Eternal Friendship is an incredible work of archival research and historical reimagining. In it, Anouck Durand tells the story of Refik Veseli, an Albanian State Photographer during the reign of Enver Hoxja, and a secret state-sponsored trip to China he took with some colleagues to study a special color photography process. It’s something like a comic book, with archival photography used in place of drawings, and it’s really an amazing work.
The story is told from Veseli’s point of view, and through the trip we get a sense of what life must have been like under a Communist regime, with all the state censorship, repression, and disappearances, and the hypocrisy: Veseli and his colleagues go to China to learn a method for producing color photographs from black & white film,* yet Albania continues importing Imperialist Kodak color film throughout the Communist period.
We come to find out that Veseli’s parents helped many Jews escape registration during the Nazi period. One of these, Mosha Mandil, was a professional photographer, and taught Veseli the trade, and the story ends with Veseli mailing a letter to Mandil surreptitiously from an airport in Russia. And an Epilogue tells how the Mandil family nominated Veseli for a “Righteous Among the Nations” award in 1988, the first given to an Albanian.
The story is interesting and exciting, it’s really a page turner, but the real interest, for me, is in the research Durand performed to create it. She started out looking into the photographic production and use during the Communist regime under Enver Hoxja (1944-1991), and, with Gilles de Rapper, collected a trove of photographs, recorded and transcribed interviews and notes on the regime’s propagandists, to craft the story. And this personal story gives a much better window into the regime and its uses of photography, than would even a much larger scholarly book, and putting it into a sort of comic book format makes it easy to read and digest. The whole project is really thought provoking and inspiring.
I give Eternal Friendship 4.5 stars.
Eternal Friendship originally came out in French in 2014, and copies of Amitié Éternelle are available too. The French original is somewhat harder to find (here in the States, anyway) than the 2017 English translation, which is widely available. Both are highly recommended to anyone interested in photobook formats and photographic narratives, and I’m very glad I stumbled across it.**
It’s somewhat interesting that this review follows one of Feng Li’s White Night. Like Vaseli, Feng is a state propagandist, albeit one who has a good bit more freedom to shoot and publish than did Vaseli. I wonder how much erasing from history Feng does with his work for the State. Is he (or someone in the vast bureaucracy) spending many hours quietly erasing people and buildings from State archives, or does he do it all in camera? Has he burned hard drives or deleted files like Vaseli and his colleagues did with many of their negatives from China? Film is largely dead in the professional world, so there’s no fear of Imperialist Kodak, but are Fuji and Sony that much different?
*I’ve known of this process for a long time, and I’ve long wanted to try it: you take three photographs of the same scene, one with a red filter, one with a green filter, and one with blue, then print each negative through cyan, magenta, and yellow filters (or assign them to channels in Photoshop), and *boom* a color photograph from black & white film… To be honest, I’d probably stick with Imperialist Kodak film too.
**Big thanks, as always, to Jorg Colberg at Conscientious Photography Magazine for putting me onto it earlier this year.