Strangers in the city: Victoria Knysh gives us the inside story on Sofia's outsiders as part of the British Council's new photographic exhibition.
As part of the British Council's OPENCities project, which aims to reveal the potential gains of migrants' movements between cities, photographer Victoria Knysh caught the two sides of life for emigrants to Sofia. The portraits capture a myriad of emotions. Some betray carefree independence, others wistful melancholy, quiet contemplation and fearless mischievousness.
OPENCities Faces * opening on September 17 in The Mall (Tsarigradsko Chaussee Blvd 115) features portraits not only of Sofia's emigrants but also those of migrants to other cities--Cardiff, Belfast, Bilbao, Vienna, Madrid, Dublin and Duesseldorf.
The subjects for the Bulgarian exhibition are Gipi Gopinath (India), Nino Berezhiani (Georgia) Javed Nuri (Afghanistan), Mona Dragomir (Romania), Tim Ireland (Australia) Rene Beekman (The Netherlands), Viviana Gentili (Italy), Mark Bossanyi (UK), Dmitriy Yagodin (Russia,) Lucia Bizubova and Yuraj Petras (Slovakia), Magdalena Rahn (United States), Marco Jara (Australia), Owain Llewellyn (UK) and Florian Frey (Germany).
Looking for subjects
The photographer for the Sofia exhibition, Victoria Knysh, herself an emigrant from Ukraine, understands the appeal but also the drawbacks of Bulgaria.
"Since joining the EU in 2007 Bulgaria has been very popular for new migrants. New business opportunities have opened up, the cost of living is cheaper and the lifestyle is more laid back than in the west. But bureaucracy can be very frustrating," she says.
Victoria wanted to find as many nationalities as possible to pose for her. Finding subjects, however, proved harder than she anticipated.
"I toured the shops on Zhenski Pazar but all the people I approached told me a very big 'NO'. Then I wrote to everyone I know explaining that I was searching for participants. And one by one I found them."
Interviews preceded the photo session.
"Gipi Gopinath described how people stared at him when he travelled on the metro because of his colour, so I decided to film him in the metro, provoking people and showing the piece of his story. Javed Nuri is a photographer and I made his portrait in his super small room. It was strange. His whole story shocked me."
Here we publish a few reflections from subjects featured in the exhibition.
A former refugee who endured a long and sometimes troubled incarceration at Busmantsi detention centre, Javed now lives in a room in the capital.
"I was born in Afghanistan, I have four brothers and three sisters. My grandfather and my uncle were killed, and my father had to flee with his whole family. First we went to Pakistan, but it wasn't safe, so I had to leave for Iran.
It was seven days walking to get to Iran. One of our group stepped on a mine and died. It quickly became clear that it wasn't safe in Iran either so a friend and I walked four days to get to the Turkish border. Then we walked another 11 days to the nearest city and got bus tickets to Istanbul. From there we tried to get to Greece but our secondhand boat sunk. We were arrested and taken back to the Iranian border. Eventually I made it to Istanbul and then to Sofia. I applied for refugee status but it was refused."
Owain lives in Sofia and teaches English at the British Council. His photo was taken at the entrance to Borissova Gradina park.
"I'm not sure why Victoria chose me, but I think she was interested in the fact that I cycle everywhere, which not many people do. I enjoy life here, but I also like seeing other places. I have started travelling by train between Bulgaria and Wales in the holidays because I worry about the CO2 emissions from flying, and also I find the experience so much more fun. I have just got back to Bulgaria from Wales, taking the train through Amsterdam and Switzerland. You really get a sense of what Europe is like travelling this way. As a foreigner living here, I don't like cars parked on pavements and aggressive, arrogant drivers."
Born and raised in California, Magda (as her friends call her) went to school in New Jersey. After that she lived in France for a year.
"When my dad asked if I wanted to go on a business trip to Bulgaria I was like, sure, where is Bulgaria, so I came, stayed to study here and ended up as a copy editor." (Victoria took her photograph in The Sofia Echo's former office in Shipka Street).
Magda liked the quality time people afforded each other here.
"Here you can spend the whole afternoon just talking. Relationships are valued more than money. Sure, money is important, work is important, but it's not as if they are the most important. Being a foreigner also had other advantages. At that point, it was one of the few ways in which the average shopkeeper or waiter would show a person any respect!"
On the down side she disliked all the dirt and rubbish.
"People complain about how dirty everywhere is but don't do anything about it. In the States, if you want to change something, you just do it. In Bulgaria you just complain about it."
Magda says that at times it could be lonely.
"I moved through various groups of friends--many, both Bulgarians and foreigners, left the country--though I still have some that I cherish. I miss them. What was hard was being so far from family."
Magda left Bulgaria in October 2009 for an MSC in wine management.
"I planned on returning ... or so I thought. But being away, in France and elsewhere, made me realise how repressive it could be there, a sense of gloom hanging above everyone's heads. Though there is something about the country; it has so much potential. I am in the States now, and find it intolerable, too easy. If it ever becomes feasible, in more ways than one, I would love to return to live."
* The exhibition, between September 17 and October 20 at The Mall, Tsarigradsko Chaussee, is presented in partnership with Sofia municipality, The Mall, Colliers International, BG Radio, musicworld.bg, Dynacord Bulgaria, Multirama, Metro Media, FAMEcards, Capital Light, The Sofia Echo, Humanic, Fancy and The Mall, Tsarigradsko Chaussee.
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|Title Annotation:||Reading Room|
|Publication:||The Sofia Echo (Sofia, Bulgaria)|
|Date:||Sep 10, 2010|
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