I’m presenting you our new column “A View from the Outside”, in which we will speak with or tell about foreign photographers who have captured our country in their projects. I find this different perspective necessary, because while living and creating here and now we often remain blind to certain details. My first choise is Doris Peter‘s “Sofia in Broad Daylight 1990-2001” because I learned about it quite by accident years ago. For a long time I was searching her album, and once I had it in my hands I ramain speechless. I am convinced that quite a few Bulgarian photojournalists have taken pictures in this difficult period for Bulgaria and have something to show and tell us.However, Doris Peter has been doing this documentary social project for 10 years, following the development of our capital and its struggling to survive in times of turbulent change.
Could you tell our readers little more about you?
Originally, I’m from Zurich (Switzerland) but I live in Berlin for many years. Since my apprenticeship as a photographer in an advertising and fashion studio in Zurich I’m working as a freelance photographer. In addition to contract work for customers, I mainly work on my own photographic projects. I love to travel, to be on the road, to immerse myself in unknown places and surroundings, to discover and to capture my impressions with photographs. Traveling and being on the road without taking photos, I can hardly imagine.
What attracted you to Bulgaria and how did you decide to visit it in 1990?
Friends of mine visited Sofia in the summer of 1990. They told me about the demonstrations in the city, about the tents that young people put up in the center in front of the government building and stayed there overnight. It was clear to me in any case that as soon as I finished my apprenticeship as a photographer, I wanted to travel and take photos. Out of little Switzerland, which, as it seemed to me, does not correspond to what the majority reality is in this world. I was young and interested, open to new things, wanted to see how things are elsewhere. I found it very interesting to finally be able to travel to Eastern European countries. I didn’t know much about Bulgaria, only that the capital is called Sofia, they write in Cyril and that it was ruled by communists for 45 years. A country that, from a western point of view, lay behind the iron curtain. I didn’t know much more.
What was your first impression when you arrived in Sofia?
In December 1990, my friend and I arrived at Sofia Central Railway Station. After 36 hours by train, Berlin – Sofia, direct. An unforgettable trip! Passport controls at every border crossing and, depending on the country, high transit fees, which had to be paid because otherwise you would have to get off the train.
I took the tram to the center of the city. Fortunately, the word “center” is the same in German and Bulgarian, so that the young man I asked for directions understood where I wanted to go. I got off at the Sheraton Hotel. Since I could neither speak Bulgarian nor read the Cyrillic alphabet, I always had to look through the window first to see what was behind, people are sitting around tables and eating, so it is a restaurant. I took a few steps back and then tried to decipher the Cyrillic letters. Pectopant. My Bulgarian friends still must laugh at this story today.
After we had found accommodation in the center, a room in an elderly lady’s apartment, my forays through the city began. Shops were often empty, and people queued for milk and natural yogurt early in the morning. I saw the longest queue on Boulevard Vitouscha, I had to take several photos and then put them together to have the whole queue in one picture. I only got in line once but found that I am not entitled to the staples from the grocery stores. From then on, I drank my coffee black for the duration of my stay, without milk.
The street scene was somehow bleak, no colorful advertising signs or flashing advertisements. No green on the trees, no colored flowers. It was cold and gray, but that also had something to do with the season. But that didn’t bother or irritate me. I took it as it was. With an open heart and open eyes, I roamed the streets of Sofia and met many wonderful and interesting people and situations.
Was it easy for you to predispose local people to let you photograph them and tell you their stories?
When I first visited Sofia, in the winter of 1990, I was very young and had not much experience of photographing people I didn’t know. Talking to strangers on the street whether I can take photos of them, I had to learn that first. But then I learned it pretty quick. The friendliness of these people, which was almost exclusively shown to me, helped me a lot. I have rarely seen people not wanting to be photographed by me. With my few bits of Bulgarian, which I wrote down the words in a little booklet, I got along so well with the people I met and wanted to portray.
The interviews in the book I did in 2001 together with a Bulgarian journalist whom I met on my first visit to Sofia. Although after the many years and stays in Sofia I became very familiar with the town and its people, I just couldn’t talk the language. During our forays through the city together, I asked her to interview the people I wanted to have their say. Most of the people we spoke to were ready to tell us about themselves straight away. I then had the answers and stories of these people translated into German and English. That was very important to me because my view of the city and its people are one, but how is it for the people who live there? I wanted to give them a voice.
Did you cooperate with local photographers for this project or studied the city by yourself?
I did this project on my own, without a client in the background. My very personal interest. Of course, I had the support of my Bulgarian friends, which always meant a lot to me. These friendships continue to this day.
Which photos/stories do you find most significant in the album and why?
An old man was sitting on a small stool in the square in front of the Sheraton Hotel. In front of him are bathroom scales and a small bowl with a few coins inside. I spoke to him and asked if I could photograph him. He agreed. After taking a photo of him I put a few coins in the small bowl next to the scales. He looked at me amazed and asked why I am giving him money now. In my few words I answered in Bulgarian: “Us snimka, ti pari”. Outraged and very determined, he said: “Ok, but then at least stand on the scales.” I was very impressed by this encounter. Over the years I have met many such people, people who struggled to survive, but did not lose their dignity and pride.
When was the last time you were in Sofia? Did you find significant change into the city and its citizens?
The last time I visited Sofia was in autumn 2014. The city center has changed so much over the years. Especially after joining the European Union, apart from all the EU flags hanging around the city center. People who naturally belonged to the streets of Sofia in the 90s, who were all part of the city, have largely disappeared. Small street vendors, Romas and pensioners begging, improvised sales booths in house entrances and hawkers. It was certainly not the case that these people no longer existed, but they were no longer tolerated in the center. They should no longer be part of the cityscape.
In the meantime, international chain stores, chic restaurants and luxury boutiques have moved in. The cityscape resembles more and more that of western European cities. It seemed to me that especially young people can no longer be distinguished from their peers in Western European cities. Same fashion, same look. But although a lot has changed, some things are still there and have retained their peculiarities and characters. For example, I was very happy that the typical “knee shops”, the small shops that were built in basement rooms with windows facing the street, have been expanded and become an integral part of the city. What a great idea! Likewise, the women’s market, the large book market on Slawejkov Square, as well as the small market with vegetables and fruits in Graf Ignatiev Street. I also noticed the small shops in the city center, run by private owners.
Would you do second part of this project now on the thirtieth anniversary or later? I’m asking you because Sofia today still has what to show and allows a comparison between past and present.
After 2001 I still have visited Sofia a couple times. And of course, I also took photos, but this time in color and digital. What I will do with these pictures I don´t know yet. Definitely, a publication as extensive as the photo book “Sofia in Broad Daylight” 1990-2001, will not arise again.
What are you currently working on if it’s not a secret of course?
In the last years I visited Georgia twice. 2018 I made a beamer show from my first travel to Georgia: “A Georgian Journey“ part one. Currently I’m working on my second beamer show „A Georgian Journey“ part two. The concept is, that I take the audience on my journey through that very interesting country in the south Caucasus. Because of Corona, I have to wait to present it. I am also working on a photo booklet with photos from my Georgian travels through different places in combination with my texts. A kind of a travel report.
Since our column is about the view of foreign photographers who had works on Bulgaria – do you have a suitable example of photographers who worked on this topic, made strong impression on you, with whom you think we should talk next?
Actually, I only know Bulgarian photographers who take photos in Bulgaria. Except Ulli Gladik, a photographer and filmmaker from Vienna. She also took photos in Sofia back in the 90’s. Together with her and the Bulgarian painter Ljuben Stoev, we had two group exhibitions called “Transformazia”. One in Sofia (2003) and one in Berlin (2004). In the last few years, Ulli Gladik has mainly been making documentaries. A film is about a Bulgarian Roma woman who travels regularly from her Bulgarian village to Vienna and begs to earn money for her family in Bulgaria. „Natascha“ (2008) (2008) Another short film she did is called „Velika Georgieva – A beggar tells her story” (2018)
Thank you for the interview and for agreeing to be the first guest in our new “A View from the Outside” section.
Interviewer: Anton Daskalov
About the photographer: Doris Peter is born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1967. She has a degree in advertising and fashion photography. She loves traveling, and outside of her interest in Bulgaria in her projects we also find the USA, China and Indonesia. Peter is the author of several solo and group exhibitions. In her work she is mainly interested in people, but not the rich and successful ones. Focus more on the average person.
About the project “Sofia in daylight 1990-2001” : Through her project “ Sofia in daylight 1990-2001 “Doris Peter documents the changes taking place in the capital of Bulgaria and its inhabitants. Through her black-and-white photographs, she shows people who need to adapt to new circumstances and reposition themselves in the struggle for survival after the changes that have taken place. The combination of photos and eyewitness accounts turned her project into an important contemporary document of life in Sofia from the beginning of the transition. An exhibition of the project has been presented in Basel, Berlin, Sofia and Zurich.