Visual Project Management | Grant Work: Democracy + Communism: 3. Cuba + Bulgaria, in Layers
I ideated the unique aesthetics of this final leg of my project on Democracy + Communism by securing a grant for it through the Pulitzer Center, its publication in National Geographic, and its exhibitions at the International Center of Photography's ¡CUBA, CUBA! 65 Years of Photography exhibit and at Bulgaria's National Gallery of Art.
(This project is being updated in both scope and publication before and during the pandemic, with more historical material via imagery and reporting alike.)
Antiquated family photos from pre-1989 Bulgaria alit this project's inspiration. The parallels between our family photographs behind the Iron Curtain and documentary imagery I'd taken in present-day Cuba, surface best when juxtaposed: one image layered on top of the other. Thus, I aimed to bridge one country’s past to another country’s present.
- Cuba + Bulgaria, in Layers
My fingers flitting across frayed edges of photographs found in dusty cabinets, I studied my past. In picture form, generations persevered — but theirs was a story now threatened by oblivion, through time’s attrition and my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s.
In these frames, yearly, I’d sought out relatives and their former lifetimes 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 consequence; none of the numbing isolation bred by restricted news and travel; certainly not five years stolen from my grandfather’s youth by a Stalinist gulag for his refusal to join a party he’d seen threaten, imprison and murder people for their voice or property, fully dementing the utopian ideal.
As I hunted for lost anecdotes throughout my grandma’s shrinking memory, a disturbing analogy unraveled: 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 had 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, thus opening 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, prompted me 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 only a native of the Soviet Bloc could — trained on the nuanced decorum of Communism, that illusion of 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 despite beatings and detention, the aging families of those who’d fled — recalled my youth and the pictures before.
Creating layers in photography has attracted me throughout my career, whether via luck or journalistic reflex, 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 the impetus of sheer aesthetic, others for their storytelling prowess. But a third type came to life in Cuba, when I found the visual and sociopolitical parallels between present day Cuba and pre-1989 Bulgaria undeniable, and best juxtaposed in strata.
And so I aimed to bridge one country’s past to another country’s present, to show that political ideals, its profiteers and its victims, can remain unchanged by time or geography. And above all, to ensure that those who still survive a censured reality, are better heard — whether a stranger in Cuba or my grandmother, who left this world shortly after her memories did.