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Kuçedra: Life on Europe’s last wild river

Nick St. Oegger

‘It’s so easy to pass by a river, see it flowing and think ‘oh, how beautiful’. Most people don’t realise that rivers are complex living things and that, for the most part, they are not in their original states.’

The ‘Bolla’: a demonic serpent-like dragon from Albanian mythology which also appears in English legends — as the dragon slain by St. George, the Patron Saint of England. The ‘Kuçedra’ evolves from the Bolla, becoming a demon of storms and appearing as a spiked, dragon-like creature with nine heads. It causes drought, flooding and storms and can only be pacified by human sacrifice.

A river can be just as winding and branching as a spiked, nine-headed demon creature. Wild and free-flowing; in fact, there is only one river left in Europe which is wild and free-flowing — unaffected by man-made structures or modification. Except it is not the mythical Kuçedra which may bring drought, flooding and other issues, but the human influence.

California-born photographer Nick St. Oegger, who is currently based in Dublin, Ireland, came across the River Vjosa in Albania completely by chance after previously having fallen in love with the country when traveling there. St. Oegger’s wonderful and essential series is a documentation and conversation about this river, the last of its kind in Europe, and the land and people who surround it and are affected by it. A visual memorisation; something we too often seem to be doing to remember what we’ve lost so far and what we’re about to lose.

Read the full interview below:

I was born in Santa Barbara, California. Nestled between the mountains and the sea, it was a beautiful place to grow up. I started hiking when I was young and developed a love for nature and the outdoors, though it’s only now that I realise how lucky I was to have spent so much of my formative years outdoors. I think that had a real impact on how I perceive light and observe the world around me.

I studied philosophy at university thinking I would go to law school afterwards. Needless to say it didn’t work out like that! I got a job as a legal assistant for a few years but discovered pretty quickly that law was not what I wanted to do and that I would be unhappy in an office environment.

It got to the point where I was supposed to have started taking exams and applying for law school, but I just had absolutely no motivation to do it. After, I was lost for a while. Then, when I graduated, I took a trip to Europe with a friend and fell in love with traveling. It made me think that I should do something that would involve it.

Since then, I’ve been bouncing around a lot but for the most part Europe has been my home; I’ve been here for the last four years and I’m hoping I will continue to be. I did my MA in documentary photography at University of Westminster in London in 2015/16 and this year I’ve been living in Albania to work on this current project. I’m based in Dublin now where I’m teaching at a small photography academy, continuing my own work and excited to be exploring this beautiful country.

What’s your story?

My interest in photography came around the end of university, shortly before I decided not to go into law. I would take a camera out walking or hiking and photograph a lot of landscapes — but I had never thought of making a career out of it.

One day a friend recommended that I watch this documentary called War Photographer, about the conflict photographer James Nachtwey. I sat down to watch it one night and when it was finished I just sat there staring at my computer screen. I actually felt something physically shift in my head. I had never even considered documentary work before, or even that I could use photography as a tool for social change. I pretty much decided then and there that this was what I wanted to do. Though my parents weren’t too excited when I told them I wanted to be a documentary photographer instead of a lawyer!

I worked at my university’s newspaper and started to do a lot of spot news and reportage type work, which I continued doing for local publications for a few years after I graduated. I would get sent to take portraits of business owners, or cover city council meetings, protests — the regular daily jobs.

What I found the most rewarding was the work that I did for a website that focused on homelessness in Santa Barbara. I spent a lot of time with people on the street, doing interviews, seeing what their day-to-day routines were like, what services were available to them… I worked slowly and developed more of a relationship with some of the people. I realised that a lot of them had just fallen through the cracks because of some small mistake: a medical-related issue or accident, things that were totally out of their control. It doesn’t take that much to have the world around you spiral out of control.

The early work I did on homelessness has translated the most into my practice now, in which I often focus on communities that find themselves in difficult situations involving the environments around them. I thought I wanted to document conflict but my work has gone in a different direction, combining my love of nature and that original interest in the landscape with my drive to fight for social issues.

What kind of photography are you interested in?

Before I did my MA I was mainly into the classic photojournalism photography and used to look at a lot of black and white work by Capa, Koudelka, Eugene Smith et cetera. Then, at university in Westminster, I was exposed to so many photographers I had never heard of and types and genres of work I didn’t know existed.

I was hugely intrigued by the newer documentary style work by photographers like Alec Soth. One of my best friends from the course is a huge Soth fan, and I remember the first time he showed me the book Niagara — I just didn’t get it. I thought, ‘okay, it’s awkward photos of random naked people in hotel rooms and waterfalls?’ But the more I looked at work of that style the more I began to love it, the delicacy and intentionality behind it all.

I don’t shoot film myself much, but I admire the numerous photographers who are going out and using large and medium format to work on immense long-term projects. A couple of my favorites are Nadav Kander who has done some amazing landscape work in China, and Vincent Catala, a French photographer currently working in Brazil.

I’ve also become hugely interested in photobooks. I lament the downturn in print media — I often find it overwhelming to scroll through countless images on a screen, and it’s hard for me to keep up with what’s constantly going on. So I’ve found photobooks are a beautiful thing because you can hold them, look at them over and over again at your own pace and its always a new experience returning to them. You find things that you haven’t noticed before.

Let’s talk about your project ‘ Life on Europe’s last wild river‘.

My relationship with Albania started way before this project, when I accidentally ended up there while traveling in 2013.

A lot of people had told me not to go because it was dangerous and there was nothing to see, but I found the opposite. I was awestruck by how beautiful the land was, especially the mountains, and how warm and hospitable the people were. I’ve spent a lot of time there since then, developed a lot of friendships and learnt the language.

This particular work came about when I was back home for Christmas last year. The woman who cuts my hair where my parents live is actually Albanian, so I was visiting her and opened a magazine to find this small article about the Vjosa River and how it was going to be dammed. It almost felt like fate at that point. A lot of weird connections like this have happened since my first trip there.

At first I couldn’t believe that this was the last free-flowing wild river in Europe. How could it be? I had seen a lot of rivers in my time traveling around Europe, but now when I started to look properly I could see that they are all modified — either through dams for hydropower or diversions, dredging… things like that.

I also began to understand that the United States and many European Union countries are starting to remove dams, because they’ve realised the long-term consequences they’ve had on river systems and just how much damage has been done to the ecosystems and life on and in the rivers. Developments in wind and solar power have now progressed to the point where they can be considered viable alternatives to hydropower, as well as being much more flexible in their implementation. You can choose how many solar panels you put up in a field, but with a dam it’s either there blocking the river or it’s not.

I’ve always been so inspired by the wild nature in Albania. I feel very strongly that it needs to be protected because a lot of it is unique. Many species of birds, fish and insects that live along the Vjosa have disappeared from the rest of the continent; the delicate environments where they breed along the riverbanks have been wiped out. When you modify a river, you completely change the way it flows and transfers sediment. This has a knockdown effect on everything around it.

It’s so easy to pass by a river, see it flowing and think ‘oh, how beautiful’. Most people don’t realise that rivers are complex living things and that, for the most part, they are not in their original states.

The other issue is obviously the human one. Around three thousand people face being displaced in one area alone if the dam construction goes ahead — and there are eight planned in total. The reservoir created by the dam will flood agricultural fields that are relied on by the villagers for their own survival. Many have very limited options in regards to movement, work or income because the government there has done a terrible job investing in infrastructure and development. Most people I met in the villages were surviving partially on money sent from relatives living abroad. There’s no safety net and many won’t see compensation for their flooded land. They’ll just be totally lost.

It seems mad to me that the government is not capitalising on the fact that they have Europe’s last wild river, perhaps turning it into a national park and promoting eco-tourism. They have everything they need to do this. Sadly corruption is still a huge problem and often those in power are only looking out for their own interests. Luckily there is a lot of activism surrounding the issue; the locals have sued the government and foreign NGOs have gotten involved. There’s resistance, but it’s difficult given what happened in the past. People are afraid to speak out.

I’m really happy to have been a part of this, working alongside scientists and activists while contributing my part in this effort to document and save the Vjosa. I’ve just finished designing a book of the project and will be launching a crowd-funding initiative this year to get funding for printing and distribution. It’s something I intended for print from the beginning. If the river is eventually dammed, I want people to have this book as a document of what life was like there and how beautiful it was.

Tell us a bit about the name you chose—’Kuçedra’.

The name actually comes from Albanian mythology. Kuçedra (pronounced ku-che-dra) is a dragon who terrorises the population, blocking water sources to cause flooding as well as drought and famine and it can only be appeased through human sacrifice.

According to some, when Kuçedra is killed its tears are said to have formed some of the beautiful natural sites in Albania, such as the famous Blue Eye near Gjirokaster. With the threat from hydropower dams, I thought it made a great metaphor for the situation on the Vjosa.

Are there any moments you had while making the work which stand out?

One for sure was attending a press conference put on by the NGOs from the Save the Blue Heart of Europe campaign. They organised a media event on an island in the middle of the river. There was only one small inflatable raft that they had to use to ferry over about forty journalists, scientists and activists.

It was over the top, but it was at the end of a week of research for the scientists who had come from all over Europe to study the Vjosa. To have them present their findings while we were all in the middle of this beautiful flowing river on a warm spring day was incredible. That evening we went back to the village we were staying in and they had put on a big feast to celebrate. It involved a lot of singing, laughing, wine and lamb. All things I’ve come to expect and love about Albania!

I’ll be trying to get this book project off the ground, probably taking it to a lot of festivals next year and trying to get it exhibited as well.

I’ve recently started teaching, which I’m really enjoying. Its nice helping other people develop their work — I think I stress out about my own too much, so to kind of disconnect from that and help other people is really rewarding. I think I’d eventually like to get some workshops going to Albania, maybe specifically to the Vjosa to keep raising awareness about it.

As for projects, I’ve got a million ideas. It’s just finding the funding to do them. There’s no shortage of beautiful landscapes in Ireland so I’ll probably end up doing a project while I’m here, possibly something about the areas where Irish is still spoken.

What are you recommending?

I picked up this book of poems by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca called Poem of the Deep Song. They were written when he was very young, inspired by the musical tradition developed by people in southern Spain who fled into the mountains during the time of the Inquisition. They’re beautiful little poems filled with emotion and glimpses into the wildness of Andalucía. Lorca had written them to try and preserve this tradition of deep song which has its roots in Arabic, Byzantine and Sephardic traditional music. I think it’s really important to keep things like that around.

I recently started watching Blue Planet, which is amazing. The camera work is just mind-boggling, it’s greatly inspiring and opens your eyes up to this completely alien world that most of us only ever see from the surface. It’s also got me thinking about becoming a submarine pilot. I’d definitely recommend this one!

Lastly, I’ve been listening to a lot of Leonard Cohen lately, especially his album Songs from a Room. He’s a beautiful writer; very philosophical, mystical even. More than this, he had a very interesting life having lived in London for a while before escaping to an island in Greece to get away from the city and find the peace he needed to work. He also had a stint as a Zen monk in the hills of Los Angeles later in his life. I just find him so inspiring as an artist.

Tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

There’s a painting by Caspar David Friedrich called Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog that I love. I first saw it during a history class when we were learning about Romanticism — a movement I identify with a lot. When I look at my own work now I see a lot of influence drawn from this painting as well as other romantic artists. There’s just something about this painting; the vastness of the landscape, the man staring out into it seeming to contemplate his own small place in the world. Every time I look at it I can almost feel the wind against my face, the damp of the fog, the smell of pine trees. It always inspires me to go outside and reminds me to keep traveling and go out in the world.

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