Back in 1997, when I was yet a rookie in search of my first “war”, having missed what went down in Bosnia with the breakup of Yugoslavia, on advise from a friend of mine at Newsweek who had heavily covered Sarajevo at the heist of the bloodshed, I headed for Northern Albania.
My aim was to ultimately cross into Kosovo. The tiny country had started giving off signs for an oncoming conflict, possibly of the same scope as Bosnia. Although Stacy had tipped me off on the magnitude of the refugee crisis about to happen in Northern Albania, I was hooked on going to “war”, inside Kosovo — not to its periphery.
Plus, how many photographs could a story on refugees render? Compared to the daily assaults on the population inside Kosovo, the lines clearly drawn, towns split… Little did I know.
My initial stay in Northern Albania on my first visit, following a 44 hour adventurous hike up to the Northern Highlands with two aid workers who would later become my friends for life, in a Land Rover Defender keen on getting stuck in snow, thus forcing us to take shelter in its lack of warmth for the night, villagers later rescuing us at the break of dawn, would last a few days short of a month. It would also be the first of many visits to that country for the next two and a half years, as I hopscotched among countries in the Balkans, crossing borders on foot as it would come to, making tons of friends, contacts, acquaintances who would keep me safe, help me get from place to place, take me to where the news was happening.
Here I would mature, both as a person, and as a photographer, here I would humble in front of families with a strong affection for life, for land, and for freedom.
Also here, I would live the last golden days of journalism, better yet, photojournalism. With editors waiting for my images in NY, in Paris, people in magazines and newspapers actually worrying over the safety of their freelancers, friends at the end of the phone-line, and some even as close as family. They would be the very people who would later pull me out of the obsession with the story I was so immersed in, on worries of that I would be lost, they would tell me I needed out, a fresh vision, a new place, some days of rest…
Much different than the media of today, with its slick newsrooms, impersonal cubicles, ultra-modern everything, voiceless emails over which assignments are delivered, without the human touch.
After Kosovo it would be several more stories on forced migration for me, taking me from Central Asia to the Caucauses, from Middle East to Africa.
The one-photo story, as I saw it in 1997, would evolve into a multifaceted documentary, with its two books, a short film and several exhibits. I would in time call it: The Refugee Project.