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An Experiment in Visual Anthropology

A special presentation of the exhibition took place in August 2018. This was an experiment in visual anthropology. The images of European squares travelled to Greece, towards the Vlach settlements, which are small, not visited by tourists, and generally little known and isolated, found high in the Pindus Mountains. The images were displayed without a prior announcement, but with the permission of local authorities. This took place precisely in the squares of these stone settlements, which have an old and very interesting architecture. The locals were surprised to find the image of their square in a long line of other, much more well-known squares. The inhabitants are the speakers of a neo-Latin idiom, Aromanian, predominantly oral and on the verge of extinction. With exceptions, the young generations do not speak it.

The anthropologist Cătălin D. Constantin, the author of the exhibition, did field research here, returning often in recent years. He speaks on the subject more broadly in a chapter of his book, European Squares and their Histories. Therefore, he knows many of the locals of the two settlements where they exhibition took place very well, with some of them being close friends. Calarli and Seracu, in Aromanian, the two settlements are called Kalarites and Syrako in Greek. As a result of the now diminished pastoral lifestyle, Kalarites and Syrako show a special lifestyle. In the summer, they are filled with life and people, going up to hundreds or even thousands of inhabitants. In the winter, however, the great snows ensure that there are six or seven people that remain. Thus, the community has traditionally functioned by other rules and regulations in comparison to settled communities. The square of the settlement and its social life during the summer, when the community regroups, is tied to the square and the centuries-old plane tree, which is always found at the square’s heart. The very birth of these settlements is linked to these ancient trees, found in every Vlach settlement in these mountains.

Traditionally, before founding any settlement, the Vlachs used to ask God for a sign that the site was protected and suitable for living. They would plant a tree, usually a plane tree, and, if it prospered for a number of years, then it was a sign that this was truly so. Around the tree the square was built. Then the houses. The square and the tree at its heart become the centre and the symbol of the community, because the time spent – either with rituals or day to day activities – in the square would stabilise and strengthen the community, which was otherwise spread out in the rest of the year.

The history of the two places is very interesting, important to the Vlachs and to Greece. Both became very prosperous in the 17thcentury, when, alongside shepherding, the inhabitants mainly focused on working gold and silver. This is how one may explain the massive, stone architecture, which is today protected by law. The Bulgari and other families of world famous jewellers trace their lineage to Kalarites. Ioannis Kolettis, the first prime minister of Greece, and the poet Kostas Krystallis, were both born in Syrako. Syrako wove the cloth for the uniforms of Napoleon’s campaign in Russia. It is the first rainproof cloth in history, a mixture of sheep wool and goat hair. The shepherds used it on bad weather long before Napoleon.

Fragments from the field journal

Transported on Cota’s mule, for there is no way to drive into the village, I arranged the exhibition in the square, under the astonished gazes of those in the local café, which had just come from church. I chose Sunday for this very reason. Then the other visitors appeared. Gradually, in less than two hours, the whole village came to witness the first exhibition to ever take place in the square. Tănase is the craftsman who covers the houses here with wooden plaques. I know him since the winter of 2014. Of course, Cota’s brothers and sisters were also there. Anastasios from Syrako. Napoleon… Even a few tourists.

Vasilis constantly took pictures. I’ve known him for two days now. You are an interesting man and I would like to buy you a coffee, he said, before he knew about the exhibition and who I was, suddenly stopping me on the stone alley on my very first morning in Călarli. Something had made him understand that, although I was a foreigner, I also belonged. He’s retired, has travelled a lot and used to work as an economist. He is well-off and lives in Athens. He wasn’t born in the village, he first came to Călarli when he was 14, to his grandparents. It was then that he learnt Aromanian and fell in love with the place. He comes only once a year, for communion from the local church. But it is also, he says, because Călarli is the only place in Greece where you can see seven mountains at once while you drink your coffee in the tavern at the village entrance.

(…)

One of the shepherds stood for half an hour before the drone photograph of the village. Then he called me and simply said that the photo is not well placed. I had to set it horizontally, not vertically, different from the rest, so that his houses (he has several, one next to the other) would be straight. Then he began, also in Aromanian, to talk about all one could see from above. Then he asked detailed explanations for the rest. In a short time, he became a guide and curator, explaining everything to any visitor. I was no longer needed. His son is the owner of the square’s café. He is young and very nice. We talk, in a way, although it is difficult, since he only speaks Greek. He took pictures of the exhibition with his mobile phone and uploaded them on the café’s Facebook page, from where it was massively distributed in the Facebook groups of the Greek Vlahs. 

(…)

Brother and sister, two beautiful kids, around 4-5 years old, filled with joy. I have the feeling they are Tănase’s nephews – the children of his brother. The boy suddenly approached me and determinedly took my camera. He could barely hold it, it weighs several kilos. He sent his sister before the row of photographs with a cheerful command. His sister, a year or two smaller, positioned herself with the certainty of a professional model. She really knew how to pose. He made her come towards him in a running step. They tried several shots and angles. They talked to me in Greek, reacted as if I understood everything perfectly, and didn’t care that I answered in another language. The dialogue went on like this for a quarter of an hour with great naturalness. This resulted in a series of photos taken by the boy with a certain degree of sureness. Among them a few which were absolutely correctly taken. I had to help him with the camera – it was weighing him down but he wouldn’t give up. Instead, he knew exactly which button to press and how to direct the objective. He had probably watched me carefully beforehand, without my realising it. The observed observer. The researched researcher.

(…)

The ‘delegation’ of the nephews from the neighbouring village of Syrako/Seracu arrived in the afternoon in Kalarites/Calarli, in order to see the exhibition. This was done on foot for about two hours, for the two villages, although close by, have a deep and narrow valley between them. In brief they said: that yesterday they had won the football match against another neighbouring village, Matzuki, that they have Romanian Carpathian Shepherd Dogs, that their village is more beautiful than the village where I displayed the exhibition, that the landscape here is more beautiful than in Romania, but that Romanian girls are more beautiful than their own, that in these villages one speaks ‘the same language as in your country’. And all was said in English and a very good one at that. They never learnt Aromanian, but they were so enthusiastic in sharing it all! Among them were the nephews of Barba Lefterie, an 81 year old Aromanian from Syrako, who gifted me with my first shepherd’s crook in my life there. He is very dear to me and has visited me two years ago in Bucharest. The night ended in the square of the neighbouring village, that is, Syrako, for Barba Lefterie called us in the evening to say that he was expecting us for the Aia Sotiria party. He wanted to see us and, of course to show hospitality since my cousin Carmen had paid the meal of his nephews that afternoon, in the Călarli square.

(…)

I wanted to watch the reaction of a small community, from an isolated settlement, when exposed to these photographs. That is, to an image of their own settlement, photographed from a perspective they had never seen before and linked to famous places and squares. In anthropological theory one speaks of the need to ‘return home’ – to the community which was studied – the information gathered by the anthropologist after publishing it. It is what I did in Kalarites, in a visual form. The book was also present and leafed through and asked for, naturally, also for the images. It was here that I had the greatest number of offers to buy the images in the exhibition and all were disappointed when I told them they were not for sale and that there were no copies for the images. In the end, I gave the photograph with the drone view of the settlement to Napoleon, for his café, the first place I stopped when I reached Călarli with Dan, in that first winter.