Scanning through photographer Marlin Dedaj‘s work, although it may seem quite cliched or silly to say, the word “Balkan” comes to mind. Chronicling the post-war years in the Balkans, his photography is interesting on many levels, going beyond the typical reflection of life in the region over the past 25 years. What sets his work apart is that, as an Albanian native photographing modern Bosnia, he is both an insider and outsider; geographically close to his subjects yet he from an entirely different culture. What emerges throughout both his work and own personal experience is a story that comes closest to reflecting any pan-Balkan narrative.
Born in the Albanian city of Shkoder in 1988, Marlin spent his childhood years in a country still reeling from the decades-long rule of Enver Hoxha, which had left it isolated from the rest of the world, economically bereft. As was the case with every communist country, the late 80s and early 90s was a period of tumultuous change in Albania. Growing poverty and political unrest forced many to leave their homeland in what Marlin calls “a real exodus.” In 1995, his family joined the ranks of the emigrants in crossing the Adriatic Sea: “I had relatives in Italy, so with my family we tried the route of the sea. We had to embark twice to reach the Bel paese (how Italy is known, for its many attractions). The first time I told my parents that I remembered those journeys of hope, they were incredulous, my mother even cried.”
Growing up as an Albanian immigrant in Italy, Marlin admits that he found himself wearing a mask in an attempt to integrate into Italian life: “I think it was a way to protect myself and to be accepted more easily in the community.” He recognized that the two fundamental choices presented to him were to either make a concerted effort to integrate into his new home or stay amongst his fellow countrymen in the ghettos. “I chose the first way, although I had a lot trouble being accepted, since I was living in small villages, scattered in the provinces of the North of Italy. I don’t say this to be pitied, but I believe that these experiences have strengthened me and have been crucial in my personal journey, they are an important part of my life.”
Given the vast societal changes he experienced as an adolescent, it is perhaps inevitable that Marlin became drawn towards observing the social and political behaviours of the people, communities and societies around him. With a burgeoning passion for the visual arts, he was introduced to the world of photography as a teenager – although initially it wasn’t his first choice. “I dreamed of becoming a film director, but at that time I could afford “only” photography – now I say ‘thankfully!'”
By the age of 18, Marlin had immersed himself in photography, and through hard work and dedication, taught himself about the art. Although he had a stable job as a metal worker, he knew that it wasn’t his true calling: “At lunchtime, at work, I sat on the floor, outside the main entrance of the factory, reading critical historical and contemporary texts,” he remembers. “You can imagine the ironic gazes and the jokes of my colleagues, but this determination pushed me and in 2014 I abandoned my work and my certainties to devote myself entirely to photography.”
Marlin is philosophical when it comes to following ones passions: “We need to know how to make the most of the possibilities that life offers you without taking anything for granted. Being determined is sometimes the best formula to evolve in this profession.”
Having taken the plunge into full-time photography, a new world was opened up: “Obviously it was a gradual process. I worked for years as an assistant to my first teacher, Paolo Sacchi, a portrait photographer from Milan. He came from a generation of studio portrait photographers, who worked a lot with set lights. Thanks to Paolo I met Mario Dondero, a ‘humanist’ photographer – in every sense – I had the opportunity to spend a short period of time with him, but long enough to learn the empathy for the people you are portraying in their living environment.”
Along with his tireless work ethic and dedication, Marlin credits his contemporaries for the invaluable knowledge they have passed on to him; “I believe that the only way to grow is to draw on the knowledge of established professionals, learning as much as possible from their experience, comparing it as much as possible with the contemporary reality that we live.” Through classes with Angelo Turetta and Mario Spada he has learnt about stage and theatrical photography, Davide Monteleone has been instrumental in helping him to understand how to put together ‘a project’, while his friend Luca Campigotto has helped him to develop and improve his approach to landscape and night photography.
The world of freelance photography hasn’t been without its challenges, of course, no more so than when it comes to economic stability. Marlin remains optimistic about the role of professional photography in the modern world, however; “I believe that the generation of photographers to whom I belong is churning out talented authors; although photography is going through a complex period of transition, I am convinced that this trade still has an important role and an interesting future.”
With the photographic skills and knowledge at his disposal, Marlin was inspired to investigate his own origins and explore a region that remains largely unknown, particularly to those in the West. Fascinated by the themes of identity and real or imagined borders, he journeyed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2015.
“My interest in Bosnia-Herzegovina is related to the destruction of the cosmopolitan idea of nation and the melting pot of cultures that was the former Yugoslavia – literally torn to pieces.” Through his photography, Marlin has striven to document the many facets of modern Bosnian life; crossing the invisible borders, the problems of poverty and fragmentation of its peoples – “investigating even the most intimate and human reality.”
In contrast to so many journalists that look to tell a story of historical hatred and continuing resentment, Marlin’s work reflects a society adjusting to life in the present while in the midst of ghosts. Individuals remember the past during the occasions that it is called upon, but they are not constrained by it. There is a fluency in his work that blends the reality that only 20 years ago Europe suffered its worst incident of genocide since the Second World War. Still, 20 years is a long time.
This capacity for reading the fluidity of memory and history reflects a genuine authenticity to Marlin’s life in relation to the subjects of his images. Although from a different country, Albania was very much intertwined in the Balkan conflicts, largely though Kosovo. More significantly arguably, Marlin’s life course has been defined by his migration due to the rupture of communism, which was the experience shared across the region. Regardless of religion, nationality, or political disposition, displacement and often migration permeates through almost every family in one way or another. The existential pain of loss is not a metaphysical concept for Marlin. Instead, his work reflects some knowledge of the economy of loss of one’s settings.
Naturally, this unique insight that Marlin provides makes him an individual to watch. Having been photographing life in Bosnia for the past three years, a photographic book of his travels in the country is currently in production. Marlin doesn’t want to reveal the book’s title just yet, but, given some of the photos he’s provided to us, we cannot wait to see it once it’s released.