Personal Work: Democracy + Communism: Nat Geo :: Cuba + Bulgaria, in Layers
Photo + written essay published by National Geographic - Proof
(Antiquated family pictures from pre-1989 Bulgaria inspired this portion of my project on Democracy + Communism. The parallels between them and photos I'd taken in present-day Cuba surface best when juxtaposed - one image layered on top of the other. Thus, I attempted to bridge one country’s past to another country’s present.)
My fingers flitting across the frayed edges of paper, I studied my past. In picture form, generations had been preserved - but theirs was a story now threatened by oblivion, through time’s attrition and my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s.
In these frames, I’d sought out relatives - and their former lifetimes - yearly as I visited Bulgaria, my country until the age of twelve. I often reimagined them without the motif of totalitarianism. There would be no forced smiles marching in unison at Labor Day parades, punished if askew or absent; nor children wearing uniforms of communist youth - eager to belong, but too young to understand the consequences; none of the numbing isolation bred by restricted news and travel; certainly not five years stolen from my grandfather’s youth by a communist labor camp.
As I hunted for lost anecdotes through my grandma’s memory, a disturbing analogy to her impairment unraveled itself to me: the potential in contemporary, democratic Bulgaria for collective dementia about its past. It housed both a generation too new for firsthand knowledge of political repression, and an older one that yearned for the absence of crime and unemployment that a dictatorship once guaranteed.
In 1989, two and a half decades before this latest trip to my homeland, Eastern European communism had crumbled in unison with the Berlin Wall, opening previously closed borders to Western influence and emigration. The hopeful arrival of democracy had created space for personal freedoms and a free market, but also for myopic political nostalgia, when it failed to deliver on rising joblessness, corruption, crime, and depopulation.
The idea of this amnestic future, one so disconnected from its history, awakened in me an urge to examine the effects of democracy and communism in Bulgaria - and to explore similar political geography. Cuba, a communist time capsule, drew me in immediately. I observed life there as a native of the Soviet Bloc: noticing the nuanced decorum of Communism; that censure and control are often masqueraded as people’s choice; not looking for connections between the two nations, but effortlessly tuned into them. Every person I photographed - the child in a red scarf saluting voters, people protesting against political imprisonment who do so despite beatings and detention, the aging families of those who’d fled — brought to recall my youth and the pictures that preceded it.
Creating layers in photography is something which had attracted me throughout my career, whether via luck and journalistic reflex in a single image — or via multiples, for their ability to intensify both style and meaning. I experimented by making political diptychs early in my career, and later via digital double exposures — some with an aesthetic, others with a storytelling impetus. But a third entity came to life in Cuba, when I deemed the visual and sociopolitical parallels between present day Cuba and pre-1989 Bulgaria as undeniable, and best juxtaposed in strata.
And so I attempted to bridge one country’s past to another country’s present, to show that political ideals, its profiteers and its victims, could remain unchanged by time or geography. And above all, to ensure some of those who cannot broadcast their ails are heard. Whether a stranger in Cuba or my grandmother, who expired shortly after her memories did.
- This project was sponsored by The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and was published by the International Center of Photography as part of their ¡CUBA, CUBA! 65 Years of Photography exhibit + National Geographic Proof