Photography on the Mean Streets of Macedonia – The Money Shot Edition


Ohrid Macedonia. Beautiful lady.

P

hotography is one of the best ways to meet random strangers in a foreign land. For almost ten months, I’ve been taking photos of people on the streets all across the world. Call it street photography if you like. Now, it’s Macedonia’s turn. As usual, I met a lot of people in Macedonia. Sometimes the personal interactions with the people I shoot are brief and fleeting. Other times, I’m quickly lead down a deep path of politics, war, economics, religion, corruption, and family history. If I told you the most memorable quotes strangers had told me after I took their photo, I’m sure I could make you laugh, smile, or cry.

People are pretty much the same all over the world. The differences between us all, are much smaller than the similarities. Everybody is just trying to get by. Everyone feels a little trapped at times. Everyone wants freedom, above everything else. And there are many kinds of freedom. Such as rights, civil liberties, good health. A recent interaction in Macedonia lead to discussions of financial freedom. As a long term traveller, this is something that is often on my mind. A conversation with a stranger gave me the perspective we all need from time to time.

I’m not normally pedantic. But, I do consider myself more as “fortunate”, rather than “lucky”. However, I’ll never forget the big dollop of luck I received the day of my birth. Being male, white, and born into a wealthy western nation like Australia, I pretty much won the human birth lottery. During my recent time in Ohrid, Macedonia – for a brief moment – I forgot about that amazing stroke of luck.

Egg seller at the Pit Bazar in Skopje, Macedonia.
Egg selling lady, at the Bit Pazar. Skopje, Macedonia.
boat Taxi driver, Ohrid Macedonia.
Taxi driver. Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.
Cool cats in "Šuto Orizari" or "Shutka" - largest Roma municipality in Macedonia.
Cool cats in “Šuto Orizari” or “Shutka”. Largest Roma municipality in Macedonia.
cevapi ohrid
These guys make the best Cevapi sandwich in Ohrid.
cute macedonian kids
And these two are just cute kids. Lake Ohrid, Macedonia.
Macedonian philosoper
This man told me he was a “freelance philospher”. Everybody in Ohrid knows of him. Chatted to him about history, philosophy, and all things ancient.
pizza skopje
Had some great cheap Pizza made by these two ladies in Skopje, Macedonia.
stone bridge skopje street photography
On the ancient Stone Bridge in Skopje. When I told him this photo may end up in a gallery one day, he said “oh shizer”. He also asked me if it would be in the newspaper. I told him it was unlikely.

I had just finished my dinner, when the restaurant owner stubbed out his cigarette. He was sitting with a pile of papers, a few empty tables away. Casually but inquisitively, he looked up at me.

“You are from Greece?”

The conversations don’t normally start like that. This was the first time I was asked if I was Greek. I don’t look Greek.

“No, I’m from Australia.”

Then came the smiling response I have come to expect, and haven’t yet tired of hearing.

“Ah, Australia. Welcome.”

Typically, these conversations continue with me telling the locals how lucky they are to live in such a beautiful, vibrant, and historical place. Then, they tell me how lucky I am to be from Australia because “the economy is so strong”. It’s true. In Australia, waitresses get paid more than most of the worlds doctors. Australian suburbia displays the worlds largest houses, and hides the worlds most unused Jet-Ski’s. If you’re unemployed in Australia, you’re still in the top 10% of income earners on Earth. By any rational definition, Australians are wealthy. Even the “poor” Australians.

We got to know each other a little. After a while, he asked me what the salaries were like in Australia. I told him, and then explained with the added disclaimer that the wages may seem high, but everything in Australia was very expensive. It really is. Really, really, expensive. I would take an educated guess and say that my home city of Perth may just be the most expensive city on Earth.

I explained that even on a salary that may seem huge by Macedonian standards – or the standards of most of the world- there are some people living in Australia who found it difficult to “get by”.

He grinned.

“How much do you think we get paid here?”

I asked if he meant how much his restaurant staff were paid.

“Yes. Do you know how much?”

It would have to be another educated guess. I thought about it. Macedonia is, after all, a European nation. At this point I had been in Macedonia for more than a month, and had started to learn what the daily expenses typically are. But, I thought I would guess high. It felt like the right thing to do.

“I would guess…say… ten thousand Euro’s a year?”

That’s about 13,000 US dollars a year. $250 US a week. The Balkans is a cheaper part of Europe, and it seemed like a low amount to me, but enough to live on comfortably.

“Ha”. A wry grin. There was some puzzlement at me expressing wages on an annual basis.

“So, no. In a year, as you say…about two thousand Euros.”

It took a moment for the reality of that figure to sink in.

“Two thousand Euros…. a year?”

My confused look prompted him to break it down.

“Yes. About two hundred Euro’s a month. Fifty Euro a week.”

I had only just finished talking about how some Australians making, well, a lot more than fifty Euro’s a week, were finding life a little difficult. Fifty Euro’s a week, is about sixty five US dollars. I didn’t ask how many days you would need to work, to earn $65 US each week. It may be five, six, or seven. I don’t know. I didn’t ask. We kept talking.

Street photo of Macedonian photography
Hangin’ on the streets of Skopje Macedonia.
shutka Macedonia
Back of Phillipa’s head. Shutka, Macedonia.
macedonian shutka streets photography
If you wait at this corner cafe in Shutka, you’ll get plenty of opportunities for street portraits.

“I lived overseas for 12 years. I came back, when Macedonia declared it’s independence. I was born here. I thought after independence the…potential… was huge. Now… I think… well…” He looked down at the ash tray, and his crossed over leg started swinging up and down. He slowly shook his head. We talked about the Balkans zeitgeist of topics – corruption, the government, the economy. And how Ohrid may be one of the most beautiful places on Earth but even still, a little money wouldn’t go astray. We agreed that things, for the ordinary person, were the similar in Serbia and Croatia. He told me that it’s only because he lives with his son, and his father, that together they pool their resources and somehow survive – and this was a typical scenario in Macedonia.

Even after just a few months in the Balkans, I think I have a reasonable understanding of the costs of living here in the Balkans. To me, it didn’t make sense.  So, I firmly suggested it wouldn’t be possible to live on two hundred Euro’s a month. And, he quickly agreed. He told me the worst part is, you get paid two hundred Euro’s, and you need three hundred to live. I asked if he thought the situation for most Macedonian people was getting better, worse, or staying about the same.

“I think it’s getting worse”.

Now, not every full time employee in Macedonia makes only $65 US a week.

Fully qualified Macedonian Doctors might get paid $200 US a week.

Sometimes more.

And, later that night, I recalled my friend in Cambodia telling me that his wife made about $14 US a week, working 80+ hours at a garment factory.

The thing is, people in Macedonia, the Balkans, and even Cambodia, seem much happier than Australians.

Nate.

 

PS, “Mean Streets” is the title I have given my street photography based articles. The streets of Macedonia were among the most friendly I have ever been on.  If you would like to see some more photos of streets around the world – click here.

 

 

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53 thoughts on “Photography on the Mean Streets of Macedonia – The Money Shot Edition

  1. you are a wonderful writer and photographer. very touching and real. being macedonian myself i congratulate you on such a beautiful work sir!

  2. That is a seriously impressive collection of photos Nate. You’ve made me want to polish up my photography skills (and grow some photography balls) before embarking on my next big trip.

    1. Thanks Jackson. Try taking a few photos before you leave of the types of subjects you’re interested in – whether that’s people, architecture, food, etc. And if you have any questions, feel free to ask. As for the balls, it’s really not that hard – I did plenty of street photos in Perth, with no problems ever. If anyone asks you what you’re doing, just be open and honest (and confident). Hope that helps.

  3. Hello again from me Nate.
    Great article ,you are such a wonderful writer and photographer , i just love your photos ,especially this portraits that you made.
    Just one correction for you ,the bazaar (or green market) is called Bit Pazar not Pit :)
    Anyway you had interesting discussion with the owner of the restaurant and it is the reality here in Macedonia ,some people even get worse wages than 200 euros for example textile workers get around 70-100 euros a month ,working Monday to Sunday 8-10 hours a day.
    It is awkward for me he asked you if you are Greek or from Greece, normally i think that nobody will ask you that question first if they want to have conversation with you.

    Again ,thanks for the great photos and article ,keep up with the great work that you do.

    Greetings from Skopje,
    Dalibor.

    1. Hey Dalibor how are you today! So, I actually knew it was called Bit Pazar, it was just a typo! But yes, the Macedonian/Balkan wages are very low by European standards. It’s a tough life for many people working – not to mention the high unemployment rate. Really puts things in perspective for me, and I hope for a lot of people not from this part of the world. Also – I didn’t find it awkward, being asked if I was Greek – the general question happens all the time “where are you from”. Nobody had ever said Greece before… (yes, I understand some about the relationship between Republic of Macedonia, and Greek Macedonia)

      Thanks for stopping by again, enjoy Skopje.

      1. I’m fine thank you. :)
        Ok then :)
        You are right they are quite low.
        It is hard life, but from what i’ve seen we enjoy in it quite a lot more than other people.
        Yeah, the general question is asked quite often and everywhere but question like “Are you from Greece” doesnt look like general question ,even for us over here with all those political problems with our neighbour.

        No problem i enjoy over here on your blog and i enjoy Skopje as much as i can :)

  4. Great set of photos, and the last sentence really sums up everything. Relativity and context are two things that are sorely lacking in most of the developed world.

    When I was living in the UK, I was earning much less as an accountant that I could have been earning back in Perth. My fiancée was on slightly above minimum wage.

    We still travelled, went out, and when I did the calcs, were still in the “top 6%” in the UK. I had nothing to complain about.

    Returning to Australia, it was amazing to see people who were earning even more, a lot more, complaining that life was tough! I mean people want to throw out the government because Labor is “screwing up the economy”.

    It really, really frustrates me.

    1. I know exactly what you’re saying Paul. If only people could see a bit more of the world, perhaps their perspective would be a bit more rational. I have this feeling nothing much is going to change any time soon, but I could be wrong.

      1. Hmmm….the survey didn’t include Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Thailand (the land of smiles), or even Bhutan – the land that holds happiness higher than GDP, nor did it include most of the nations on the entire planet. And sorry I’ve removed the link, I don’t want my site linking to that trashy news site. Hope you understand.

  5. “I lived overseas for 12 years. I came back, when Macedonia declared it’s independence. I was born here. I thought after independence the…potential… was huge. Now… I think… well…”

    If I had a dollar for every time I heard something like this…

    Great post again, I keep featuring you in my blog. And it’s a pleasure!

  6. Really great article Nathaniel, ive recently been trying to give some people perspective, will be sharing this.

  7. Nate,

    Big leap in your photo technique. Definitely upping your game. Most be some type of inspiration that these places are giving.

    Be well

    Laurence

  8. Being someone who lives in Indonesia and gets paid in the local currency often makes me think of how much the people in wealthy countries are paid. But then after traveling to some countries I realized that local price plays an important role in measuring people’s welfare in a certain country. I don’t get paid that much compared to western standard. But then prices are significantly lower in Indonesia at the same time. Anyway, I love your photos, especially the one on the guys cooking Cevapi.

    1. Cheers Bama, nice to hear from you again. Yes, it’s all relative, $100 would get you a long way in Indonesia, but not very far in Australia. However, I tend to think that people in wealthier countries “think” they are a lot poorer than what they are in reality. It does make it very easy for me, being from a wealthy nation, to travel to nations (like Indonesia) where the prices seem so cheap. But every now and then, it’s good to have a reminder of how tough some of the locals have it.

  9. Hiya! Saved this one for when I got back from my trip. As always, fab pictures, always gives you a better feel for a place to see the everyday people that live there. Lost of food for thought in your post. I was just as shocked at just how low the restaurant owner said the wages are, I can’t even imagine. While I generally have a tight budget and more money would be nice, I’m constantly trying to remind myself that on the world standard, I live pretty well. VERY interesting observation that, despite their economic situation, the Macedonia people seem happier that those in Australia.

    1. Hey Noelle – sounds like you had a good trip. Yes, it’s a nice reminder that what we think is a small amount of money – in the US or Australia, is actually a huge amount for so many people around the world. It really puts our “privileged” life into perspective!

  10. I seldom appreciate portrait shots but you got me into your photos! There are really nice. Great share. Thanks

  11. $65 a week is just like a regular in our area. You should visit countries in the south east Asia. Some of the countries there could live easily on that range of pay…

  12. Amazing photos and great words. As an American I won that birth lottery too. And having a conversation with locals about how much we are spending on travel can be a bit awkward so I can’t imagine talking about wages with folks. So thank you for this insight.

    1. Thanks Daryle… I know what you mean, sometimes these conversations are downright humbling. You and me both, we won the birth lottery, and lets not take it for granted.

  13. Look I agree, happiness is a state of mind and of course we lack perspective in the Western World.

    We are conditioned and brainwashed to associate happiness with consumerism. If we didn’t, capitalism would crumble (I think).

    End result – It creates a nation of ‘miserable’ people chasing an imaginary concept and an almost unachievable goal.

    Who wins? – Top 1%.

  14. Hi there! I’m glad you enjoyed our country. We don’t have very high standards but it’s not as bad as the restaurant owner have told you. You know,small poor country, but round 2,000,000 citizens who are enjoying their lives to the fullest. Lucky you! You’ve been in Ohrid for a month, I’m from Skopje and I go there every year just for 10 days :O Also I’d like to say that we can hire you as a tourist guide :) you’re convincing and sound like every single piece of our land is worth seeing. And don’t be surprised by kind Macedonians. We are at the third place of world’s hospitality list!
    Thank you for everything Nate,keep on with this great job! Take care and feel free to come again and visit us.

  15. Wonderful article!

    Being from Macedonia (but residing in the US) it really warms my heart when I see people like yourself enjoy my country. Not many people have heard of Macedonia let alone visit it. Macedonia is a beautiful country and I feel like more people need to experience it.

    The fact that you made this article and seeing comments that your work inspired them to visit Macedonia really puts me in good spirits. I miss home so much seeing your photos really made my day. And for that I thank you. Hope you visit again one day!

      1. Thats wonderful! I havent been back home since 2006 so I am actually quite very jealous and pleased that your going back!

        Would love to see more of your pictures from the trip!

  16. Great story – think I recognise the “freelance philosopher” from my trip to Lake Ohrid a couple of years ago. He was touting his services as a tour guide and when we said “no thanks”, one of our group who could speak Russian heard him tell everyone around that we were Australian where everyone is descended from thieves and prostitutes! Charming…

  17. So can relate to this post.
    I also hate that question, how much do I make. Yes I am also from a high earning country but living alone in an apartment costs 1000€ a month, getting to work 250€ month, pay 200€ a month in child support etc.. But people only hear the amount I make, not ever considering the expenses..
    But still, even after all the expenses I end up with more money left then most people make in a month make before expenses.

    Was in Uganda a few years ago, there the average salary for someone working for the goverment is about 70€ a month.
    But most people just work on their families farms and hardly make any money at all, I remember my sisters telling a story about their maids daughter (they lived there for a year) that needed to take a motorcycle ride home to the family when school finished for the semester. She was trying to get someone in the family to pay for the ride (they lived far out in the country in the northwest part) but no one could afford it, the cost of the ride was less then 2€..

    But still, as you say, people are extremly poor, only 4% of the country has electricity, parents cant afford to send their kids to school etc.. they all seem so much happier then people at home. (From Sweden btw)

  18. Thanks for visiting & sharing your positive experience in Macedonia! I was born there but live in Australia & love both countries. Too bad their wages are so low government must step up. The have unions, they need to represent them better also. My relatives use the land to grow just about anything! Have u visited towns yet? Houses made out of local stone, mud, wood. Amazing country centuries of history xx best wishes to you

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