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David Galjaard: On Concresco

In 2009, David Galjaard began photographing the landscape of Albania, which is dotted with over 700,000 abandoned concrete bunkers built during the Communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. Galjaard’s work in Albania culminated in a self-published photobook, Concresco, which won the First PhotoBook Award in this year’s Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards. Thomas Bollier spoke with the Dutch photographer about his work.


Thomas Bollier: Can you tell me a little about your history as a photographer—when and how you got started and what’s brought you to here?



David Galjaard: To go way back, it feels like I got started as a photographer when I was fifteen. My father gave me a copy of the book Amsterdam by Ed van der Elsken, and as soon as I saw that book I knew I wanted to be a photographer—and that never changed. I studied at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, and while I was there I mainly worked the way van der Elsken did—with small film, really close to my subject, producing sort of emotional, social documentaries. As soon as I finished school, though, I found that that approach didn’t work for me anymore. I still love looking at those pictures but I wanted to do something else.

Around this time I got my own page in a national newspaper, called NRC Next, which had just started and hadn’t yet developed its visual vocabulary. They asked if I wanted to work for them as a freelance photographer, and that’s where I feel my work as a photographer really began. We had an agreement that I would do a piece, and if they didn’t like it they would just tell me. But they never did. I could experiment while working, which was a big luxury. After three years at the paper, though, I felt the urge to work on a longer documentary project.

Around this time I also became interested in representing physical space in my photographs, exploring what environments without people can express. I had made a small series, When the siren goes, in which I wanted to see if I could capture, in photographs, what I felt when I entered a space myself. I had explored Cold War bunkers in The Netherlands, in which I always felt a sort of ominous, uncanny feeling. I was wondering if it was possible to somehow capture that feeling . . . to take a photograph and show it to other people, and have them experience that place the same way. It was just a small experiment, but coming from the social documentary I was doing on the street, it was completely new to me.

One of the journalists from the newspaper saw my pictures from this series, and he asked me if I’d heard of the bunkers in Albania. I had traveled a lot through Eastern Europe, but never to Albania, and knew nothing of the history of the country. So I started reading about it, and bells started ringing when I read about the 750,000 to one million aboveground bunkers that were built in such a small country. I then traveled to Albania, just to look around. My first plan was to research how those bunkers have influenced the landscape and to see how, to the people who were still living there, those bunkers were still a reminder of a dictatorship that had lasted for almost fifty years. I traveled around Albania for a month, and took some good pictures, but it wasn’t much more than a small series, like something that would work in a magazine. I wanted to do more, but didn’t know what exactly. I kept reading and thinking about it, and after a couple of months realized that I wasn’t going to figure out what I wanted to do in Holland, so in October 2009 I traveled back to Albania. It was then that I decided that I should make a book.

TB: Albania, over the course of the past century, has experienced hardship and setbacks, and is still today finding its place in modern Europe. Were you daunted by the task of representing the complicated history and current problems of a country that is not your own?

DG: Yes, there were two big questions for me. Can I use the bunkers as a visual metaphor in the telling of a larger social story? And can I tell a story about a country that I don’t live in? I read a lot and spoke to a lot of people, and I tried to work as closely to facts as I could. But in the end every text, from The Pillbox Effect by Slavenka Drakulić, to the interviews, to my pictures, are all personal impressions. There are even texts in the book that contradict each other. My mission was not to say, “This is truth. This is Albania.” It’s just an impression of a country, as close to a truth as possible, but perhaps just one of many truths. I hope I found a way to not approach the country in an arrogant way, coming in and telling everybody, “This is Albania,” because that is not what I intended to do.

TB: The texts in Concresco are important for contextualizing the photographs, and I found that reading the intermittent booklets of personal testimonials heightened my interest in the images—the more I read, the more I wanted to see. Was it always your intention to include texts in the book, or did you ever consider Concresco exclusively as a book of photographs? How important for you is the interaction of words and images?

DG: I read [Drakulić’s] essay The Pillbox Effect during my second trip to Albania, and that really helped me decide that this project had to become a book. I was working with all this information I had about the country, and I was trying to put as much information as possible into my pictures. But I knew even without seeing my pictures yet that they would not be enough to tell the whole story. I wanted to do the best I could, but at a certain point you hit a wall, and need something more to really explain the story. I make my images with a lot of information in them, but you also need other information to understand them.

On my second trip, I was approached by a Dutch documentary filmmaker who was making a movie about the bunkers and we made a deal that I could use the raw material of his interviews and I would show him all the locations he needed. So the interviews of the [older] Albanians came from him. I did the interviews with the younger people myself, because I wanted to know more about the present and future [of Albania], and I could speak English with those people. The older people, who built the bunkers, or were trained in them, were interviewed by Sarah Haaij and Martijn Payens. You can find texts from my book in their film Mushrooms of Concrete, and they used one of my pictures for the film poster, and my designer did the design of the poster, so there were some other crossovers.

I knew quite early in the process that I needed text, so I also wrote to Drakulić and asked if I could use this essay from her book, and she said yes. So there are two different kinds of text in the book, the two longer stories [from Drakulić and Jaap Scholten] and the short interviews with Albanian people.

Regarding the different sizes of paper, first it started off as a solution to a practical problem, because I wanted to use as little text as possible. I’m a photographer, so of course I want to tell as much as possible with images, and only use text when I must. In the end we only had short pieces of interviews, and it just didn’t work out in the design to put them on a big page. So, we put them on a smaller page, and it was at that moment that I found out that it was a really great way to play in the editing, and things got exciting from there. It turned out to be a great way to make new connetions between the images and the text, and it gave me a lot more room to play, and that felt amazing. It really added another dimension to the book.