My initial response to this book was to channel Robert Frank in the spirit of ethno-cultural awareness. I felt handicapped by not knowing much of anything about Albania. I wondered how contemporary Albanians might respond to this depiction of their country transforming over the two decades since the fall of Communism. Would it be like late 1950s Americans responses to Frank’s photographs (which were, on the whole, strongly negative)? Or does the effect of photographing change over time (almost twenty years in Jost’s case) mitigate the “snapshot in time” quality that was such a shock to most initial readers of The Americans?
Perhaps the Albanians depicted in Jost’s two time-frames were less self-conscious than the Americans who strutted and posed throughout Frank’s images. Certainly the residents of Tirana, Korca, Elbasan, and other Albanian cities and villages were, given the evidence, fairly underdeveloped. That is, sort of agrarian, unworldly, simple. By 2010, however, Jost’s record evinces a slide toward the commercial. Its borders opened to global capitalism, Albania has accrued ATMs, Coca-Cola, mobile phones, satellite dishes, and, in tribute to burgeoning ownership of private vehicles, roadside memorials to individuals killed in car wrecks.
One must look closely, though, to ascertain the vintage. Conventional indicators, like b&w versus color, or donkey carts versus limousines, are in short supply. Don’t be surprised to be surprised if you play the “spot the old and new” game and lose. Especially in sections addressing religion, politics, gypsies, the military, and international relief efforts; Jost gives special attention to the efforts of a group of Swiss Franciscan nuns who seem to echo Jost’s own concerns for the survival of this tenuous new democracy.
BTW, lest I forget to mention, Jost was born in 1953, in Zurich. Where, 29 years earlier, Robert Frank was born. Although using the elder Swiss as a model may not have been apt, my intuition wasn’t totally off the mark. Perhaps the Swiss, in their professed and time-honored neutrality, are among the world’s empaths when it comes to observing other cultures.
Link here to a review I wrote of Jost’s 2009 publication (also with text by Christina Kleineidam), Cotton Worldwide.