• The Albanian children imprisoned in their homes because of a 15th century death law
    written by Donatella Montrone

    Acts of vengeance cause the deaths of many thousands of people each year in northern Albania and keep similar numbers of children trapped in their homes for fear of reprisal. Award-winning photojournalist Guillaume Herbaut aims to show how the centuries-old tradition of Kanun is ruining the lives of entire generations of children, now illiterate, psychologically scarred and utterly without hope.

    “Emine was a peacemaker,” says Guillaume Herbaut. “His job was to pacify families at war.”

    But the families Emine sought to help were not in a warren, but living quiet lives in the north of Albania. Yet certain family members, the French photojournalist discovered, were shut away in their homes, never seeing the light of day for fear of reprisal by fellow Albanians – neighbours, former friends, even other family members – seeking revenge for being slighted, insulted, besmirched – or, in the extreme, the murder of one of their kin.

    “I was able to get in touch with some of the families affected by this tragedy through Emine,” Herbaut says. “But he was murdered a few months after I shot 2/7 Shkodra, the series of photographs I took in 2004.”

    Herbaut didn’t learn his craft in the traditional sense, at art college, putting theory into practice. Instead, it was more visceral.

    He was born and raised in the suburbs of Paris, in a block of flats perched on the edge of a highway opposite an industrial estate. “From my bedroom I could see the factories closing down, one after another,” he says. “They were later all torn down to make way for office blocks. So, for a long time my playground was a construction site and wasteland. My friends and I explored a lot – we used to go skating in the abandoned factories.”

    There was a municipal library in his building, and he’d spend hours in it, flipping through books. “I used to look for books that could open up the world to me,” he says. “I came across a photobook – a technical book. There was a picture in it of a woman jumping in the air from a suitcase. It was by Jacques-Henri Lartigue. I was 11 at the time and still remember it like it was yesterday. I was so struck by that image – I realised that a photo could stop time. So I asked my parents to lend me their camera. I think it was a little Kodak, plastic, black-and-white film, square format. I went out and I took my first pictures, then I had the film developed. When I saw the pictures, I thought, ‘they suck’. So I stopped taking pictures.”

    But at 16, in that very same library, he came across Robert Capa: Photographs, a retrospective photobook published in the mid-70s containing many unseen images by Capa. “It was a real shock. I thought: ‘This is what I want to do, witness the world through photography.’

    “I borrowed the book from the library and kept it for three years, studying it every day. In retrospect, I think I knew even at 11 what I wanted to do; I just didn’t know how to do it at the time. I took a few jobs in shops to earn money to pay for camera equipment and to finance trips. My schooling in #photography mainly came from the streets. Some of the first pictures I took were of homeless people, and then Croatia and Bosnia during the war. I learned a lot from the picture editors of different newspapers. They would give me real criticism.”

    Guillaume Herbaut is now one of his country’s most respected documentary photographers. Represented by #photo agency INSTITUTE., his work has been exhibited at Visa pour l’Image, Jeu de Paume gallery, PhotoEspaña and Bruce Silverstein Gallery in NY, among others.

    It was while reading Broken April by Booker Prize-winning author Ismail Kadare – a novel in which the protagonist is ordered to obey the mandate of the Kanun, an ancient Albanian creed which states one must avenge the death of his brother by killing his killer, and so becoming embroiled in a tit-for-tat death spiral where he becomes subject to reprisal for having killed his brother’s killer – that Herbaut became intrigued by this centuries-old law of the infernal eye-for-an-eye.

    “The #Kanun has existed since the 15th century,” Herbaut says. “It regulates daily life in Albania. Under Kanun, a party is duty-bound to seek revenge. The family of a murder victim has the right to avenge the victim by killing the murderer. But the family of the murderer who was killed through vengeance then has the right to retaliate, and so on. #Revenge between families can last several generations.

    “I’ve been to Albania twice, once to shoot 2/7 Shkodra, when Emine ‘the peacemaker’ introduced me to some of the families affected, and then I returned 10 years later to work on a different series. I thought I would take the opportunity to visit the families I had met a decade earlier. I found that the phenomenon of the vendetta was actually escalating. Children were also being affected; some were kept home from school for fear of being killed. So I decided to revisit this series. I want to show just how tragic vendettas are to families, to denounce the horror that is visited on so many children who are trapped in their homes for many years, illiterate and uneducated because they can’t go to school.”

    For more of Guillaume Herbaut’s work, visit his website._