Love through a lens: Photographer Ari Kellerman falls for the charms of rural Bulgaria. Visiting elderly babas, derelict village properties and handsomely painted churches, Ari finds beauty in the glimpses of traditional life.
Bulgaria was never on my list of top places to visit until it was. Now, it has created an interest in exploring the rest of the Balkans and I am finding myself prioritizing the area over every other location that once preceded it. I’m a New Englander, but my family is from Ioannina in northern Greece, by way of Constantinople, so I think if love of a place can be in one's blood, then it must be at least a small part of the attraction.
Despite spending a lot of time in Greece throughout my life, I had never ventured across the border until recently. Armed with my tiny Renault and a bag of fresh walnuts from a roadside Rhodope farm stand, I began to hear the languages blend as I made my way through the desolate mountains.
During lockdown I became friendly with two English ex-pat photographers, Tim Clinch and Joanna Maclennan (you’ll find Joanna's images in 'Velyan's House', Cabana N19). Tim had lived there for over 10 years and much of my experience of Bulgaria was through his eyes. Joanna too had fallen in love with Bulgaria by way of Tim, and with them I was able to see a new country through the lens that only photography can offer.
While there are tourist attractions like everywhere else, I wanted a glimpse into everyday life. The term “slow travel” doesn’t quite fit the bill, but I’m not sure what other term you’d use when looking for still lifes in derelict village properties, and waking at sunrise for the right light to photograph herds of sheep.
Like much of the Balkans, Bulgaria has suffered conquest, occupation, and ever-changing borders. Beauty can be found in the glimpses of traditional life that still exist if you look for them. To really find that I think it is helpful to befriend the oldest generation one can find. The elderly babas were happy to share their secrets to life, how they manage to still undertake laborious farm work, spend hours preparing daily meals, walk miles on the uneven terrain, and exist with minimal modern technology.
Despite being raised under the oppression of communist rule, they have remained an unhardened, happy, gentle people. Not only were the Bulgarians welcoming, but many were exceedingly so, offering treats and tokens as a blessing for me to come away with a beautiful experience of their country. I spent much of my time there in Veliko Turnovo, and the rural villages of the region such as Mindya (population 300), and the market town of Gorna Oryahovitsa. There, I rummaged for textiles among a smattering of local produce, handcrafted goods, and old television remote controls.
Village life seemed equally as colorful as city life, if not more so. In Mindya, homes were brightly lime washed in shades of green, red, blue, and yellow. For almost every house, there was another forgotten by time. Fully grown trees could be seen sprouting from the ruins, with multiple rooms feeling seemingly untouched, filled with someone’s possessions from long ago. The pastoral vistas were a stark contrast to the buzzing cobbled streets of old-world Plovdiv, the cultural epicenter of Bulgaria.
The majestic architecture of Old Town Plovdiv exhibits life as it was during the height of the 19th-century Bulgarian National Revival. The ethnographic museums outnumber all other museums. Carved wooden ceilings, colorful murals, and floral painted interiors of the Balabanov, Hindliyan, Klianti house museums left me speechless. There was little wall space that wasn’t intricately painted.
The surrounding streets, Konstantin Stoilov and Saborna, are lined with antique shops chock-a-block full of pottery, traditional clothes, folk art and woven rugs. There is a pride and resilience to their material culture. The antique markets reflect all of the peoples that have once called Bulgaria home. Vibrant communities of Turks, Jews, Greeks, and Armenians still remain, and are all reflected in the art and architecture.
While much of the population are Orthodox Christians, there are many agnostics as a result of communism, as well as a significant Muslim community that predates Ottoman rule. The 15th-century Ottoman-built Dzhumaya Mosque stands in the center of Plovdiv, with the call to prayer echoing throughout the city. Having been schooled at an Orthodox seminary, the monasteries and churches were a priority for me. The iconography alone is reason enough to visit the country.
I met with Reverend Bishop Arseni of Znepol for a look at Bulgaria’s relics, wonderworking icons, and to discuss the lasting impact of the challenges of 50 years of communist rule, which only collapsed in 1989. All religious communities and historic sites that remain standing are a testament to Bulgarian identity and perseverance.
I encourage you to look for the beauty in the everyday, to celebrate the handmade, and document it. Photography plays an integral role in preserving these traditional ways of living and skillsets, and everyone has a camera in their pocket in 2023.