women by forcing them to work in heavy labour (an image of a swimmer is even captioned: “Communism is not a menace to Beauty”).

It appears that this publication is playing it very safe. Interestingly, Stalin himself doesn’t make an appearance in the book (Lenin also only makes a brief appearance through a handwritten note and a statue), which by the standards of the time, is astounding. All of this would indicate to me that the publishers wanted to produce something that would reach as wide an audience as possible and that there would be nothing in the book that could be used to criticise the central message of happiness-through-communism. Although the Stalin cult was all pervasive at home it appeared to be permissible to tone it down for a foreign audience and instead focus on the happy contented lives of ordinary people being led under his benovlent reign.

The overall narrative produced by these images is very simple; life is much better under communism than capitalism. This core message is hammered home to the viewer through the sheer brute force of an overwhelming number of images designed to prevent any alternative reading of this book. It is remarkably effective in doing this.

Rhythms of Albanian Life – Niko Xhufka

By the mid-1970s, Albania was a pretty bleak place; the poorest country in Europe, cut off from the rest of the world and governed by a strict form of ultra-Communism.  Enver Hoxha, the increasingly paranoid dictator who ruled Tirana for 40 years until his death in 1985, created a deeply repressive regime which attempted to control all aspects of everyday life as well as fostering an all-encompassing cult of personality around himself. Hoxha’s only foreign friend was Maoist China, who alongside Albania, viewed themselves as the only REAL communists left – the Soviets had gone all wishy-washy and soft towards the West as far as they were concerned. China and Albania, until Mao’s death, were united in a weird isolationist alliance in which two maniacal despots kept their people cut off from the rest of the world, bombarded them with ridiculous propaganda and consigned them to dire poverty for decades.

According to this fascinating English language history of Albanian photography by Qerim Vrioni (pages 5-24), the regime, in common with most other Communist regimes who fully appreciated the  power of the image in the moulding of minds and attitudes, developed photography as a propaganda tool soon after assuming power in 1945. This would appear to have followed the model adopted during the early stages of Stalin’s assumption of power, with photographers being encouraged to produce unambiguous work that concentrated on specified ideological themes that showed the better future under construction. Individual creativity appears not to have been encouraged. The isolation of Albania from the rest of Eastern Europe after Stalin’s death also affected the development of photography and it would appear that from the 1960s onwards, Albanian photographers turned inward and didn’t participate in international competitions.

However, as if to compensate for this self-imposed quarantine, rather than being subsumed into the collective propaganda effort, photographers now began to be credited for their individual work, which, according to Vrioni, served to invigorate photographic practice. However, the first national Albanian photographic exhibition only took place in 1974, indicating a degree of stagnation which is far beyond what occurred in the Soviet Union or East Germany during this period.

1976, the same year this book was published, saw the death of Mao, which deprived Hoxha of his sole supporter and ally. Just like Khrushchev when Stalin died, the Chinese soon began to dismantle Mao’s strict ideology and implement reforms, whilst paying lip-service to the dear departed leader. Fearful of the same happening to him, Hoxha pumped up the rhetoric and tightened the leash within Albania. Bellicose assertions of self-reliance accompanied by purges did little to paper over the cracks that were now appearing in a stagnant economy deprived of even limited foreign support. Increased repression and paranoia now reigned supreme.

Photography under this repressive regime was tightly controlled and not at all widespread.  This is all the more interesting as Albanian photography prior to the communist takeover after World War 2 appears to have been relatively well developed and sophisticated, certainly in the main urban centres, with a long history going back to the 1850s.  Indeed, apparently the regime was so aware of the power of photography, and it’s potential to disrupt the mythical re-creation of history, that they were careful to confiscate personal photographs from those they considered enemies which were deposited in a secret government archive. (see: Albania A Photographic Journey 1858-1945 by Chauvin and Raby) There seems to be some dispute about the exact legal status of amateur photography or if it was permissible to develop your own pictures from 1966 onwards when there was a crackdown on such bourgeois activities (it appears that your roll of  film might have to go to a state run lab for processing and the secret police examined your pictures for evidence of subversive thought), but it certainly appears that amateur practice was ‘discouraged’ to say the least. If you had a bad ‘biography’ or were under scrutiny from the secret police somehow, photography was a great way to draw attention to yourself; spies have cameras – you have a camera – therefore you must be a spy. With the progressive isolation of the country following the split with China the availability of cameras, film and darkroom equipment, which all had to be imported from abroad, grew more and more scarce making amateur photography a very unusual activity for the average unconnected citizen. Most personal photographs produced during this period appear to have come from official state employed photographers who were present at approved scenic sites, available to document weddings and make identity portraits for official documents. How you posed for a photograph was also a matter of ideological concern; facing the camera was safely proletarian. To do otherwise indicated dangerous bourgeois tendencies. (This material about amateur and family photography in Albania comes from this article by Gilles de Rapper and Anouck Durand.)

Turning now to this softcover book which was published in 1976, which is presented as a series of artistic images produced by the photographer Niko Xhufka. (By the way, as I’m using it a lot, the Albanian XH is pronounced like a J in English). Information about Xhufka is hard to come by (if anybody knows anything more please let me know) but he appears to have been a photojournalist primarily working for the official Party newspaper Zeri-i-Popullit.  As well as being a member of the official Writers and Artist’s Union, the brief biography on the dust jacket also states that he has won certain unspecified prizes and had at least 4 local and national exhibitions (any information out there about this greatly appreciated). From this information and the fact that this book was published by the official 8 Nentori state publishing house, it’s fair to assume that Xhufka was an establishment figure and not part of some avant-garde fringe group pushing the boundaries.

Even though these are presented as artistic images they clearly serve a political agenda and this is reinforced by the one page introduction which is a bombastic assertion of devotion to the glorious leader and the wonderful society he has created. The text and captions are in Albanian, English and French, indicating that it was designed for the (albeit limited) audience of bemused foreign tourists and the deluded members of Maoist/Stalinist fan-clubs who could be found in many a Western European and American university campus during the 60s and 70s.

This monograph is more of a ‘greatest hits’ collection rather then the rhythm it claims to be. It consists of singular images roughly divided up into various themes and there is no serious attempt to build a narrative structure other than presenting the crude message that Albania under Hoxha is a land of bliss. We have the usual broad categorisation of images into heavy industry, bountiful agriculture, stern looking soldiers, smiling children, peasants in traditional costume and the natural beauty of the countryside. The ideological message is reinforced through the captions which present Xhufka’s images as proof of the bountiful present and the happy future Albania has under the wise and benevolent guidance of the Party and the leader. The smiling leader only appears once in the book, accompanied by a happy schoolkid, which in the context of 1970s Albania is interesting in itself; art photography for a foreign audience apparently gave you licence to downplay the cult of personality somewhat.

Officially sponsored books and magazines glorifying such regimes usually like to play it safe; their audience is a wide one and they don’t want to make people think about things. In fact political propaganda is designed specifically not to make people think. The ideal is to have an audience of sponges who will believe everything that is said or shown to them.  Censors like to understand what it is they are passing and artistic images, which might or might not be critical of the regime somehow, could land you in a lot of trouble if they later turned out to contain some sort of subversive subtext that you didn’t understand. That is why repressive regimes have such a limited visual repertoire; the censor’s survival creed is to keep it simple. However in Xhufka’s case, I would imagine they didn’t have to worry; there is nothing here that was going to cause any sleepless nights.

A great deal of the book is made up of photographs that are straightforward depictions of officially sanctioned themes of the like we see again and again in official propaganda publications. Portraits of predominantly male industrial workers and female farm workers present us with the traditional heroic concept of collective labour in the service of the greater good that is a integral part of  of communist propaganda the world over. In a similar vein, the other main group depicted are schoolkids accompanied by hackneyed ‘children-are-our-future’ captions which serve to conceal the rather grim reality of a future under ‘uncle Enver’.  However, images of  military hardware and determined looking men with machine guns soon disrupt the cloying idea that what we are looking at it some sort of Disneyesque theme park; scary violence rules the roost.  Such photographs are the formulaic stuff of commie photobooks and we have seen them all many times before.

However, because Xhufka is presented as an artist rather than a mere propagandist, he is allowed a little more leeway in this work. The abstract aerial images of terraced fields and farmland are a point in case, as is the image captioned ‘The Dance of Cobbles’ of the steps in Gjirokastër (see photograph below). Although not particularly exciting from today’s perspective, for a repressive regime like Hoxha’s Albania that viewed all photography with suspicion, I would imagine that this would have been cutting edge stuff.  These images are reminiscent in some ways to Rodchenko’s work of the 1920-30s, when he experimented with different viewpoints to try to produce a new visual language in keeping with the promises of a new society being created.  For Rodchenko and his followers this period was a very brief interlude before Stalin and his cronies stopped all experimentation and brutally enforced straightforward Socialist-Realist depictions of approved subjects.

It is interesting that what we are seeing here is the same process in reverse; over time, despite its increasing paranoia, the regime permits a limited degree of creativity from safe individuals who are part of the system. In return for absolute loyalty, their creativity is then both tolerated and even glorified to a certain extent while being used to press home the message that all is well under socialism. By contrast, amateur photography is increasingly regarded as a suspicious activity undertaken by subversives and foreign spies lurking unseen within the population. All photographs not subject to state control were seen as a source of potential threat to the regime. Images which might contradict the official narrative of the Albanian state, as increasing paranoia set in, became more and more dangerous and measures were taken to control and restrict photography.  Xhufka, whose loyalty could be depended upon, was permitted to produce images whose aesthetic qualities would, if taken by another person, be regarded with a great deal of suspicion by the authorities.

To my mind, by allowing Xhufka to take credit for his work this signals an ever so slight change in how the regime wanted to be seen by the outside world. No longer an anonymous member of the collective, Xhufka’s images are presented as an exemplar of Albanian art and creativity.  These images then are what the official regime regarded and defined as worthy of the status of art.  By permitting and encouraging his individuality, the regime is elevating and privileging him as a shining example of what could be attained under their guidance and his images reflect this. For a select few, individuality was permissible as long as they knew their place; for everybody else it was much safer to keep a low profile.

Farbige Impressionen aus der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik

 

This relic of the cold war was published by Leipzig publisher VEB Brockhaus in 1974 and is clearly designed as a coffee-table book extolling the wonders of East Germany. The text and captions in the book are in German only but there is a separate brochure with the captions in English, French, Polish, Czech and Russian making it an ideal memento for fellow travellers from other Iron Curtain countries. The production quality of this square 10 inch hardcover book isn’t bad with a mixture of gloss pages for the photographs (although the printing could be better) and matt for the text.

The publication attempts to provide a brief overview of the various regions and cities of the old DDR, showing the usual crowd-pleasing depictions of picturesque scenery, mountains, sunsets and architecture that tourists and the general public seem to enjoy. We have the usual contrasts between the ‘old’ city full of timbered medieval houses and then the shiny ‘new’ city primarily made up of plattenbau, the prefabricated concrete tower blocks that were used to provide instant housing after the war. The contented looking people lounging about in the city squares and the kids playing in apartment complexes all serve to show that these concrete blocks built by the benevolent state are inhabited by happy workers who seem to have lots of leisure time to enjoy the wonders of socialism.  As can be imagined, there are no references to the wall or the all-pervasive Stasi secret police that kept the population on a tight leash.

References to the Soviet Union’s importance are given prominence with the appearance of Brezhnev and Honecker and the Soviet war memorial in Berlin appearing early on in the book. This to me would seem to indicate just how insecure the old DDR felt; even in a book clearly designed to showcase socialist East Germany as a shining success to the world it was impossible not to include the Russians.

As this is clearly a tourist book, images of the usual themes that communist propaganda seems to enjoy (heavy industry, collective agriculture, the military) are heavily toned down and only make fleeting appearances so as not to disturb the reader’s illusion that all was well in the DDR.