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The Lament of the Mountains – Nick St. Oegger

I’m originally from California but I’ve been living various places around Europe for about eight years now.

I’ve been based in Sarajevo since last year, and before that I was in Albania, Ireland and the UK. A lot of my work has ended up focussing on the Balkans, so I’ve spent a lot of time living and travelling in the region.

I’d consider myself a documentary photography and usually have one or two long-term personal projects I’m working on while taking on assignments for editorial or NGO clients. It’s especially important these days to not have all your eggs in one basket as such, so I have some other things that I do to earn money like teaching, editing and this year I started writing as well, during lockdown when it wasn’t as possible to go out and shoot. It’s a lot of juggling different bits and pieces to try and make it all work, but it keeps things interesting. 

What was your journey to photography?

My journey to photography was sort of roundabout. I wasn’t one of these people who knew I wanted to do it from the time I was young, or who was gifted a Leica from a grandparent or something.

I was a bit of a hobbyist; I liked photographing the landscape while I was out hiking but didn’t really think of it as something I would pursue as a career.

I actually thought I was going to study law and had grandiose ideas of being like Atticus Finch, making impassioned speeches about social justice in a courtroom. After working for a few lawyers and seeing the day-to-day reality of the job, I decided it wasn’t for me.

I was still passionate about fighting for people and contributing to something good though. A friend who knew I was interested in photography sent me the documentary ‘War Photographer’ about the American conflict photographer James Nachtwey. I watched that and something really clicked inside me – I decided I wanted to pursue photojournalism. 

At first I was naive in wanting to shoot conflict and breaking news; I learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t suited to that. I just shut down in high stress situations. It took me a while to find what I wanted to cover, what my niche was, and in the meantime I tried a lot of different things.

I think it was when I first travelled to Albania in 2013 and began working there that I discovered an interest in documenting environmental issues, rural or working class communities where a traditional way of life is being threatened by the encroachment of “modernity”.

I’ve always been passionate about the outdoors from the time my grandfather started taking me hiking as a child. He was a mountaineer and taught me a lot about nature and the value of living a simple life, so when I arrived in Albania I was blown away by the wildness of the nature and landscapes there, and in the Balkans in general.

It was the complete opposite of what I had expected from seeing all the media coverage of the wars and social conflict in the 90s. When I moved to Albania, I begun to realise that I enjoyed travelling and spending time in the villages and mountains more than the cities, in places where time seems to have stopped, where people are still carrying on traditions and ways of life that we’ve lost in the West, something of the simplicity my grandfather talked to me about as a child.

Slowly I began to learn about the issues facing these communities, especially with hydropower development, and this has become the focus of a lot of my work.

Let’s talk about your project. What’s it about?

This work is a sort of a follow up to my project ‘Kuçedra‘, which was previously featured here. That project was focused on the Vjosa river in the south of Albania, which is one of Europe’s last wild rivers and has been at the centre of a legal battle over the Albanian government’s plans to build several large hydropower plants on it.

That project was very much focused on travelling and documenting the course and landscape of the river, to create a sort of visual record of it before possibly being altered by dam construction.

With this project, ‘Lament of the Mountains’, I chose to focus more on a specific culture that is being put at risk by hydropower – the Malësorët highland people who live in the rugged and isolated Kelmend valley of Northern Albania. 

The Malësorët have lived in the Kelmend region for centuries and were at one point organised into strong tribal systems with their own laws and system of governance separate from that of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over the territory.

Livestock and agriculture have always been an important part of their lives and it’s one of a dwindling number of places in Europe where shepherds still practice transhumance: the seasonal migration of sheep to high alpine pastures in the summer, and their return to lower ground for the winter.

This practice has recognition and protection by UNESCO on its Intangible Cultural Heritage list in Austria, Italy and Greece, but not in Albania. As a practice it’s intrinsically linked to the environment, especially with things like land use and water supply.

In the Kelmend region, there are several small-scale hydropower dams currently being constructed on the rivers there which will divert portions of it into underground pipelines that syphon the water directly into a power plant. These smaller dams are often even more devastating than their larger counterparts, relative to the tiny amount of power they actually generate – none of which is going to the local communities.

I thought this was an important opportunity to try to document something that might be lost, and I really wanted to show something of the lives of the people as they carry out this ancient tradition in this incredible landscape.

Were there any moments that stood out to you?

I was lucky to be able to join some of the shepherds as they walked with their flock of over two hundred sheep up to the high pastures for the summer, and then stayed with them in their temporary shelter there.

It was an interesting insight to their lives and to the practice of transhumance, which, aside from partly taking place on a newly paved road, hasn’t changed much for centuries.

I was able to witness how hard the work is – long days walking in the heat, the backbreaking work of milking and herding the sheep into a pen at least twice a day, doing regular repairs to the shelter or fencing, and much more.

On the other hand I also saw a lot of beauty and simplicity in their lives, the way the whole family unit works together with even the younger children helping out in the process. 

I could see how this practice was being passed down to the younger generation who will take over eventually – if they’re able to.

Unlike a lot of other places I’ve worked in Albania, where people are always telling me how they’re itching to leave for America or Germany to make money, I met fewer people here who relayed the same thing. I saw this great sense of pride in the work the shepherds do and this truly special connection they have to each other, to the animals and to nature. It was amazing to see how in tune they are with things, like being able tell what the weather will do just from stepping outside in the morning.

There are a lot of stereotypes in the cities about the people from the mountains, that they’re backwards or unintelligent, but I witnessed something else, a very different type of intelligence rooted in the real world rather than books. I hope that my photographs convey that sense of dignity and pride that the Malësorët have.

Recommend us something you’re currently watching, reading, or listening to.

This year I’ve been listening to a lot of John Prine, the American country-folk singer who passed away in April due to complications from COVID-19.

It feels like a strange and sometimes painful time to be an American; I feel a lot of anger about what I see happening there, but I’ve found listening to John Prine to be very comforting. His songs, in the tradition of American folk music, are often about the down and out, rural or working class communities, common people who have been overlooked or fallen through the cracks, and dealing with depression or drug use.

He writes about these very dark subjects in a delicate, beautiful, noble way, and I draw a lot of inspiration from that within my own work.

Finally, tell us about a piece of art that has influenced you.

There’s a photobook called ‘Yangtze, The Long River’ by Nadav Kander who is one of my favourite photographers. I found this book while I was doing my Master’s degree in London, before I was even thinking about rivers myself.

This book and Kander’s work in general had a huge influence on how I think about the use of landscape in my own work. Before this, I didn’t realise it could have a serious place in my practice; I thought my photographs needed to be human-centric and really closeup.

What I like about this book is how much Kander is able to communicate and say about the relationship between the river and people through pulling back, giving some breathing space so the viewer can see how the people are situated in the landscape. It’s still a piece of work I go back to regularly for inspiration. /

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