Book Review: Eternal Friendship by Anouck Durand
By Isabella Weiss
Between 1961 and 1971 Albanian photographers were sent to China to be trained in a color photography technique in which the layering of a green, a red, and a blue image generated an illusionistic color spectrum. These photographers were already familiar with Kodak color printing, and yet the Albanian government deemed this technique a Western, capitalist indulgence, and mandated that they learn and employ the anachronistic tri-chrome technique instead. Albania had enrolled in the communist mission, a mission that nurtured the authoritarian manipulation of the populace, its culture, its cultural memory, and thus, its photography.
Anouck Durand’s book Eternal Friendship tells the story of one of these Albanian photographers by means of documentation and information that the author presents as untrustworthy. The photographs in this book were created, destroyed, and preserved as political objects. It contains personal letters preserved as a patchwork of truth and censored lies and images that were contrived at their creation and scoured in their attempted destruction. While Albania claimed to send its photographers on an educational journey, the trip was actually an extended media event in which photographers shook hands and posed, their image and presence serving as a representation of Albania’s dedication to communist ideals.
In his introduction to the book, Eliot Weinberger writes that “An authoritarian state depends not only on force, but on the absolute control of information, the creation of its own reality.” After Albania and China fell out of diplomatic relations in 1978, the government mandated that all material evidence of this relationship be incinerated. Thus, a series of events that occurred only to be documented were erased from the country’s archive. Durand’s book tells an individual’s experience of an event that was meaningless outside of state manipulation and control. Durand reinvents the voice of this individual, a voice that was not allowed the unique right of speech in its own time.
“A stain on your biography follows you your entire life. A record of every detail is kept on microfilm at the central archives. I was allowed to go. But my njollë [“stain” in Albanian] is indelible.” In this description, individual lives are unfolding biographies, controlled and owned by the state. Eternal Friendship is a historical collage both personal and political, as the two are inextricable in a communist context. Durand’s text makes clear that identity was both politicized and historicized under Enver Hoxha. The state controlled whether or not a face would be deleted or artificially preserved. You can see marks of the control and manipulation of identity in Durand’s selection of images themselves, in the blue-white ghostly spheres that float above a face’s absence, in the spirals of black ink that obscure Mao’s Zedong’s face. Eternal Friendship only partially re-humanizes its characters that have long lost their identities to an authoritarian state’s contrived presentations of presence and absence. In Eternal Friendship, Durand presents us with an unsolvable historical puzzle.