Norman Wisdom and Me
You may not know this, but the best known Englishman in Albania is the now deceased veteran comedian Norman Wisdom. Here his films have always been revered, even during the communist era.
I have just departed Tirana following the opening of an exhibition of my work at the splendid National Gallery of Arts. For a brief moment I feel as if I am getting known here, as I have appeared on numerous TV stations and done many print interviews.
The exhibition has three sections: photos taken in Albania in 1990, Common Sense and Small World.
The 1990 photos, shot a few months before the country’s communist regime collapsed, came about because I was on the first tour group to visit the country after the fall of the Berlin Wall in the autumn of 1989. The only way to get into Albania was by joining a tour group, as journalists and photographers were barred. Of the fourteen members of the party, who signed up to see the renowned Roman sites, twelve turned out to be from the press. As we dutifully toured the country visiting these sites, we would all slip off early in the morning and early evening, and it was during these periods I was able to photograph. I went to cafes, barbers and many shops, and was able to wander into these establishments with considerable ease. One morning I was arrested, but the police did not speak English and just did not know what to do with me, so returned me to the hotel.
The coach passed a sign to Stalin City one day, and we all requested to take a short diversion to see it. But, as our guides reminded us, we were on an archaeology tour so the request was declined. The guides were fully in the know about our real motives for visiting Albania, but maintained the party line about the bright happy people all along.
I was back in Albania in 1996, and boy what a difference, as the rapid conversion to being a normal European country was well under way. Fifteen years later, there remains virtually no trace of the communist era. Perhaps the most rapid transformation of any country I have known was completed within a twenty year period.
The exhibition was arranged by the British Council who took the opportunity to combine the opening with the party traditionally put on by the Embassy for the Queen’s birthday.
This means the guest list is very VIP as all the county’s ambassadors show up, as well as the Albanian Prime Minister, Sali Berisha. I ask him what he feels looking at these photos from 1990 and he retorts it is like looking at an amputated arm! The photos cause much discussion, with responses ranging from horror to warm nostalgia.
A few people get recognised, such as a certain Freddy, who we see here playing ping-pong. Seemingly he now lives in Greece, but his image and a few of the other photos featuring individuals are singled out, and the offer goes out that if they turn up at the Gallery they will be sent a free print.