Nick St. Oegger

Story The Vjosa: Portraits of Life on Europe’s Last Wild River

© Nick St. Oegger

Nick St.Oegger captures the people and landscapes of the Vjosa, the last ‘wild’ river in all of Europe.

─── by Josh Bright, March 21, 2023
  • Based between Belfast, Northern Ireland, and Tirana, Albania, Nick St. Oegger is a visual storyteller whose personal work explores the close relationship between people and place.

    Documentary photography by Nick St. Oegger, portrait of woman and sheep in Albania, from thje series 'Vjosa'
    Ylli and her family raise sheep and grow crops on their land below the village of Kuta. The proposed construction of nearby dams would have created a large reservoir, flooding most of the fertile land in the surrounding areas. A lawsuit filed by local people, with the help of NGOs, stopped construction of the dams for the time being.

    He first visited the Western Balkans in 2013 and discovered a world beyond the pervasive stereotypes of war, ethnic divisions, and the chaos of post-communism. He has spent the last decade sharing stories that shed light on the region’s beauty, unique cultural heritage, and pristine landscapes, as well as the struggle to preserve all three.

    Documentary landscape photography by Nick St. Oegger, mountains, car, fields, Albania
    A car returning from farmland near the village of Kuta in southern Albania. Located between the sites for two proposed hydropower dams, most of the agricultural land below would be flooded by a reservoir if the projects moved forward.

    N. St Oegger:  In the south of Albania, the Vjosa river flows freely for 270km from its source in northern Greece to the Adriatic Sea. Considered to be Europe’s last wild river, the natural, un-dammed state of the Vjosa supports a rich ecosystem, with plant and animal species completely unique to the region. It has also been an important economic and cultural source for communities who have lived along its banks for centuries. The Vjosa has inspired songs, poetry, and legends and is even a popular name for newborn girls.

    Documentary landscape photography by Nick St. Oegger
    A stalled construction site for a large hydropower dam near the village of Kalivaç, on the Vjosa river. Construction began in 2007, but was halted several years later due to accusations of fraud and money laundering against the contractor. A subsequent contract for a Turkish construction firm was nullified by an Albanian court in 2021, citing an insufficient environmental assessment.
    Documentary landscape photography by Nick St. Oegger, Albania, from the series 'Vjosa'
    An interior of the Shehu family house in Bënça, a village on the tributary river of the same name. The Shehus and other locals organised protests against a hydropower project on the Bënça river, blocking roads and sending a signed petition to the central government.
    Documentary portrait photography by Nick St. Oegger, man on horse, Albania
    A villager in Kalivaç, near the construction site of a large scale dam. Many people in Kalivaç favoured the dam, believing its construction would bring jobs and infrastructure improvements to their area. Once completed however, dams require only a small workforce for their operation.

    N. St Oegger: In recent years, the Vjosa has faced numerous existential threats, from plans for exploratory oil drilling, construction of an international airport in its delta, and proposed large-scale hydropower dams. This has alarmed local communities and conservation groups, concerned by the potential for widespread environmental destruction, and the resulting loss of cultural heritage that these projects would create.

    Documentary photography by Nick St. Oegger, dog, communist bunkers, Albania
    A fisherman’s shelter constructed between two communist-era bunkers in the Vjosa delta. Fishing along the river plays an important part in the local economy, and has already been negatively impacted by unregulated practices, such as dynamiting. Furthermore, damming the Vjosa would be detrimental for species such as the endangered European eel, which migrates along the river to spawn.
    Documentary portrait photography by Nick St. Oegger, elderly woman, Albania
    Rronja, a retired teacher in Kuta. Like many in the village, she does not hold title documents for her land, due to the administrative chaos that followed the fall of communism in the 1990s. Should nearby dam projects go ahead, many would have trouble claiming compensation for loss of their land, without being able to prove their ownership.
    An abandoned petrol station on the road to Kuta. Once at the heart of Albania's agricultural industry, the poor quality road and lack of investment have left Kuta and nearby villages along the Vjosa largely cut off.

    N. St Oegger: The Vjosa has become the focal point of a wider environmental movement in the Balkans, drawing in an international group of scientists, activists, and celebrities with the ultimate goal of creating Europe’s first Wild River National park, and providing a new framework for river conservation around Europe.

    Documentary landscape photography by Nick St. Oegger, rivers, mountains, Albania
    The confluence of the Vjosa river and its tributaries the Drinos and Bënça, near the town of Tepelenë in southern Albania. Many sections of the river are braided, featuring islands that change throughout the year depending on flooding, and the natural flow of sediment.
    Documentary photography by Nick St. Oegger, abandoned house interior, Albania
    Interior, abandoned house, Kuta. Populations in rural villages like Kuta have been declining, with young people leaving to find work abroad or in the capital, Tirana. Many villagers who remain are helped by family members abroad who send back part of their earnings.
    Documentary portrait photography by Nick St. Oegger, elderly man, Albania
    Haxhi, a pensioner in Kuta. Haxhi worked in a cooperative set up with nearby villages during the beginning of Albania's communist regime in the 1950s. Villages along the Vjosa played a central role in the country's agricultural industry at the time.

    N. St Oegger: In June 2022, after years of campaigning and international attention by NGOs, the Albanian government signed a historic agreement with American clothing and environmental company Patagonia, to collaborate on the creation of the Vjosa National Park.

    Documentary photography by Nick St. Oegger. Portrait of elderly man looking over a river valley in Albania
    Rakip, a pensioner, looks out over the threatened Bënça river valley. Most of the village’s young population has left to work in nearby Tepelenë or the capital Tirana, leaving the older generation to work the area’s agricultural fields.

    N. St Oegger:
    This new development would see Patagonia supporting the government in defining the boundaries of the new park, ending the development of destructive projects on the river, and investing in environmentally sustainable tourism projects in local communities.



    Text and images © Nick St. Oegger