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An Experiment in Visual Anthropology

In August 2018, a special presentation of this exhibition took place as an experiment in visual anthropology. The images of European squares travelled to Greece, high in the Pindus Mountains, to the Aromanian settlements, which are small, generally isolated and not well-known or visited by tourists. The inhabitants are speakers of a neo-Latin language, Aromanian, predominantly oral and now on the verge of extinction. With few exceptions, the younger generations do not speak it. The exhibition was set up without prior notice, but with the permission of local authorities. The event was organised precisely in the main squares of these stone settlements, which have old and interesting architectural features. The locals were surprised to find images of their own squares alongside other, much better-known squares. 

The anthropologist Cătălin D. Constantin, the author of this exhibition, has done fieldwork here, returning often in recent years. He speaks on the subject more broadly in a chapter of his book, European Squares and their Histories. He therefore knows many local inhabitants from the two settlements where the exhibition took place, some of them close friends. The two settlements, Calarli and Seracu, are called Kalarites and Syrako in Greek. As a result of the now declining pastoral lifestyle, Kalarites and Syrako have a special way of life. In the summer, they are filled with energy and people, their population rising into the hundreds and even thousands. In the winter, however, the great snows ensure that only six or seven people remain. Thus, the community has traditionally functioned by rules and regulations that differ from those in more settled communities. The settlement’s square and its social activities during the summer, when the community regroups, is very important for helping maintain social ties. The very birth of these settlements is linked to the centuries-old platan trees, found in every Aromanian settlement in these mountains.

Traditionally, before founding a settlement, the Aromanians used to ask God for a sign that the site would be protected and suitable for living. They would plant a tree, usually a platan tree, and, if it prospered for a number of years, they would take this as a sign that it would be a good place to live. A square would be built around this tree. Then came the houses. The square with this tree at its heart would become the centre and symbol of the community, because the time spent in the square – either in rituals or day-to-day activities –would stabilise and strengthen the community, whose members were otherwise dispersed throughout the rest of the year.

The history of these two places is very interesting, important both to the Aromanians and to Greece. They became very prosperous in the 17th century, when, alongside shepherding, their inhabitants focused on working with gold and silver. This may explain their massive stone architectural features, which today are protected by law. The Bulgari and other families of world famous jewellers trace their lineage to the Kalarites. Ioannis Kolettis, the first Prime Minister of Greece, and the poet Kostas Krystallis, were both born in Syrako. The type of cloth used for the uniforms of soldiers in Napoleon’s Russian campaign was woven in Syrako. This was the first waterproof cloth in history, a combination of sheep wool and goat hair. The shepherds were using it in bad weather long before Napoleon.

Fragments from the field journal

Transported on Cota’s mule, for there is no way of driving into the village, I installed the exhibition in the square, under the astonished gazes of those in the local café, just coming back from church. I chose Sunday for this very reason. Then other visitors appeared. In less than two hours, the whole village had come to witness the first exhibition to ever take place in the square. Tănase is a craftsman who covers the houses here with wooden planks. I have known him since the winter of 2014. Cota’s brothers and sisters were of course 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 or who I was, suddenly stopping me in a 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 visit 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 by the entrance to the village. 

(…)

One of the shepherds stood for half an hour before the village photograph taken by a drone. Then he called me over and said simply that the photo was not well-placed. I should set it horizontally, not vertically, in contrast to the others, so that his houses (he has several next to one another) would look straight. Then he began, also in Aromanian, to talk about everything that could be seen from above. Then he asked for detailed explanations about the other images on display. In a short time, he had become a guide and curator, able to explain anything 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 speaks only Greek. He took pictures of the exhibition with his mobile phone and uploaded them to the café’s Facebook page, where it was widely distributed among the Facebook groups of the Greek Vlachs. 

(…)

A brother and sister, two beautiful kids, around 4-5 years old, filled with joy. I had the feeling they were Tănase’s nephews – the children of his brother. Suddenly the boy approached me and determinedly took my camera. He could barely hold it, as it weighs several kilos. He sent his sister to the row of displayed photos with a cheerful command. His sister, a year or two younger than him, positioned herself with the self-assurance of a professional model. She really knew how to pose. He asked her to come towards him with a running step. They tried several different shots and angles. They spoke 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 in a very natural way. This resulted in a series of photos taken by the boy with a certain degree of confidence. A few of them were taken absolutely correctly. I had to help him with the camera – it weighed him down—but he wouldn’t give up. Instead, he knew exactly which button to press and how to direct the lens. He had probably been watching me carefully beforehand, without my realising it. The observed observer. The researched researcher. 

(…)

The ‘delegation’ of nephews from the neighbouring village of Syrako/Seracu arrived in the afternoon in Kalarites/Calarli, in order to see the exhibition. Their journey was made on foot and took about two hours, for the two villages, although close to one another, are divided by a deep and narrow valley. In brief, the nephews told me: that yesterday they had won a football match against Matzuki, another neighbouring village; that they have Romanian Carpathian sheepherding dogs; that their village is more beautiful than the village where the exhibition was held; that the landscapes here are more beautiful than in Romania, though Romanian girls are more beautiful than their own; and that in these villages they speak ‘the same language as in your country.’ All of this was relayed to me in English, and a very good one at that. They never learnt Aromanian, but they shared their stories with such enthusiasm! Among them were the nephews of Barba Lefterie, an 81-year-old Aromanian from Syrako, who gifted me with my first ever shepherd’s crook. He is very dear to me, and 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 for his nephews’ meal that afternoon in Călarli square.

(…)

I wanted to see the reactions of a small community, an isolated settlement, to these photographs. That is, to see locals’ perceptions of their own settlement, photographed from a perspective they had never seen before but linked to other squares and well-known places. In anthropological theory, one speaks of the need to ‘return home’ – to give back to the community that has been studied – the information gathered by the anthropologist after completing a publication. This is what I did in Kalarites, albeit in visual form. The book was leafed through and requested, of course, for its images. It was here that I had the most offers to buy the images in the exhibition, and all were disappointed when I said they were not for sale as I only had a single copy of each image. In the end, I gave the photograph with the drone’s view of the settlement to Napoleon, for his café, the first place I stopped when I reached Călarli with Dan, during that first winter.