At the last year’s end, we started our new rubric, in which we speak with foreign photographers who have captured Bulgaria in their photo projects. Our first guest was Doris Peter. This month Babak Salari, accepted our invitation for an interview. Little more than 10 years ago, together with the journalist Diana Ivanova, they made their project “Traumas and Miracles – Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria”, which is the topic of our conversation.
Could you tell our readers more about you and how did you start your photography career?
I was raised in a traditional family in Iran. My father as the head of the family, he preferred that, instead of learning photography, I should study to become an engineer or a doctor. This was a big obstacle for me. It was very hard to convince my father that I wanted to continue learning photography. As a teenager I got fascinated with the magic of the black box (camera). I was curious to know what was involved in the process of image making, specifically the process of changing an image into a photographic picture in the dark room. Therefore, I started to work during the day and go to school at night in order to save enough money to buy my first SLR camera. This was a turning point in my life. Having the camera led me to take my art seriously and begin learning techniques as quickly as I could. Later on, I gradually gained ability to express my own life experience through this medium. And finally, it was photography that opened lots of windows in my life.
I got out of my country of birth, Iran, on September 1982, at the height of a massacre of my generation fighting for freedom and democracy by Islamic fundamentalist regime. This has continued during the last 40 years. After I left Iran, I became political refugee in Pakistan. A year later, I escaped from Pakistan to Canada, where I drove a Taxi for many years, saved money, and bought my photography gear! It was in Canada that I went to professional school of photography, on August 1991. I studied for 4 years which included all aspects of the art of photography, from making my own negatives to photo taking, art studios, and all historical aspects of photography. What has stayed with me is the importance of technical skills and the artistic vision, which has impacted my projects, books and exhibitions.
What attracted you to Bulgaria and did you have any expectations? When and how did you decide to visit the country?
My love for Bulgaria started accidentally. I like to call it “accidental love”! My acquaintance with Bulgaria started when I was approached by my publisher Manol Peykov, Janet-45, in that country to provide him with two of my pictures of my previous project, Faces, Bodies, Personas, Tracing Cuban Stories. Diana Ivanova sent the “suggestion-invitation”, but unfortunately the email went to my spams. When I was checking my spams, I suddenly saw Diana’s email. The pictures were intended to be used as the cover of a book by the Cuban author, Juan Pedro Guetierz, King of Havana. Later,
I was invited to present my Cuban project in two venues in January 2008 for two weeks, first in the Red House, a center for arts, culture and debates in Sofia, and later in the City Gallery in Plovdiv. On viewing my Cuban collection, Manol Peykov, the publisher was impressed by the Cuban collection. He offered to publish a selection of it as a part of the Cuban Series published in Bulgarian. My photo-book was published in January 2008, accompanied by English and Bulgarian texts, with foreword by Thomas Waugh, scholar and Norge Espinosa Mendoza, the famous Cuban critique and curator. I think Cuban photo book is the first photography book which has been published by Janet-45.
I didn’t have any specific expectation from Bulgaria. I was hoping that Bulgarians visit my exhibition and exchange views and thoughts with me. Beyond my expectations, the photo exhibition was very well received. I was interviewed by major printed and electronic national media before and after the event. But more than anything else, my personal experience as a Canadian artist with extensive experience in international projects in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Mexico, etc., spoke to the concerns of a group of inquisitive artists. The presentation, in January 2008, particularly touched the audience as it was from a country (Cuba) with many ties and similarities with Bulgaria, as both used to be members of the Soviet Bloc.
What was your first impression when you arrived?
“Love at first sight”! I sensed my presence. I felt that the ground is accepting me. I felt as if I were at “home” after a long time. Bulgaria reminded me of my native “Shiraz” in Iran, where I could no longer go. I experienced in Bulgaria many emotions that I had forgotten, which the west could not comfort them. Most importantly, I was searching ceaselessly for such a place. Therefore, I was able to connect with a curious audience who was raising intelligent questions and interested in knowing the unknown! I also felt lucky to have a great publisher who was interested in documentary photography and artistic projects. Manol Peykov is an artist by nature.
Was it easy for you to predispose local people to let you photograph them?
I think the process of image making is the result of how we transforme the energy between us the photographer and our subjects. It depends how we look at this relationship. I open my heart to my subjects and get attached to them. To me each project is a challenging process which could be easy or difficult, or somewhere in between. Sometimes I am extremely happy and at ease, sometimes I get sick, depress or displaced. Human beings consists of flesh, nerves and blood, and artists are more sensitive.
I remember once we were at Nikola Kolev’s residence in Milanovo. He was very excited to tell us his stories and sufferings. I felt he had a need to express himself. He was 100 years old on June 2008 and was not hearing well. While he was talking to Diana she was translating for me. In trying to take a picture of him, I wanted to show half of his face, focusing on his ear! I got very close, with a 20 mm lens, sat next to him while he was at ease. Nikola started to share his story with us. The image that I captured became the cover of our book, “Traumas and Miracle”.
Also, my colleague Diana Ivanova played and essential role in this project, as translator and guide to Northwestern Bulgaria where She was organizing a memory- telling festival called GM. Diana is an experienced journalist, poetess, and filmmaker.
How did you choose the villages and characters in this project? What was leading and did you have preliminary expectations and initial goals?
I was invited by Goat-Milk festival, to participate in 2008 edition of the Festival. I returned to BG for the second time on May 2008. After the festival we, Diana and I, stayed in Gorna Bela Rechka, and had many conversations about the project. We wanted to know, in that situation, what was happing to the oldest people in the Northwestern region? This was initial goal of the project. I already, had many years of experience shooting projects in different countries, and Diana an artist with strong sense of investigation and connection. We started the project from Gorno and Dolno Bela Rechka. We already knew almost everyone in the villages within the proximity of Bela-Rechka, including Druzhevo, Milanovo, Gorno Ozirovo, Dolno Ozirovo, Lyutadzhik, and the city of Vurshets.
Why did you choose the name of the project to be “Traumas and Miracle”?
This is a reference to many Traumas. I think our past traumatic experiences directed our attention to the subject. In our own lives, we experienced many traumas. Our interest was rooted in our own lives. The coming of the Iranian revolution of 1979 against the Shah of Iran, threw me and my brothers into the political scene. During the following 3 years, I lost my younger brother, relatives, and many of my close friends to the repressive machine of the newly arising Islamic fundamentalism. After being imprisoned for six months, I used a window of opportunity to escape from my homeland with reluctance and sorrow. Through Pakistan, I finally arrived in Canada, starting my exile as an endless journey of pain, bitterness but also fulfillment.
Diana was traumatized by her mother’s death and her father’s attempt to coop with her death alone. The political changes in 1989 in Bulgaria was a huge ordeal for those who were living in big cities. The collapse of the regime led to the closure of industrial plants, economic chaos and reduction of old age pension. This forced many of Bulgarians to move to villages and intensify struggle for survival. Many of women called badante or care-worker from Northwestern region where looking for work in Italy, Greece and other EU countries, as for better pay. As a result many men, children, and parents were abandoned. This life event caused loads of Traumas for Northwestern people and those who were displaced. As Diana explained in our book “every Trauma has a miracle”! Life goes on, and the fact that Nikola survived alone at age 100 is a miracle.
Could you share photos, that didn’t find place in the project’s photo album?
The “Traumas and Miracles” book is my last project which was done with films and analogue Photography. I haven’t digitized the entire project, which is about 2000 frames of photo, yet. I currently don’t have access to my contact sheets and negatives due to lockdown and Covid19. Otherwise, I could have shared more photos with your reads.
Have you thought about the possibility of expanding the project with other depopulated territories of Bulgaria or a different project related to it? I’m asking you because I know that you’ve often visited Bulgaria.
No, I don’t think so. The “Traumas and Miracles” was/is a project to open eyes toward those who have been marginalized by poverty and displacement, both physically and mentally. At the time, Northwestern region was the poorest place in Bulgaria and the European Union. That is why we wanted to draw attention to this region and it’s people in 2008.
I wanted to revisit the region last year. I wished to meet up with those who are still alive and subject in our book. Many of those whose images were printed in our book unfortunately passed away during the last 10 years– and Covid19 didn’t help either. This project is a history of those who went through hardship during the changes in 1989 and it’s aftermath. Finally, I think it’s the responsibility of young and courageous Bulgarian photographers to continue this path.
In another interview you said that two countries are in the focus of your life – Bulgaria and Cuba. Is there place for comparison between these two countries? What connects them?
I never could think that one day my Cuban’s project “Face, Bodies, Personas…” would take me all the way to Bulgaria, as a country about which I had the least knowledge and information. I had spent many weeks and months in Cuba, but I had had no clue what were the ties between the two nations!
We, Diana Ivanova and I, traveled 3 times to Cuba during the year 2009 and 2010, to collect stories, photographs and to make a short Video, related to the same project called, “My street Cuban Stories”. On every one of our visits to Cuba, from Havana to Santiago de Cuba, I learned something new about the two countries.
For instance, my friend Ulises, in a conversation with Diana mentioned, as a child he always loved so much “the canned strawberries” from Bulgaria. later on, we met Bulgarians who were married to Cubans. Bulgarians as a nation had constructed many roads, buildings, factories and hospitals in Cuba. They had many-joint projects, and most importantly, they were in the Soviet Union camp. So this historical relationship have created broad personal memories in the both nations. These memories communicated on an emotional level and spoke to the recent experience of marginalization, loss and change in the aftermath of the fall of the communist system in both countries. This applies more to the older generation of Cubans and Bulgarians who lived under communism.
What topic are you currently working on if it’s not a secret of course?
I have a photography-video installation project. it’s at the preparation phase. It’s about an artist who dislike many aspects of the city he lives in. He trays to bring reconciliation between himself with his surroundings in order to find peace.
Thank you for the interview.
Thank you, for your time and attentions. Good luck!
Interviewer: Anton Daskalov
Babak Salari is a Montreal-based photographer and educator who chronicles lives at the margins of society. His documentary projects include: Iranian artists in exile; matriarchal, indigenous communities in Mexico; and gays and transvestites in Cuba. Recently, he documented those displaced and brutalized by war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. His interest in photography began as a teenager in his native Iran where he contributed to various publications. At the age of twenty-one, his political activities resulted in his imprisonment for six months by the Khomeini regime. Upon his temporary release from jail, he fled to Pakistan and, a year later, arrived in Canada where he resumed his study and practice of photography. His new documentary work Traumas and Miracles: Portraits of Northwestern Bulgaria is dealing with the sense of disorientation, loss, pain, and isolation.
Babak’s work has been exhibited internationally including: National Art Gallery of Sofia, Bulgaria, Macedonian Museum of Contemporary Art, Thessaloniki, Greece, and Centro Historico in Merida, Mexico, and published in several magazines. His five main publications Man-Woman Standing, Faces, Bodies, Personas: Tracing Cuban Stories, Remembering the People of Afghanistan, My Street Cuban Stories, and Traumas and Miracles: Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria, were published by Janet 45 in Bulgaria in 2008, 2009 and 2010 and 2017 respectively. He has received many awards including a Gold Addy from the American Ad Federation in 2004 for his work Locating Afghanistan.
“Traumas and Miracles – Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria” is photography and anthropological project of Babak Salari and the journalist Diana Ivanova. For two years they document the daily lives of the oldest people in eight villages in Northwestern Bulgaria – the poorest region in the European Union. Together – the photography and the human tales – represent a rare collection of stories about traumas and miracles experienced in the last years by the oldest inhabitants of the Northwest.
The project explores in depth the phenomenon of social trauma – the loss of social and collective sense, depopulation and aging in large parts of the region due to the economic collapse of the socialist-era monumental industry, the family breakdowns, a consequence of poverty and the exodus of women working as caregivers of elderly people in Italy and Greece.