Interview with Krasimira Butseva on Her Work Balkan Ours

Whenever I meet Krasimira I am always struck by her powerful, enigmatic presence. When she speaks it is with passion & wisdom; she always has a story to tell you about growing up in Bulgaria. I first met her in person in Berlin for her exhibition at EEP Gallery. Although her work is documentary in nature she will often use artistic practice to comprehensively express themes and emotions around the documentary and historical.

Her recent work Balkan Ours confronts the unspoken atrocities committed in Bulgaria between 1944 and 1989 by the communist regime that ruled during that period. Butseva hunts down and recontextualises visual clues to the history of Bulgaria often hidden from the media. Using visual archive and collective memory she forces discourse on a forgotten oppression. Buildings almost completely destroyed and swallowed up by their natural surroundings hint at a country previously in pain, shown alongside artistic representations of memory.

Using the nonprofit collective Revolv, run by Krasimira Butseva and Lina Ivanova, the artists facilitate support and education around contemporary photographic work and writing seeking to bring important issues to light.

Tell us more about yourself and your practice.

I am a Bulgarian born and Portsmouth based photographer, that have just finished studying MA Photography at the University of Portsmouth. Last summer I graduated from BA (Hons) Photography at the same university with First Class Honours. My practice investigates the territories of past reminiscences with the help of a photographic approach, film and written narrative. I explore history, politics and memory with the use of archives, found photography, personal documentation and videos. Using various approaches, I aim to create different representations of specific cultural and historical memories.

My Master’s work ‘Hey Balkan, you native, Ours’ studies the atrocities committed by the communist regime that ruled in Bulgaria between 1944 and 1989. Through the use of photography, video, archival documents and footage, the work contemplates and makes comment on the aftermath of the terror. With reference to the histories of the People’s Court, the forced labour camps, the revival process, governmental buildings and public spaces used for hostage and murder, the work aims to ask questions of the events that took place. In this project, I used photography, video, archival footage and documents to make a comment on the aftermath of the terror. Interviewing and listening to the memories and inherited accounts of different generations of people from individuals, local families to non-governmental and state institutions, research was gathered to create the various strands of the work. The work depicts my journey through the spaces, artefacts and stories of remembrance, juxtaposed with the collective denial of the human rights violations carried out by the totalitarian regime. The irretrievability of the truth, creates a space for reflection and acknowledgement of the past.

What was your creative process behind this work?

This is the largest project that I have worked on. I learned about this theme in September 2016, when I first saw a short video from a Bulgarian TV channel online, where two survivors from the forced labour camp Belene were talking briefly about their time spent in the camp and afterwards. I was immediately shocked because until that point I have never known that there were forced labour camps in Bulgaria – no one has told me: neither the media, the school or my family. It seemed that it was not a theme that people discuss at all, and as much as I was getting into this, I was understanding that it was not a topic to speak about even now in 2018, in democratic Bulgaria, more than 20 year after the fall of the Iron Curtain. This happened to be one of the motivations behind the work, the fact that it was not just forgotten but also unspeakable, hidden, forbidden and shameful to remember. In the beginning I was struggling with the topic; the research I was doing was very heavy for me – I was losing my sleep and starting to feel a part of the subjects of my study. Although I was inspired to tell this story in contemporary Eastern Europe, in modern Bulgaria where most of the young people don’t have a clue about any of this – they all learn about the past from ‘’loan-memory’’, listening to the nostalgic memories of their relatives and accepting them as truthful and complete narratives of the past.

I tried many different approaches towards my topic and used a mixture of them as a final piece. I traced back the locations of the camps or other buildings and spaces which were used for torture and violence during the time of communism, and created documentary landscape photographs with a medium format and 35mm cameras. I also started taking short videos of the locations, of their present state and of the passage of time. I also went back to one of the camps and pretended to be a forensic scientist, since no one had studied this crime scene I thought that I would do it 60 years later. Then I built a pop-up studio, brought gloves and packages, and collected various objects that were thrown on the quarry through the years. I also visited a few of the State archives in different municipalities and looked at original documents from the time, and also found some photographs. I contacted many film archives in Bulgaria and thankfully got the permission to use some archival footage from the 50s from the Bulgarian National Filmoteka. I also visited antique shops and bought some found photographs from there which I also used in work. I also met, interviewed and photographed survivors from the camps, relatives of victims, researchers, historians, governmental and non-governmental organisations, people living nearby the sites and others. I also asked them to bring photographs from that time of themselves or their loved ones, so that this could add a historical context to the work. I also started staging some of the punishments and experiences from the lives of the repressed, and filmed them using myself and rarely someone else.

What work inspires or has inspired you?

I was influenced by Redheaded Peckerwood by Christian Patterson, in his work the photographer traced back the steps of two teenagers who fell in love in the last century and went on a killing spree. He photographed the contemporary way these spaces look like, used some photographs from the police archives, recreated some of the objects and items of the killers and also found one object that belong to one of them forgotten in one of the crime scenes.

I was also very inspired by the works of Ori Gersh, especially his film Forest – which is about the atrocities committed against the Jewish people. The artist went back to this forest that is on the border of Ukraine and Poland, where his family was when the violence was happening, fortunately they managed to escape and survive. The artist filmed a tree falling on slow motion, with a glowing rain of leaves as an aftermath of the fall.

I was also influenced by Vesna Pavlovic and her creative approach towards archival Soviet films. She works with the personal archives of the Yugoslavian president Tito and with her films she questions the truthfulness of the archive and the way media was used during the communist time.

Are there any artistic movements you enjoy in particular and why?

I’m not very good at keeping up with artistic trends to be honest, but, I didn’t even realise until recently that I was part of a wave of photographers who are turning back to shooting on film. There’s a lot of high profile photographers who exclusively use film too, including Petra Collins and Sandy Kim. It’s very inspiring to see these photographers get work using film alone.

I see 3D rendered work come up frequently on my social media feeds. I think this is where the future of art is eventually going to head. Everything we do now is through the internet, I find it fascinating how art is influenced by this, two 3D artists I really enjoy are Pastelae and Sam Rolfes.

Do you have any opinions or ideals underlying your art?

I wanted to visually represent how I felt and what was happening to me. I wanted the project to be an honest documentation of my depression. It’s not wildly crying yourself to sleep every night. It’s the monotonous boredom of being so mentally and physically exhausted you can only manage to stare at the walls, lying on your bed. Towards the completion of the project I wanted to open up a dialogue on how men suffer with mental health but can’t seem to find help with it.

We have learnt something about the history of Bulgaria through this work. It’s strong, well researched and heart wrenching. It must have been incredibly difficult juggling the emotional and historical within the past communist oppression in your home. Tell us about the relationship between subjectivity and the factually charged quality of this series.

Thank you very much for the kind words! In this particular piece I have explored the way that subjectivity works. In my work I do not aim to show objective narrative of the past because I do not believe that is possible for such to exist. I have visited the locations and spaces of terror 60 years after they functioned; the sites had transformed due to political, social, economic and geographic changes. Despite all that, my work has been inspired by historical narratives, archives and stories that I have collected from people that have experienced these traumatic events themselves. Even though the work is subjective and it is through my artist’ perspective, it is indeed based on historical facts and documents.

Any words for aspiring artists?

I think that there are only three things that a photographer should do to be successful.

1. Always take risks

2. Work very hard

3. If something doesn’t work try another way.

Is there anything you’re currently working on?

Currently I am still working on this project, because what I have showed of Balkan Ours is just a small extract of the whole archive that I build throughout this year. I am currently in the process of creating short stories inspired of the interviews I made and in the near future I will start drafting a photobook.

Where else can our readers find your work?

I found out recently, that ‘He Suffers With His Nerves’ is going to be made into a photography edition (zine) by The Library Project. “TLP Editions is the latest ongoing project from PhotoIreland Foundation – a collection of emerging talent and new projects in the form of accessible and inexpensive publications.” I’m still in shock by this amazing news, TLP is a prominent fixture in the Irish art industry, It’s a very big honour to me.

In April, a piece from ‘He Suffers’ will be shown as part of LoosenArt’s group exhibition ‘About Me’ in the Millepiani artist space, Rome. My work has only been shown in Ireland and the UK, so this is very exciting news to me.