Nick St. Oegger and the Herd’s Pilgrimage for Point.51
Nick St. Oegger is a documentary photographer whose interest in storytelling and the natural world was showcased by a story he published in the long-form journalism magazine Point.51. Nick recounts and expounds on his experiences with nomadic shepherds in the mountains of Albania.
Nick relishes exploring the relationship between people and their natural surroundings, often focusing on communities threatened by environmental issues. These Albanian shepherds are one such community.
I met a French anthropologist who told me about the situation in the mountains where shepherds were living this ancient, nomadic lifestyle that was coming under threat because of the dam construction.
Nick was initially focused on the environmental risks caused by the hydropower dams' development on the region's rivers, some of the last untouched river systems in Europe. However, upon meeting the anthropologist, Nick realized that the environmental plight was tightly intertwined with the people’s way of life.
It's not just the landscape or environment that will be altered by the dams, but a people's entire way of life is at risk as well.
So, Nick took a trip to join the shepherds and gain insight into their daily lives in the "Albanian Alps."
I walked with them as they took a flock of over 200 sheep up to the high mountains and spent time with them as they grazed the sheep through the summer, living in a temporary shelter they return to every year.
It sounds like a magical adventure, a trip back in time. Imagine being there, at the mercy of the elements surrounded by dirty old sheep and their curmudgeonly shepherds. It smells like freshly cut grass and a brisk morning dew. Suddenly, “The Hills are Alive,” and you’re frolicking through the mountains.
According to Nick, that wasn’t quite how it went.
I had these romantic notions of walking through the landscape with the sheep and being very relaxed and organized. The reality was, I didn't even have much time to shoot. I was given a stick and expected to help keep the sheep on the road. This required constant attention.
Despite this rude awakening, Nick adapted quickly. His extensive experience in mountaineering definitely came in handy and he swiftly caught on. Nick was relatively well prepared which allowed him to blend in and, in return, helped the shepherds trust him much more speedily.
Eventually, a rhythm developed of waking up for coffee, milking the sheep in the morning, taking them out to graze around the mountain, coming back for lunch, taking a nap, then repeating the process before the sheep were led back into their pen for the night.
It does sound simpler to be in a state of constant activity — like there's less opportunity for internal crises, less time for existential dread. However, Nick was faced with many more opportunities for accidents, injuries, depleting supplies, and a complete lack of cell reception.
I regularly have these fantasies of giving everything up and moving to the countryside, and this ended up being a glimpse of what that sort of life is actually like.
Nick’s story is framed in a sense of revelation, surprise at the beautiful and ugly parts of this lifestyle, and how much it could change with the dams' development. Part of this change was strangely brought to light by the occasional SUV that came rumbling down the road the sheep were occupying.
We were carrying on with 200+ sheep, and every now and then someone in a huge Mercedes SUV would come around a corner and get stuck in a traffic jam of sheep, which we'd have to part for them to get through.
Being drawn here is a striking illustration of modern development and industrialization encroaching on an ancient, traditional, and humble way of life.
I went in with this expectation that everything would be really beautiful and peaceful, or it would all be really grim, and the reality was somewhere in the middle.
While his experience may not have been as romantic as Nick thought, it was undoubtedly poetic. This community is a special moment in time, one that many consider lost. Nick's photos and his story act as a window into an extraordinary world, a window that seems to be closing.
I found this sense of peace and connection between people and nature that I think is disappearing faster and faster in our world.
To read more about Nick's unusual experiences with the Albanian shepherds and their little buddies, pick up a copy of Point.51 here.
Features Editor: James Graham
Photo Editor: Rob Pinney
See more of Nick’s work at stoeggerphotography.com.
Check out our other great photographers on our Find Photographers page!