Traumas and Miracles - Portraits from Northwestern Bulgaria
photograpy by Babrak salary text by Diana Ivanova
The presence of others, who see what we see and hear what we hear, reassure us that the world is real and we ourselves are real.
If we believe, as the American sociologist Kai Ericson does, that collective trauma is “a blow to the basic issues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together”2 then what is happening in Northwestern Bulgaria is exactly that – trauma.
Many of the region’s women have been leaving it for years, seeking temporary jobs in Greece, Spain and especially in Italy (where they are employed as care workers for old people – the so called badante3). Left behind them are husbands, children, parents4. The population is diminishing in numbers and getting older. Currently, the Northwest is the poorest region in Bulgaria and in the whole of the European Union.
This is nothing less than a crisis of intimacy – families are falling apart. Most of these women experience their employment abroad traumatically and see it as something that was forced on them by the weakness of the state. Their life paths were interrupted by the collapse of communism and especially by the economic and political crisis of 1997, “when poverty stroke”. “Thank God I am very strong psychologically, I might as well have gone bananas. Many people in Bulgaria couldn’t cope with the change. Many in my apartment building died – the ones with lower incomes and more unstable psyches.” (a teacher from Montana who works as badante in Pisa, Italy).
The family is losing its old meaning. Many women believe that if you love your family, it’s better to leave it for the sake of everybody’s economic survival.
The Northwest is going through several crises simultaneously – the withdrawal of women, the loneliness of men, the abandonment of children, and the overall crisis of the village and the small town which have ceased to be seen as places of personal future.
It is this quiet layering of trauma upon trauma that drew our attention – mine and that of photographer Babak Salari – to our subject. Our interest was rooted in events we had experienced in our own lives. My father had to cope with my mother’s death on his own, as I was working abroad as a journalist; while a cousin of mine employed as badante in Italy missed the funeral of her father upon which she came back to Bulgaria and decided never to return to Italy again. Babak Salari was deeply moved by this shuffle of human fates which reminded him of his own trauma of being forced to leave his native Iran. He sought political asylum in Canada more than a quarter of a century ago.
After many conversations, Babak and I both realised we wanted to find out what, in this situation, was happening to the eldest people, as they were now the most numerous age group in the region. They were also possibly its “last guardians” – a generation which has lived through at least two collective breakdowns: that of the traditional village family following the collectivisation of the land by the communist government in the 1950s and the breakdown of communism itself – which structured most of their lives – in 1989.
Proportionally, the Northwest continues to provide the highest electoral support in the country for the Bulgarian Socialist Party (the former Communist Party) and political pundits often label it as “the red bastion”. The fall of communist dictator Todor Zhivkov was met here mostly with common silence and fear, rather than the collective euphoria experienced in the big Bulgarian cities – Sofia, Plovdiv, Rousse and Bourgas. 1989 marked the beginning of a hard-fought struggle for survival (triggered by the closing down of industrial capacities) and the conflicting experiences and feelings resulting from it have not been articulated in any depth7. Worse than that, they seem to be buried under the circumstances of more recent crises – the retirement of the elderly (many of whom have moved back to the villages where they can live on lower budgets) and the collapse of families (caused by economic migration of family members abroad).
In short, the elderly of the Northwest are not so much the guardians of tradition as we romantically want them to be, but the bearers of heterogeneous traumatic experience, which remains unspoken of and muted.
In the summer of 2008, Babak Salari and I travelled to nine Northwestern villages in the area locked between Vurshets, Svoge, Vratsa and Montana. These are Gorna and Dolna Bela Rechka, Gorno and Dolno Ozirovo, Lyutadjik, Milanovo, Druzhevo, Zanozhene and Chelyustitsa.
Babak photographed; I talked to the people.
As we were already using one piece of technical equipment – Babak’s camera – I decided to take notes and simply observe my interviewees. I wanted to preserve the fragmentary nature of our meetings and the spontaneity of the conversations, and let the current of events wash over me.
This is how we made more than 50 portraits and 2000 photographs. It seems to me that photography is an excellent medium to reflect on such a complex phenomenon, as it listens – in addition to everything else – to the deep voices of shyness and discomfort that Northwesterners experience when making themselves – and their stories – the centre of attention.
Traumas and Miracles – Portraits from Northwest Bulgaria is a project made by fragments.
Its aim is not to offer a comprehensive narrative for the region but to open a space for words, sentences, images, faces which give a sense of the place. The French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs believes that we are all, without knowing it, “echos” from events which occurred before our time. “We don’t remember on our own”, he points out, “but with the help of other people’s memories; we grow up surrounded by objects, gestures, sentences, pictures, landscape and architecture inherited from those who preceded us.”
So this project is a reflection of what I as a Northwesterner am an “echo” of – that which preceded my understanding of the world and to some extent has defined a special kind of helplessness, of which I am about to talk.