Let me start with a personal introduction before moving on to our new “A View from the Outside” interview. From the moment I started doing photography, I follow what Darmon Richter is doing. I was impressed by the combination of photography and writing. It is now a pleasure for me to be able to present my conversation with him. Many people think that photographing and showing self-destructing buildings and cultural monuments is an inner pleasure for the photographer. I have often heard comments from viewers that I am purposefully trying to show the ugly reality known to all of us.
The truth is quite different and I am glad that other photographers also think like me. Documenting these places, in and around which life once boomed, causes great pain and sadness. The topic is more than relevant today, when the media again talk about the future of the house with the strawberries in Sofia, and before that about the abandoned mineral baths, the lung hospital in the village of Raduntsi and more and more. The main motto when entering such places is: “Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but steps, do not kill anything but time.” Now I’m inviting you to read this interview. After that, I need to stop and think. You should also do.
Could you tell our readers little more about you and how did you start your photography career?
I am writer and photographer from Britain, and about nine years ago I moved to Bulgaria. I am particularly interested in architecture and monuments, and for the past six years I have been completing a PhD on this subject. I travel a lot too – I’m not in Bulgaria all the time! At least before the pandemic, I have been leading tours here in Bulgaria as well as around former Yugoslavia, and also inside the Chernobyl Zone in Ukraine. Last year I released my first book – a book of research and photography, titled Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide.
As for the photography, it all happened by accident, really. I had never owned a camera before 2010, but that year I started travelling a lot – and I took photos, so I could share the places I was visiting with friends and family back at home. Then I started my own website, and began putting photographs online too. My photos weren’t very good back then, so I decided to try and get better at it. I saved up for a DSLR camera, and began watching tutorials on YouTube… and over the last 10 years I took many more photographs, I slowly got better at it, and now it has grown into a career.
What attracted you to Bulgaria and did you have any expectations? When and how did you decide to visit the country for the first time?
The fist time I came to Bulgaria was in 2007, on a family holiday. We spent a lot of time in the mountains, hiking, and driving through the little villages. It’s a long time ago now, so it’s hard to remember exactly what I expected. In Britain, Bulgaria has a reputation for its green landscapes and mountains… so that much was certainly true! But for British people Bulgaria also has associations with post-communism, with grey 1960s apartment blocks and big abandoned factories… and of course, we saw some of that too. So I think my expectations of Bulgaria were probably quite accurate, in a way… at least in terms of what the landscape might look like.
But there were a lot of surprises too, and things that I never knew about before. The ancient history of Bulgaria, the complex national identity, the fantastic food, and the beautiful, powerful poetry of the Revival Period… I grew to really love the work of Botev, and in fact, I actually began a project with a Bulgarian friend, to create an English-language translation of Vazov’s Epic of the Forgotten. So while in some ways Bulgaria was true to the picture I already had in my head, it was these new surprises, the complicated history and culture, which ended up being much more interesting for me.
What was your first impression when you arrived? Correct me if I am wrong, but you live here for over 9 years already, how that happened?
So I had already visited Bulgaria several times, just for holidays – starting with my first visit in 2007. By 2011, I finished studying and I wanted to travel for maybe six months, or a year. I saw a job being advertised in Varna, by a company who wanted a native English speaker to write websites for them. So I took a three-month contract to work there… but then I extended it to six months, then to a year… Even after I left that job, I found that I liked being in Bulgaria. The history of the country was very interesting for me. I have always been interested in the history and politics of the Cold War period, so Bulgaria’s recent history interested me a lot – but I also very much enjoyed learning about the ancient history, about the Tsars, the Khans, and the Thracian civilisation before that. The more I learned about Bulgaria, the more complicated this country seemed to get.
During my time here I developed a real passion for Modernist architecture too – I really like the bold shapes and clean lines of all those concrete and marble buildings from the 1970s and 80s. I know not everyone would share my interest here! But I find this kind of architecture very satisfying, clean and geometrical, and I think Bulgaria was better at making it than most other countries were in those years. All of these different interests then come together in some places… for example, at the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State, in Shumen. This is one of my favourite structures that I’ve ever seen. An incredible Brutalist monument, with detailed, colourful mosaics, illustrating the history of 7th century Khans in a dramatic Modernist style… it’s a truly unique work of art.
It is all these incredible contrasts that make Bulgaria such an interesting place for me. It is always surprising me with something new… and that’s why, after coming here initially for just three months, I ended up staying for nine years instead.
Since you started The Bohemian Blog, which is now called Ex Utopia, you’ve visited and described many abandoned places in Bulgaria and other countries. At the same time your latest project is a book about Chernobyl. Would it be wrong if we call Bulgaria – Balkan’s Chernobyl?
A few years ago someone wrote graffiti at Buzludzha, inside the main hall, that said: “The Bulgarian Chernobyl.” I thought that was an interesting comparison – both places are left mostly in ruin today, and both are very representative of the former regimes.
But apart from that comparison, I would have to strongly disagree with this! First, I don’t know how you picture Chernobyl – but in my book, Chernobyl: A stalkers’ Guide, I cover the history of the Chernobyl region from the 14th century to modern day, I talk about the thousands of people who still live and work in Chernobyl today, and I look at the incredible scientific work that is currently taking place there. A lot of people think of Chernobyl just as a wasteland, a place in ruin, but after making 20 visits there myself, I see it as a place full of life, activity and progress.
And why would you compare Bulgaria to a ruined place, anyway? Because there are some abandoned buildings around the country? But Bulgaria doesn’t even have as many abandoned buildings as some of the other Balkan countries do. Bulgaria is actually one of the wealthier Balkan countries. It has a higher GDP than Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Albania, and Kosovo. Also, unlike some of those other countries, Bulgaria has not experienced a war on its territory since WWII. There are places I have visited in Kosovo and Bosnia, where you can still see bullet holes in walls, and buildings that were blown up by tanks only two decades ago. Bulgaria suffered none of that recent tragedy.
So – after spending a lot of time in Chernobyl, and a lot of time in other Balkan countries too, I have to disagree with the suggestion of calling Bulgaria the “Balkan Chernobyl.” For me, I struggle to find any comparison here.
If you’re invited to make your personal top 3 of the abandoned places in Bulgaria, which will they be? And just because I’d like to make it even more difficult for you, if you don’t mind – let’s exclude the monument of Buzludzha, which I know is one of your favourites, but is also well known from the lovers of abandoned places.
This is a difficult question for me to answer… because on one hand, I do visit and photograph a lot of abandoned places, and often I find their abandoned aesthetic to be very visually beautiful. However, as a lover of architecture, most of the time I find myself wishing these places hadn’t been abandoned at all. It doesn’t make me happy to see beautiful buildings falling apart, and usually when I document these places, I do so because I want to somehow try and save something… it’s my way of paying respect to architecture, or to mosaics and art, which might not survive for much longer, and to share those things with others before it’s too late. So I wouldn’t exactly call myself a “lover of abandoned places”… and if I tell you my three favourites, then these are probably also the three abandoned places in Bulgaria that make me the saddest to visit.
So here are three that I find particularly moving: the Central City Square Complex in Shumen, the Cherveno Zname Swimming Complex in Sofia, and the Monument to the Bulgarian-Soviet Friendship in Varna. All three of these were once incredibly strong and iconic works of Modernist architecture, with big ideas, impressive spaces, and in some cases, a lot of interesting artwork too. As ruins, they all look quite incredible – like the ruins of some alien civilisation! But for me, each also carries a terrible weight of sadness, due to the vast amounts of time, money and effort that have been invested into these projects, only for it to be wasted now.
Is there an abandoned place in Bulgaria that you want to visit, but have not been admitted?
There are a few big places that I would like to visit, but still haven’t seen yet. Some of these are difficult to access, and others might not even be real! This is one thing that I have found really interesting, as I’ve been getting to know Bulgaria better… the kind of urban mythology that has grown up around so many of these “lost places” – like the stories about underground tunnels, several levels deep, beneath Sofia. Or the myth about a secret Thracian tunnel leading all the way from Plovdiv to the Danube!
One of the things I have enjoyed most since being in Bulgaria, is chasing after folk stories like this. For example, one time I went looking for UFOs at Tsarichina… a place with a lot of interesting stories attached to it, going back to Baba Vanga and even earlier. In Varna I heard stories about a massive bomb shelter, several levels deep, beneath the Sea Garden. Many people told me it was just a legend, but then one day I actually found it.
So yes, there are still some interesting abandoned places that I want to see here. A few of them might not even exist… but sometimes, the adventure of looking for them is more interesting than the discovery, anyway.
Let’s expand our conversation with the topic of abandoned memory. Your project Monumentalism is a visual study of communist-era architecture and design. How many monuments in Bulgaria have you been explored and what is your opinion about their condition, compared to those in other countries?
During my first few years in Bulgaria, I was particularly interested in documenting all of these monuments. I spent months with maps, planning routes around the country and researching the information about these places. I think I have photographed nearly 500 Bulgarian monuments now – and some day, I’d love to turn this into a book.
The condition of them varies quite a lot now, which is partly why I find this subject so interesting. There are many factors involved. So for example, the Buzludzha Memorial House is, of course, famous for its bad condition today. But the Monument to the Founders of the Bulgarian State, in Shumen, built the same year and commissioned by the same government, is relatively well maintained now and even has a souvenir shop. Around the country, Monuments to the September Uprising (in 1923) are often left to fall apart now. But Monuments to the April Uprising (in 1876) are often still beautifully cared for – particularly the larger ones, such as the Botev monument in Kalofer. For me, as a foreigner, visiting these places taught me a lot about Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people… by looking at monuments to history, and learning which ones people are proud of, and which ideas or events they would rather forget about.
In terms of the condition these places are in now, I would say that this varies more in Bulgaria than it does in many other formerly communist countries I have visited. So for example, in Belarus (which is a country still led by an authoritarian regime), the Soviet-era monuments are all kept in beautiful condition. Then in the Baltics, or in Czechia, countries that more universally reject their communist past, it seems like the decision to remove or destroy these monuments is generally less controversial. Bulgaria is somewhere in the middle, and the Bulgarian people I have spoken to have a wide range of feelings about these monuments – ranging from anger, to nostalgia. I find Bulgaria to be a complicated country with a complicated past, and getting to know these monuments (and their condition) has been a large part of my education on the country’s national identity.
As a person who did not live in the communist system, what is your opinion about this type of monuments – should they be preserved or destroyed? I assume you are familiar with the history of the destruction of the Mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov in Sofia and the controversy over the existence of a monument to the Soviet army in the center of our capital.
Yes, I am quite aware of these conversations in Sofia – around the mausoleum and the Soviet Army monument – as well as, more recently, the controversy around the removal of the Monument to 1,300 Years of Bulgaria, outside NDK. Like you say, I did not live in the system that created these monuments, and so any personal feelings I have about them need to be considered as those of an outsider. But then, being an outsider also gives me a different, useful perspective, I think. I have also travelled a lot in the last 10 years, visiting these types of monuments in almost 30 different post-communist countries now, so I have seen many different approaches to the subject.
There is a part of me that instinctively wants to see the past preserved. But not all historical monuments have architectural value, of course. Some, like the NDK monument, were actually poorly constructed even for the time. And naturally, I understand why people in Sofia today might not want their city centre dominated by monuments to the Soviet Union! That just isn’t appropriate anymore.
Also, in terms of their historical significance, I don’t think all monuments are made equal. Some remind us of important events in history, or remember the dead (things that we really shouldn’t forget), while others were built just to advertise a certain political idea.
The problem is, even amongst the purely political monuments, some of them can contain some quite incredible artwork, which is valuable in itself. The Buzludzha monument is a good example of this. The building is really quite a pure work of ideology – it celebrates the history of the Party, and the founding of the Bulgarian socialist movement in 1891. It is very much a political object, and yet more than 500 Bulgarian artists worked on it – I would honestly say its mosaics are one of the single greatest works of Bulgarian art that I have ever seen. For me, these are more impressive than the mosaics I’ve seen at Rila, Troyan, Dryanovo, or any of the other famous monasteries in the country. So what do you do with that? It’s a difficult question.
One thing that is true though, is that these monuments already bring money into Bulgaria. A recent research project at Buzludzha showed that the foreigners who visited Bulgaria just to see this monument were spending approximately half a million euros here every year. However Bulgaria might feel about this monument, it is already earning the country money. And here, I will make my own comparison to Chernobyl – because of course, no Ukrainian person is proud of Chernobyl. They would all prefer that it never happened in their country. But over there, they have managed the location, they have developed it into a safe tourist attraction, and now it brings in more than 100,000 visitors a year! It’s a multi-million euro business, and the highest grossing tourist attraction in Ukraine.
So that’s my opinion. Naturally, I think it might be appropriate to move some of these communist or pro-Soviet monuments out of the city centres, and into museums instead… the political monuments should be put into a new, more appropriate context, so that their messages can be presented as historical perspectives. But to destroy them, or to let them fall apart, would be to destroy an incredibly large part of Bulgaria’s artistic and architectural heritage. I honestly believe that Bulgaria has some of the best mosaic art in the world… but if you destroyed every mosaic made in the socialist years, instead it will just look like this country’s artists took a break for 45 years. There has to be a way to keep the art, but reframe the meaning – other countries have already found ways to achieve this – and then use these places to educate people on the history, to demonstrate the skill of Bulgarian artists, and to earn more tourism revenue for the country in the process.
I’m familiar with your urbex photography and that was the reason to contact you, but let us know what else do you prefer to capture?
For me I think it all starts with the experience – I feel a strong connection to certain architectural spaces, and I started learning photography because I wanted to try and capture these feelings in a way that I could share with other people. But the photography is just one part of that, really. I usually tend to put photographs together with written descriptions too, and recently I have also started recording audio, and soundscapes, to further enhance the way I capture and share a sense of these places.
So while I’ll often take photos of other things that look interesting, all of my serious photography projects are about architecture. Because I’m not really a photographer who is interested in architecture, as well as other subjects… but more an architecture researcher who uses photography, and other techniques, to record spaces.
Since our topic is about foreign authors who had Bulgarian projects – do you have a suitable example of photographers who worked on this topic and made you strong impression, with whom you think we should talk next?
I enjoy the work of a lot of Bulgarian photographers, but if you’re looking for foreigners taking photographs in Bulgaria, for that outsider perspective, then two I particularly like are Don Komarechka from Canada, and Xiao Yang from China. Both of them are extremely talented photographers, with their own unique styles, and they’ve both taken quite an interest in Bulgarian places in their past projects.
Thank you for agreeing to accept my invite about this interview for our section “A View from the Outside”.
Interviewer: Anton Daskalov
Darmon Richter is a British writer who is fascinated by the power of architecture. Beginning in 2012, he backpacked from North Korea to Haiti before eventually settling in Eastern Europe – where his blossoming interest in Modernist architecture and design grew first into an obsession, and then a career. Darmon has now visited seventy-something countries, driven by a curiosity for the kinds of places that don’t get mentioned in travel guides: from defunct military bases, bunkers and tunnels, to liminal spaces and abandoned monuments. His research expeditions have frequently been covered by the international press, including his reports on China’s ‘Ghost Cities’ and the unfinished Soviet nuclear power plant in Cuba. As a location scout, he has provided services for the BBC, Vice Media and Red Bull TV, as well as working as a location advisor, editor and photographer on the Collins publication Abandoned Places (Richard Happer, 2016).
In addition to running his own personal website, Ex Utopia, Darmon’s writing has appeared on a wide range of platforms including Atlas Obscura, Foreign Affairs and CNN, and in 2016 he authored four chapters for the book Global Undergrounds (Dobraczyk, Galvis & Garrett, Reaktion Books). His photography has been featured in all kinds of places, from The Telegraph to Buzzfeed to Scientific American, and in exhibitions in six countries – including an installation at the North Macedonian Pavilion for the 16th Venice Architecture Biennale. Today Darmon designs and leads tours to communist-era monuments in seven countries and one post-Soviet frozen conflict zone. After making roughly twenty trips into the Exclusion Zone in Ukraine, his debut book – Chernobyl: A Stalkers’ Guide (FUEL, 2020) – paints an intimate portrait of the Chernobyl region and its inhabitants, three decades on from the disaster; with Financial Times calling it one of the “Best books of 2020.”