Pavilion of the Republic of Kosovo
58th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia

Family Album: The process / Interview with Alban Muja

Vincent Honore & Anya Harrison - 10 Apr 2019

Vincent Honoré: Let’s begin with the starting point for Family Album. Was the project part of existing research, or was it undertaken especially for Venice?

Alban Muja: In my previous projects, I constantly tried to keep a certain distance from the experience of the war, or of what I and my family went through personally, choosing instead to focus on the consequences that followed in the aftermath of the war. Then, about three years ago, I was going through photographs of when I was a child, and I came across this one image of myself in the Hamallaj refugee camp in Albania. What really surprised me, and what I find simultaneously interesting and paradoxical, is that in all these images I find myself—and not just myself but my cousins too—looking very happy. So, even though we were living in a refugee camp, we were still strangely happy. I guess it also comes down to an element of relief as my family—five of us in all—had been split across three different places, so what followed was a reunion: an acknowledgement that we were all alive and had survived. At the time, I didn’t know what I might do with these images, but now had a strong feeling that finally, exactly twenty years later, enough time had passed for me to work on this history, and not just through my own personal story but those of others too. 

VH: So this is the first time in your work that you’re directly addressing the history of Kosovo, and especially that of the war. In previous works, you addressed Kosovo as a territory or a space, especially its borders. I’m thinking of Museum of Contemporary History or Borders Without Borders. Now, you directly embrace history. 

AM: For me, Family Album is the first project I’ve worked on that has a direct relationship and correlation to the past. As I said, my work up until now has consisted primarily of research into the political, economic and social transformations of Kosovo today as well as of the Balkan region as a whole, but none of it speaks directly about the past. A while ago, I tried to talk to my father about his experience in prison, if I could even call the place he was held a prison, since it was more like a concentration camp, with over a hundred people locked into one small five-by-six-meter room, and kept there without any explanation. It was a minor attempt on my part, and one that I wasn’t sure how to develop further. Family Album, on the other hand, is the first work that addresses history, indirectly including  my own family’s experience.

Anya Harrison: Do you remember how the photograph of you with José María Aznar was taken and what the context was? How did it end up being part of your family album?

AM: Yes, I remember very well. The background story to this photograph is that, for a considerable period of time, my family was divided. My brother was in Pristina, studying, and I was living with my parents and younger sister. We tried to escape from Mitrovica, our home town, several times during the war in 1999, and each time we failed. As the war gathered pace, we were evicted from our homes by military forces. After walking for eight days to try and find shelter elsewhere, we were stopped by Serbian forces at a village near Drenica. All males over eighteen were arrested and taken to prisons (some of them, intellectuals, to be executed later on). By then I was already eighteen, but I kept claiming to the soldiers that I was two years younger. Finally, I was sent back home with my mother and sister, while my father was taken to prison. That was a turning point for me, the moment I stopped being a teenager and felt that I had to take care of my family. When we did finally manage to leave Mitrovica, having parted with a lot of money to travel south to the border with Albania, we found this Spanish-run camp at a time when many countries were building camps for Kosovar refugees in Albania and Macedonia. One day, we heard that the Spanish Prime Minister was coming to visit the camp. On the day of his visit, or perhaps a day earlier, my father arrived at the camp from Tirana, where he had been staying after his release from prison, as well as my brother, who had been in the south of Albania, and we were all finally reunited (although, when I first saw them, I didn’t even recognize them as they had changed so much physically). Our tent was one of the ones that Aznar visited during his trip; I remember him asking my father about his experience and us taking photos of ourselves with him, using a camera that my family had. Although the exact details of that moment are somewhat blurred, I recall my father taking this picture of me with Aznar, and then I took a similar one of the two of them. So I think both of us have a picture with Aznar. 

AH: In terms of the images that form the starting point for Family Album, how did you first come across those photographs? What was your research process, and why did you choose those particular three images to work with?

AM: As I mentioned earlier, I was originally thinking of developing a project with my father based on the images in our family album, but didn’t think it was appropriate quite yet. I didn’t want to portray my own personal story and I wasn’t even sure if I would know how to present it. I was trying to think in more general terms, and I knew these images already. Everybody in Kosovo knows them, but from a long time ago; in a certain sense, they’ve already acquired a forgotten status. In terms of further research, I started from the photograph of the father holding images of his two children; he was actually a caretaker in the school building that attended as part of the parallel school system in Mitrovica. It was the only place where we could be taught in our own language—Albanian. Initially, I was contemplating whether to work directly with people who had experienced the war themselves, like this man, or whether I should focus on those who had been children at the time. I settled for the latter, because although of course they went through the same experience, they don’t have the same memories… They have less hatred and anger instilled in them, meaning they would narrate the story differently. Plus, I was interested in exploring how they might build on the narratives handed down from others. 

VH: Did you know the people portrayed in these photographs?

AM: Originally, I only knew Xaja, the man holding the photos of his children, but only from that image, as a figure, not personally. I met the others when I embarked upon my research. At first, I thought that none of them would remember the stories and context surrounding the photographs in which they’re depicted, but in actual fact they were all fully aware of the background. They could narrate the same information as their parents, but the temporal distance between them and these events softens their storytelling. Hatred and bitterness are not part of their vocabulary. 

VH: And did you already know or have any conversations with the photographers who took those images?

AM: I am convinced that photographers prefer to stay behind the camera. I tried to get in touch, and even exchanged emails with two of them, but it was difficult to enter into a more nuanced and detailed dialogue about these images—how they were taken, the photographers’ own experience etc. One photographer immediately directed me to his agency. Another one gave me permission to use the image, but didn’t want to talk about it. I never managed to reach Carol Guzy, the third photographer.

AH: What working process did you adopt with the people you ended up filming for Family Album

AM: Firstly, I met with all of them simply to introduce both myself and the idea for the project. The point I wanted to get across was that these stories communicate the fact that we have had our freedom for twenty years now, and it’s important to share our experience without exaggerating it. When it came to the filming, I suspected that if I asked them to give spontaneous interviews it might prove difficult because they have a lot to say, but as they don’t have much experience in front of the camera, they may not know how to express themselves. They often expressed themselves with gestures rather than words. With my team, we came to the conclusion that we should write a kind of scenario for each film, based on information gathered from the interviewees, with the addition of certain questions which would direct them to particular areas we wanted to explore deeper. To gather information not just from the subjects but from their families too, I worked closely with a journalist who had prior experience of dealing with individuals suffering from war-based trauma. 

AH: What was your intention for the image you wanted to construct with Family Album? For example, you’ve mentioned several times the difference between the subjects you filmed—their lack of bitterness and anger—and the older generation.  

AM: I have the feeling that if I had worked with older people, or even those of my own generation, the work would have been completely different. It would be more painful, delivered with more anger and possibly hatred. It was crucial for me to show how collective trauma and pain are processed and passed on to younger generations. What remains of the pain, and how is it articulated by the generations that have inherited these stories without directly experiencing them? In this sense, I touch on an obviously political process, one of interpreting and transmuting the experience of war and the collective pain that followed. My work is not overtly political as it deals with the matter via personal narratives, and what I seek to highlight is the more universally human aspect of these stories.

VH: Can you talk about the title of the work? There’s a change in register that occurs with the images you are working with, from their being collective and circulated among the mass media to their entering a private, personal sphere.

AM: I struggled with the title for this work, but Family Album seemed fitting after each of the figures in the films told me over the course of my research and pre-production that, for each of them, their photo was the most important one that their families possess. 

VH: The photographs they have at home: are they pictures from a magazine or were they given to the families by the photographers? I’m also curious to know whether they are hidden away or exposed and visible.

AM: Usually it’s a cutout from a newspaper or magazine in which it was published. I didn’t see them hanging visibly anywhere. There’s a kind of intimacy that is maintained with these photographs that, consciously or not, have become the most important image in their family albums. Going back to the project title, it becomes a common thread linking the three videos, but also refers back to the very origins of this work and my own family album, of me already thinking two or three years ago about what I could do with the image of me and José María Aznar. 

VH: Do you think that Family Album is political?

AM: It probably may seem political, but I don’t see it in that light. For me, it’s a deeply human project in which I try to eliminate as many superfluous details as possible in order to just present a snippet of the reality of these youngsters. 

VH: Why did you choose not to show the original images in the exhibition in Venice?

AM: I didn’t want to reveal everything to the audience straight away. I believe it’s important for this project not to come to a direct end as soon as you leave the exhibition, but to continue through conversation and debate. As I was thinking about how to keep the audience engaged, I decided to have the videos without the images, but instead to have the images present elsewhere—the public just has to look for them. 

AH: In a similar vein, were you thinking about how Family Album relates to the wider notion of the documentary and the distribution of images?

AM: Sometimes I think there is a very thin line between news and documentary from other outlets. Right from the beginning, I was thinking about how to make the work without it being a straight up television documentary, and I think we manage to achieve this not only through the camerawork but through the editing process, as well as through the narratives themselves. This, for me, is where the distinction between Family Album and the original, documentary images arises. 

VH: How do you expect the audience to react to your work?

AM: To be honest, I’ve thought more about how we would respond. But I expect the audience to ask a lot of questions. When I travel across the ex-Yugoslavian region even today, I’m astounded by how little information people have there—and we all lived in the same country. So I expect people to be curious, to question themselves more about the truth, not only about what they see but to push beyond that.