Perspectives | Diaspora

‘I found a way to say it through photographs’

By - 17.11.2023

Italian-Albanian trans photographer explores Albanian queer identity from the diaspora.

Kairo Urovi is an Italian-Albanian transmasculine photographer who explores identity, gender and belonging. Navigating Albanian culture as a queer person poses countless challenges, but Urovi’s photographic work, particularly his recent project in Shkodër, confronts these challenges with rare and refreshing vigor.

I first became aware of Kairo’s work when I stumbled on his Instagram page in June 2021. Seeing another Albanian person identifying so openly with their queerness really struck a chord with me. I grew up in the U.K. as a member of the Albanian diaspora and it has often been difficult to proudly identify with my heritage. I didn’t know of any Albanian LGBTQ+ people growing up. Because of this, I sometimes saw my queerness as something that was in opposition to my Albanianness.

Though my connection to Albanian culture is frequently a source of strength and peace, I’m just as frequently frustrated with the way it often rejects marginal communities, particularly people who don’t conform to conservative sexual or gender norms. I was inspired by Kairo’s choice to live his own identity unabashedly — and his assertion that it is tied to Albanian culture.

The first photos I saw on Kario’s page were of him dressed in Albanian traditional clothing, both masculine and feminine. Searching for a vocabulary of queerness in Albanian culture and history is like putting your hand in front of your face in a dark room — sometimes, if you stare hard enough, you can just about make out the outline. Kairo helped me see it.

Kairo’s work of illuminating the connections between Albanian culture and queerness is grounded in a university project about the “burrnesha” of Albania, the so-called “sworn virgins” of Albania’s north. In a caption on Instagram, he draws connections between the ancient legacy of the burrnesha and contemporary transmasculinity. “Transmasculine individuals,” he writes, “have always been part of Albanian history.” 

Kairo was born and raised in Lugo, Italy to an Albanian family. The family migrated to the U.K. when he was 14 years old. Though he started taking photos while on holidays with his family, it was the move to London, he tells me, that inspired him to take photography more seriously.

At the time, many Albanian families living in the U.K. preserved memories and maintained family ties by keeping photo albums. Following the collapse of communism in Albania and amidst the increasing violence that would lead to the war in Kosovo, many Albanians made their way to the U.K. One of the few ways they could keep in touch with their families back home was through sending photographs back and forth. In the same way that our Albanian parents used photography to feel less alone, Kairo told me that photography made him feel less alone in London.

Making use of the isolation of the Covid lockdown, Kairo started his physical transition in 2020, all while documenting the process of stepping into the way he wanted to present himself to the world. The polaroid shots he took throughout the self-documentation allowed him to see the results immediately, they were a mirror with which he could see himself better.

With the documentation project, Kairo wanted to explore his cultural identity. He felt, he told me, as if “nothing in the U.K. connected me to my cultural identity.”

In December 2022, Kairo returned to his parents’ hometown Shkodër after having been away for 11 years. It was his first time back since the death of his grandfather. He told me he used the trip to figure out what type of space he can inhabit in his cultural home, but also to culminate his cycle of grief related to his late grandfather. When he entered his grandparents’ house he was met with his grandmother who had adorned every corner of the house with pictures of the family.

Kairo set about photographing Shkodër and his family members, particularly his maternal grandmother and himself. 

The photographs from the trip probe his inability to find his own place in Albania. He felt, he told me, a burning need to return to his family’s homeland in order to come to terms with the challenges of being transmasculine and Albanian. It was a necessary step in his transition.

His project is influenced by the Marubi National Photography Museum in Shkodër. The collection dates from the second half of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century and includes the work of 18 photographers. The collection “depicts historical events and proves to record the first traces of Albanian photographs,” as the website states. But it also includes photos of Ottoman-era queer practices — the “köçek,” cross-dressing dancers, and “dylber,” young male admirers of poets or singers. It’s this archive that Kairo used as inspiration for creating his own contemporary portrait of queer Albanian existence.

His photos reflect a sense of nostalgia that is reminiscent of family photo albums, while a potent sense of isolation lingers throughout. The work comments on the jarring diasporic experience of returning “home,” and discovering that things have changed — the effects of time passing, a change in relationship to the place, the passing of loved ones. And yet things are the same, physically little has changed from his childhood memories. But the ghosts of the past, of the lives that walked these streets, are palpable in Kairo’s photos.

During his December trip to Shkodër, Kairo said that he watched his family members and wider community watch him, noticing his physical transition, but that he felt “unable to explain it to them.” He felt, he said, like he was in a cage and that the only way for him to see himself was through photos. But with his paternal grandmother it was different, “I always felt seen by her, entirely seen by her.”

He decided to explain his transition, his transmasculine identity. He approached her “while she was in the middle of watching a Turkish drama,” Kairo said. “She told me that I don’t need to explain anything to her. Our understanding goes beyond language, she sees my soul.”

Though he told me that he feels there still isn’t quite enough space for him yet in Albanian culture, his confrontation with his heritage and his photography project have started to create some of that space.

Kairo presented his project “Light are the Wounds, Heavy is the Wind” at his university graduation show at the end of May. Front and center, a photograph of Kairo stood powerfully as you entered. Kairo wanted to figure out the space he inhabited as Albanian and queer. This photograph fills the silence. His spirit emanates from that image and all the others. To create an archive where there is virtually none is no easy feat, and yet Kairo achieves it.

The project was Kairo’s way of saying that he is here. “Not despite the grief and the silence and the lack of words and the deadnaming but because of it,” as he wrote in a post about the exhibition on Instagram. “It’s a story about finding grief in home as much as it is about finding love within it. For everything I could not say through words, I found a way to say through photographs.”

Photos: Kairo Urovi.