Sunday, March 23, 2008

Words Cannot Describe

These are photos from a funeral I was very lucky to shoot. It's photos like these that photographers can really appreciate. This was unplanned and became my plan B when another photo opportunity in Krusha fell through.

This is a funeral for Fjolla Gashi, who died on Friday morning from a coma resulting in a car accident. She and three other girls were hit by a car while they were walking to school. Many accidents like this have occurred since there is no public transportation system for children to get to school. She hadn't even turned 14 yet, and she was so beautiful. I think the one aspect I had to appreciate about this moment was how willing the family was for me to be there. They allowed me into private spaces and even people who didn't know me, aided in moving people out of my way in order for me to have better access. Being a apart of this funeral procession was just amazing. I can't describe it in words so I'll let the photos describe the scene for you.

It was awesome to end my week on this kind of a note. I have to say I couldn't have accomplished what I did without everyone who was willing to help:

I have to especially thank Arben, our driver and translator from World Vision. He dedicated his work time to drive us to various places in order for us to have successful stories. I was able to be with him the most during the week, and he was just amazing. He was able to get us information he knew we needed and would try anything to accomplish it. I don't think I would have gotten the same results on Friday if it weren't for him. I owe him a lot.

I also have to thank the KIJAC students. It was awesome to be able to work with them and to learn about the culture through them. In a week, I feel like I've known them for months. I was able to bond with many of them and for those friendships I am forever grateful.

I owe a lot to the professors on this trip. If it wasn't for them pushing me, I wouldn't have pushed myself more and more. I felt like I had a lot to prove on this trip, and I feel like I've accomplished a lot. I admire their advice and wisdom they have given me while on this project and I'll never take it for granted. I'm glad they gave me a chance and I hope I didn't disappoint them.

Kosovo was wonderful. Even after being home a bit I can't fully describe to my parents what it was like. There will always be a place in my heart for everyone I met in a week and I hope to stay in touch. We still have a lot of work to do and I'm optimistic about the final product.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Tung, shoku im

I have to apologize; I don't know the plural for "friend" in Albanian, which would be a more accurate statement. I should be so lucky to be able to call everybody I met on this trip a friend.

To the KIJAC students: Words cannot express how thankful we truly are. We made you miss your days off, skip classes and show up late to jobs. I hope you'll have a chance to visit us in Lincoln, so we can truly show our gratitude. I am speaking for myself when I say this, but I'm sure everybody else would agree: you will always be welcome at our homes. Give us a call, send us an e-mail or a postcard anytime.

To everybody at Worldvision and KosInvest: I don't know what we would have done without you. You all have been so patient and helpful, I cannot say thank you enough. Arben, I hope you enjoy the music I gave to you.

To our drivers: I don't think I would have been able to successfully navigate the streets of Kosova alone, thanks for getting us there safely.

To our professors: I am so honored I was allowed to go on this trip. I wish I could stay longer. But you already know that.

To the donors: I am so glad I chose this college, thank you for supporting what is in my mind the best university for photojournalism in the country. I have learned a lot, your money was well spent, and I am grateful for that.

All: I feel everything above is an understatement. We have gone through so much together (illegal mines, winding mountain roads, harrassment by powerplant employees and incredible stories from the locals to name a few). I don't feel I have said "thank you" enough. I hope to see you all sooner than later.

Poster's note: Please correct me if my Albanian is off. I'm learning...

Friday, March 21, 2008

With a little help from my friends

On one of our last days here in Kosovo, I wanted to stress one thing: how amazing the people of Kosovo are. From the contacts we have made to the sources themselves, the people here are gracious, hospitable, kind, thoughtful and always looking forward to the future.

I think it comes from having a country with such a rich history going back centuries, they really understand the flow of time and the way humanity interacts with history. I never expected to see people who are nicer than in the Midwest, where we are known for our kindness and helpfulness. But the people of Kosovo are the same way, they sacrifice anything to help you in any way possible.

Most important than all are the people of KIJAC and World Vision, and others we have met who have been willing to serve as translators, drivers and helpers. We would be nowhere without them. I cannot count for you the times that I have not known what to ask, and my translator helped me along. Or there was a miscommunication with a statement or cultural tradition and they explained it to me fully and what to do. People have taken off work, put off their classwork, and gone out of their way to help us with our stories and what we are trying to accomplish here in Kosovo. I know there is no way to possibly thank them fully but I am so grateful for all they have done.

One of the people who has been most helpful to me personally was Ilka, who just dropped by the Grand Hotel to see if anyone could use her on their project. At that moment, I was heading out to a village and didn't have a fluent translator set up. Ilka hopped on board and drove with us, and she helped me tactfully interview a family that experienced the war, and was suffering poverty under the limited employment of their oldest son. Not only was she helpful and brilliant, she was also very fun and I really appreciate her willingness to drop everything to help me on my way.

There are many others I cannot even begin to thank for their help, like Valon, a young man who came up to us because we were speaking English and offered his help on the project because he was an experienced film-maker/producer. He had no ties to us at all but, again, went out of his way to know us and help, even going to the point of volunteering his friends. Also there is Arben, and the staff at KosInvest and World Vision who have helped us meet families and have driven us day after day. Arben is a kind-hearted man who is genuinely trying to accomplish change for the better in the lives of people in Kosovo.

I hope they all know how grateful we all truly are. We would be nothing without their help.


Clay taking photos on Tuesday. We were in a small village called Dardhishte. The woman we visited had a husband who died in an accident in the power plant that he was photographing. 

An old woman lives, with her family of 7, in the remains of a bombed house. She sits silently and says nothing. 
This portrait won me a free dinner a few nights ago.

Every morning, men fight over who gets the opportunity to work. Work is hard to find, therefore many people are unemployed. Day laborers wait for someone to come and ask for workers, they attack the car, hoping to get chosen.

Homemade honey is sold in a market. 

While there are many other photos I would like to put up, these are the few that I have converted to post.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


I'm taking the laptop off the table, I'm putting it on my lap, I'm writing a personal blog.
I'm also cold and the heat from the laptop feels nice on my legs.

I came here to tell stories of poverty. So I climbed over piles of rubble and into uncomfortable places. I walked into dirty, small, dark rooms. I took the pictures people at home expected me to take.

But yesterday I heard feet step softly on clean floors, voices echo off white walls, silverware scrape against plates full of food. The place was nice(r). I walked the hallways of Kosovo's House for the Aged Persons and Without Family Solicitude, an institution for people who have no one to care for them.

Inside one room sat two men who say they have nothing in common. One never had children. His wife is dead, he thinks he has some cousins alive somewhere and unlike most Kosovars, he doesn't like coffee. The other has many children, but none who care enough to take care of him. He has a shelf full of pictures and a table with everything he needs to make coffee, telling me he can't live a day without it. Though they have nothing in common, they each consider the other a brother. Here, life is OK.

I followed the men to lunch and was surprised to hear a resident yell something at me in English. She called me to her table to take a photo of her. She said she learned some English from watching TV. After lunch, I went to her room.

Her name is Biba, and she's lived in the home since she was born, 54 years ago. Her parents left her at the hosptial, so she grew up in a home of old people, many of them crazy. "I was the only child here,"she said. "I didn't have anybody. I didn't have hope for living." For Biba, life in the home was not OK.

I listened to more sad stories. Biba said she's tried to kill herself many times, but now she sees that God didn't want her to die. She showed me pictures of her friends from Pristina's protestant church that came to visit her. I don't know what Biba believes, but I wondered if one day her heart claimed the promise that God makes a home for the lonely.

Some homes have walls that are crumbling. Others have walls that are strong. So are the walls of our hearts. Though poverty assigns one a life of hunger, discomfort and immobility, loneliess is a tide that carries a different kind of hunger.

I'm always thinking of photos, stories, this project. I wanted to come home with good pictures, not sappy words about how a trip changed my life. But when I left the home yesterday, I told each person I would remember them and think of them. As the Lord allows me to, I will. With every experience we can gain understanding if we want it. This world is messed up. And on this morning, Good Friday morning, I think of the many injustices in this world.
But Biba is no longer angry at life's injustices. If she was, she would try to kill herself again.
Instead, she died to something else.


Roma and Plementina

Today was probably one of the most draining.

Dzafer, a Roma journalist, took me to a family in Fushkosova. We had terrible timing. Their daughter, Emrana, married a man for love, without her father's approval, at the age of sixteen. After a year, the man filed for divorce - which is fairly common in this particular Roma tribe within Kosovo. Now, Emrana just had a baby. According to Roma tradition, the children always belong to the man. So that afternoon, just after our interview, they were scheduled to go to court and hand the child over to the father.

Everybody was upset. Especially the father. The first twenty minutes of the interview consisted of the father venting all of his discontent to Dzafer. Then when Dzafer introduced me as an American journalist, he turned his anger on me. He rushed on about an American journalist who came and took pictures and interviewed them and promised that he would help them. He said that he hasn't heard from that journalist in one year.

All the father wants is to seek asylum in a foreign country. He wept over the empty future of his eight children here in Kosovo.

The family was not even living in their own home. During the war in 1999, many Roma in the community fled to foreign countries, seeking asylum. Many of the families that stayed, including this family, moved into the homes.

Three days after Kosovo's declaration of independence, their electricity was cut. To help keep them warm at night, they have a gas lamp.

They can't afford shoes for their children, because none of them are employed. So when we first came, the kids ran out to meet us, barefoot through the snow patches and the frigid mud.

It wasn't until I had packed up my recorder and notebook and started getting up that I received the biggest shock. The father apologized and asked for my address in America. He told me that after sitting with them and eating with them, I was part of the family and he wanted to sent a gift to my parents in America.

I'm returning to the family Saturday morning and spending all afternoon with them before we head for the airport.

Because I returned to the hotel so early, I was able to hitch a ride with Arben back to the school in Plementina.

I am really looking forward to tomorrow. I get to revisit the family at the base of the Ciciviaca mountain range. This time, the whole family should be there so I will be able to hear some of the grandfather's memories of fleeing to the mountains and returning the burnt remnants of their home.

Illegal mining

For some living in the Kosovar village of Zhilivoda, mining is the only way to make ends meet. With the Kosovo Energy Corporation (KEK) snatching up any coal deposits they can find, some Zhilivoda land owners have chosen to take advantage of the deposits found in their backyards and dig on their property. The mines are not regulated by any safety standards and miners could work all day for three days but earn only 50 euro, which will be split four or more ways. Just two months ago, a miner in Zhilivoda was killed in a collapse just a few hundred yards from his house.

Poster's Comment: I admit I was scared, but not once I got down the rickety ladder. Going back up was the worst, my shoes were muddy and kept slipping.