In August 1988, four days after appearing in the seminal Freeze exhibition with fellow students at Goldsmiths College of Art, Lala Meredith-Vula left London for the Albanian countryside, where she began to photograph haystacks. Asked, “Why haystacks?” she told me that in these agrarian forms she had found “the quintessential artwork.” And if she also wished to reconnect with her homeland—Meredith-Vula was born in Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia, in 1966—then such an abstract desire needed to be grounded in the earth.
Close to three decades and hundreds of photographs later, the project has not ceased. The haystacks continue to be built by farmers from places such as Peja, Carraleva, and Dulje, though today less frequently. Meredith-Vula continues to index their persistent presence and what might best be called their particular personalities. Her haystacks are significantly more varied than the regular, picturesque mounds painted by Jean-François Millet or Claude Monet in the nineteenth century. Photography individuates haystacks; it turns them into contemporary, documentable subjects.
Much has happened in these troubled regions in the years since Meredith-Vula photographed her first haystack. The Republic of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, which itself was part of Yugoslavia when the series began. Even if haystacks can be photographed like you or me, and thereby gain an almost animist quality, they do not carry passports or national allegiances. Their forms are governed by habits of working the land, which are older than nations. The needs of animals and the poetic license of farmers play their parts. Yet, even if haystacks do not belong in the polis, are not political subjects per se, they do bear silent witness to history; and certainly they have brought the photographer who traveled to depict them closer to historic events.
Meredith-Vula’s own role as witness transformed when, in 1990, she learned of plans to reconcile blood feuds in the region where she was photographing haystacks. Temporarily setting aside her fascination with the rural sculptures, she turned her lens toward hundreds of people gathering at the behest of the Albanian folklorist and academic Anton Çetta to ceremoniously end revenge killings that had continued for centuries, paralyzing communities. Not directly implicated in the conflicts but speaking fluent Albanian, she could get closer to the situation than foreign journalists—a handful of photographs show her on the other side of the camera, riding local farmers’ horses.