by Len Lear
One of the great things about looking for fascinating human interest stories is that you never know where they will come from. Many years ago, there was a TV drama called “The Naked City” in which a background voice intoned at the start of each show, “There are a million stories out there in the naked city.” In other words, there are compelling, dramatic stories in almost every household, not just among the rich and famous. And they pop up when and where you least expect them.
For example, my wife and I had dinner twice recently at Trattoria Moma, the excellent new Italian BYOB at 7131 Germantown Ave. We loved the food, ambience, service and prices. The first time our server was a college student named Christina who was absolutely delightful. The second time we were waited on by a handsome, personable and highly intelligent young man named Nik who had a slight Eastern/Southern European accent. (He is also a manager there.)
I have a theory that everyone with a foreign accent has a good story to tell — where they are from, how and why they came to the U.S., what it was like to leave behind everything they have known to enter the great unknown, how they have adjusted to their new country, the plusses and minuses of their new lives, etc. And because of the reporter in me, I automatically start asking questions about their backgrounds, which they are usually only too anxious to answer (since almost everyone’s favorite topic is him/herself).
In this case I discovered that Nik Morina, 29, was originally from Prishtina, the capital city of Kosovo in the former Yugoslavia, a disputed territory between Albania and Serbia. It was the site of a war of ethnic hatreds in 1998 and 1999 that left many thousands dead. What was that like trying to live a normal life in the midst of war? “Very hard,” Nik replied. “At the time I was only 13 years of age, and my main life activities where shut down, such as schools; our basketball practices came to an end.
“We could not even go out for socializing anymore, and finally what made it really hard for me to live a life in chaos was when the church was shut down. That was quite disappointing. Not being able to have a routine and living in fear as a young person has had an impact on me. I had to mature very quickly, and it has made me a very resilient person.
“Our country did not have a legitimate army, which made us even more vulnerable. Most of the days we had to spend at home for safety until we were kicked out during the ethnic cleansing, and we found refuge in nearby countries.”
In Kosovo Nik’s father was a scientist in a medical facility, and his mother was the general manager of a power plant’s main warehouse. Nik, however, began having an interest in photography in 2005, which quickly developed into a passion.
Nik decided that his best chance of having a career as a professional photographer would be in the U.S., but since so many millions of people from all over the world want to come to the U.S., his dream was not very likely to be realized. However, as it might happen in a movie, Nik got as lucky as a roulette player hitting the jackpot.
“I actually won the right of American citizenship without ever being in America,” he explained. “There is this thing called Diversity Visa Lottery, where every year up to 55,000 people are granted the privilege of becoming U.S. citizens, and I was lucky enough to be one of them.”
Nike came to the U.S. four years ago. Because of his obvious talent, he found a job as a photographer for a corporate chain within his first month, but he soon found it impossible to afford a life in New York with his meager wages. That is when he began working in restaurants, which took him to Texas, Oklahoma and then Philly.
“I realized that the best way to fulfill my passion for photography was to save my tips and open my own business, not work for somebody else. And once I came to Philly, I fell in love with all that Philadelphia is about — narrow streets, old houses, lots of history and the best part, ‘The City of Brotherly Love!’”
Prior to working at Trattoria Moma, Nik worked at Bellini Grill, an Italian restaurant in center city, for three years. (Quite a few Italian restaurants in the Delaware Valley are owned and staffed by ethnic Albanians.)
Nik, who learned to speak English before coming to the U.S., eventually opened his own firm, Morina Photography, which specializes in wedding photography and has photographed more than 70 weddings so far. Nik’s wedding photos are characterized by amazingly picturesque settings and backgrounds and lots of offbeat concepts. They are as good as any that I have seen in national magazines. Where do his unconventional ideas come from?
“A good photograph is like a gem,” Nik answered. “With age it has more value, and its emotional importance increases more and more. With that in mind, I set out to learn the best way to capture the picturesque, unique moments of people in the most magnificent and surreal ways possible, be that with extensive, unique lights or unthinkable angles, even if means risking damaging my camera for that one photo (not to worry; I have a backup), to define the moments and my style as idiosyncratic.”
Morina, who has no relatives in the U.S. but who is “surrounded by loads of amazing friends that have become like a family to me,” is essentially self-taught as a photographer who also does commercial work in addition to his wedding work.
Like everything else associated with weddings, the photography is expensive, usually ranging from $2,500 and up, depending on the size of the wedding, the hours of coverage and the type of event. The minimum number of images that Nik provides is 400, although that number is usually much higher.
When he is not working at Trattoria Moma or on photographic assignment, Nike enjoys music, reading, dining out (of course), traveling and exploring new places and cultures. “Of course I always have a camera with me to capture amazing moments throughout my travels.”
Nik, by the way, is short for Kreshnik, an old Albania name. In English it means “the brave victorious leader.” What more could we possibly add to that?