The Spirit of Albania: A Conversation with Street Photographer Gilles Roudiere


Gilles Roudiere was born 1976 in France and lives and works in Berlin. He is a self-taught photographer, and in 2005 he decided to give up his job as an executive to concentrate on photography. His work mainly focuses on Central and Eastern European countries.


Portrait by Damien Daufresne

PetaPixel: First Gilles, how did you get your start with photography?

Gilles Roudiere: I didn’t have any interest for photography for a long time, I disliked the technical aspects of it. One day I learned that I had a grandfather who used to be a photographer. There was a lot of mystery surrounding him, and of course it aroused my interest. Later on, I spent two years in Poland and then traveled a lot because of my job and the photography was always part of the trips. I finally quit my job as an executive and decided to move to Berlin with the idea to take photography seriously.

I learned by exploring photo books in bookshops or libraries, and looking at websites of photo agencies. Discovering post-war Japanese photography was a major stepping stone as well; and maybe unconsciously, it is still very present in my mind while taking pictures.

But more than the process of learning, it is the unique experience of the emotion that photography can arouse that binds me to this specific medium; a physical experience which is in most cases independent from the subject itself. I believe I became a photographer when I stopped trying to understand pictures, and started to feel them.


PP: Who are the mentors who have helped to shape your craft and vision?

GR: The main influences and photographers I feel really linked with are the Japanese post-war photographers Takuma Nakahira, Yutaka Takanashi, Masahisa Fukase and Daido Moriyama. I also like the philosophy of Swedish photographers Christer Strömholm and Anders Petersen, and the simplicity and elegance of Paulo Nozolino’s works as well.

There are also many lesser-known but excellent photographers surrounding me: Damien Daufresne, Stephane C, Charlie Jouvet, Alisa Resnik… with whom meetings, conversations and shared editing have all been very helpful.


PP: Your series “Shitet,” which means “for sale” in Albanian, is a series of street scenes made with a distinct film noir style. What movies, music, and works from other types of media have influenced you to make images in this style?

GR: I don’t think I’ve been really influenced by other media types on that series. Albania is a very sunny country and I like the idea that it is precisely the brightness of its landscapes that allows to get very deep blacks and to play with light and shadows. Besides the aesthetic, the invading blacks are, for me, a way to get rid of anecdotal details, simplify and avoid too much narrative in the pictures.


PP: Why the title, “For Sale?”

GR: The word “Shitet” is probably the most visible term found throughout Albanian urban landscapes. You find it stuck, painted and/or scratched everywhere… It’s like the whole country would be for sale.

The word became for me like a second name for Albania, and for that reason I took it as title of the project. I didn’t really want to say anything about the country through the title and I like the idea the word does not have a lot to do with the pictures themselves.


PP: When did you begin this project, and how long have you worked on it?

GR: I started the project in 2010 and have been to Albania twice every year (varying two to four weeks) until 2012.

PP: You have a poem on your website that speaks about the character and the soul of Albania. Tell us about this soul, and what it is about Albania that you seek to express with these images?

GR: Albania exhales something very specific, mysterious and bewitching (the strong streams of the Mediterranean sunlight, the unlikely landscapes, the smoke from burning wild rubbish, the whirls of dust in towns, the sandstorms along the coasts…) that can’t fail to haunt you.

My purpose was to capture and deliver my own intimate experiences of the country, of its atmosphere. I wanted to steer clear of any documentary issue and focus on simple things and scenes that would tell a more personal manner the way I could feel the region’s spirit.


PP: What equipment are you using for this project? Are you shooting with film? Do you make prints in the darkroom?

GR: I used different film cameras (ricoh gr, hexar, mju) but all of them had the common point of being small and light. I have a bad back, so this way of working allowed me to carry my equipment without a bag. It’s also much easier for me to make pictures with that kind of low profile camera. I feel more spontaneous, and the contact with people is somehow more comfortable.

I develop the film at home and scan the negatives to get an equivalent of contact sheets. I haven’t used my darkroom for many years now, a pity… (also for economic reasons)


PP: Do you consider yourself a traditional street photographer?

GR: Most of my images have been taken in the street and in that way I’m probably a street photographer. But I guess a traditional street photographer would rather look for narrative elements (a street scene directly telling a story) or combination of background details responding to foreground elements, things I try to avoid as much as I can. So I’m maybe not in the pure tradition of street photography…


PP: Looking through your images and the way the tones and figures play against each other, there’s an intensity and drama to the stories being told. Are these emotional chords you strike meant to reflect the subjects of the pictures or your own view of the world?

GR: The very smoky, dusty and sun-filled atmosphere of Albania is by itself a reason the photos look the way they are. My pictures are rather dark and I know viewers sometimes feel they are dramatic. It’s not the way I see them. I agree with intensity. It’s probably a mix of my own view, hopefully uncompromising and sincere, and the will to carry an emotion through the subject and its aesthetics.


PP: Finally, what are you looking forward to over the next year?

GB: I’ve got many projects that are already shot but still on undeveloped film. I’m currently working on developing and scanning the last month’s material. I guess several sequences corresponding to the different trips I made will come out of it, but also a traversal series not linked to any special geographical place.

I’ve got some exhibitions planed until June and will teach a workshop, which I’m really looking forward to, too. I like to have the opportunity to talk about a certain kind of photography, one dealing with feelings.


  • Thekaph

    Gilles, je ne sais pas si vous aurez l’occasion de lire ce message, mais merci pour cette interview. Je vous ai découvert avec celle ci et je suis fan de vos contrastes très prononcés.



  • Bill

    Wait, whut, I’m going to quit my job too, seeins’ as how I’m also self taught. I’ve got a boat load of blurred and out of focus “pitchers”, open Aperture throw a monochrome filter on em’ and voila…

  • olafs_osh

    I don’t think your sarcasm is appropriate here, but in one thing I would agree – overall nowadays contemporary art photography is geared towards this kind of images. They do convey the mood, but more often than not, they are born from laziness and lack of knowledge. All respect to people, who can do those on purpose and bring through all the series mood, that people feel with their guts. Unfortunately I’ve seen too many examples, when just “lookalikes” are valued far too much.

    [the same with classic street photography – too many snapshots are considered street, when they are, well, just a snaps of people in the street]

    As a good example I could mention Sobol here. Wont mention bad ones and will not judge this article in particular now, though.

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    I like this photography, it’s very poetic and melancholy. However, as mentioned in the article about Josef Hoflehner just the other day: I do hope the amount of solid black (as in no information) in the images is a stylistic and conscious choice… It’s funny that in such a short span, two photographers has been featured on Petapixel with the same high-contrast style. (Seeing as Gilles mentions Christer Strömholm, Petersen and so on, I guess it is a very conscious decision)

    As I said though, I like the shots per se. They are pretty much in line with what I shoot and what I usually look at in photo books and exhibitions.

  • Erik Lauri Kulo

    This is more than just photographs that are blurred and have a monochrome filter. He is obviously educated in this type of contemporary photography, if you read the interview — and even if you don’t, I’d say the photography speaks for itself as more poetic than your average photo that just has some filter thrown on it.

  • Fin

    I’m reminded of that recent doco about Cartier-Bresson showing him turfing out many of his past street shots. I suggest the carnage with this lot will be severe. Bill’s comment (and Olaf, Bill does not need to be instructed about “sarcasm” from the town scold :) has an element of truth imho and while I don’t think it’s deliberate pretentiousness on Mr Roudierre’s part I’m left wondering about the messages. And please, don’t tell me it’s “emotion”..

    However, the pigs shot suggests (or one at least) they’re headed for the chop. Would the last image be more telling if the two people had been approaching the fork from the other direction?

  • Fjorda Ukihx

    When someone send me the link to read at this article, i was really curious to see how someone could describe the spirit of Albania, and im sorry to say this, but this article shows nothing about the spirit of my country. All the so called artist wants to show is an Albania in its “post comunism” time. It is a shame.. Albania is moving on, and working hard in many directions. Albania has one of the most wonderful landscapes in the Balkan, one of the most deliscious food. Albania has a unique language, is one of the first created languages in the world. I dont get it how someone can call Albania “for sale”, give to him this kind of name. Albania is a place full of beauty, honor and tradition, to albanians the family is sacred, and u dare to call it “for sale”??? Shame on you, you should get back in Albania again and this time really see and show what the real Spirit of Albania is..

  • Aira La Mer

    I think a lot of Albanians would get angry or sad (as I already see in some comments) with the fact that these kind of photos (a little bit dark/mysterious/post-communist feeling) and they are half right.

    I really like the mysterious description of the artist, but these photographs remind me more of the 90’s than year 2012 Albania.

    Underlining the fact, that, 1 month in a year is not enough to get his “spirit”, but what he got is also true. This part of Albania, among other characteristics of her, still exists, and you can still feel it. But it is not everything about our land.

    Obviously, I am not talking about technique/photographic part, I just felt touched by these photographs because they remind me something, but “capturing the spirit” is still in the first steps…

    Congratulations on your job, and I hope you will try to accomplish this experience.


  • Sam

    I think you’re reading too much into the title. He said the ‘for sale’ title was nothing more than a sign he saw posted everywhere. If you don’t speak the language of a place, things like this stick out as a tourist. He also said he liked titles that had nothing to do with the images, which is why he used it.

  • Me

    These images really are terrible.
    Bad composition, bad focus, Images tell no story.
    This is no Cartier-Bresson.

    I am not inspired the least bit.
    I hate the “You don’t understand Art” defense.

  • Scott M.

    I went to Albania once, about 5 years ago. It was a strange place. The old regime had set up concrete machine gun bunkers at almost every intersection. We asked the guide why this was. After several hours of evasion he admitted it was for the supposed invasion of the Americans. He said they had been preparing for this invasion his whole life. When the dictator fell, the people were quickly made broke from a variety of Ponzi schemes. Everyone was destitute. There were many scare-crows hanging to scare away the demons. We originally landed upon a beachfront, which was completely unfinished. Hundreds of hotel buildings, stopped after the concrete blocks were installed and then, nothing. The highlight of our tour was to visit a natural spring, called the blue eye. It was interesting but raining at the time. I suppose the new invasion could be tourism but it is a sad visit. Strange place and and somewhat scary. I wish them the best.
    These photographs fit my memory of the place.

  • flightofbooks

    sorry, your blurred and out of focus pictures don’t count if you didn’t make them on purpose.

    a difference between doing something out of incompetence and doing the
    same thing in service of an aesthetics. The fact you can’t tell the
    difference (and probably don’t even realize there is one) is it’s only
    special kind of incompetence. A far more loathsome kind, in fact.

  • flightofbooks

    did you ever consider that maybe you actually don’t understand art?

    these aren’t ‘great’ images. they’re very derivative of the works by the photographers Roudiere mentioned. But they’re not poorly composed, at all and they’re in as much focus as they need to be.

    And they do tell a story. The problem is, it’s not Albania’s story, or Roudiere’s story. It’s a retelling of someone else’s story without really understanding what that story was.