Bulgaria is a former communist country with a painfully complex history. It was under Ottoman oppression for approximately 5 centuries, which the Russians helped to put an end to in the late 1800s only to exert their own influence in Bulgaria for over 50 years, parts of which are continuing even to the present day. Bulgaria was once a monarchy with a king but as they were on the wrong side of history during the Second World War, the establishment was overthrown and the first Bulgarian president was democratically elected in the early 1990s. It’s a very fresh and fragile system with ghosts from the past still lingering in many aspects of people’s lives. One such remnant is the blue Exemplary Home plaque. I remember these very clearly as my great-grandparents had one and I wondered what it signified. It was given to people who were deemed to be reputable and an example to follow in terms of housekeeping, values and other obscure criteria.
Yassen Grigorov is a Bulgarian photographer who moved to England a few years ago to pursue his photographic ambitions. Even when one leaves their home country, however, roots are strong and they don’t get eradicated easily. Grigorov carried the memories and impressions of Bulgaria with him and the most natural act was to document the Eastern European country. There’s something very honest and genuine when a person with “insider knowledge” photographs a place; we’ve become accustomed to “alien” photographers going to remote parts of the world and presenting us with their own perspective, which could be vastly different and incongruous with what the situation truly is or how the locals feel about particular issues.
The raw images in Exemplary Home exhibit a place that appears derelict and forgotten, yet inhabited by people who are full of warmth and humanity. The picture of the woman who had never had a colour photograph taken of her before is one of those types of images that, when combined with the context of the situation, will haunt the viewer for a long time, in the positive sense of the word. This is the power of photography, it can change people’s inner narrative. Just try to imagine their thoughts - they live in remote villages, perhaps sometimes going days or weeks without seeing any new faces, and one day a stranger comes up with his elaborate photographic equipment and takes the time and effort to photograph them, but also converse with them and understand their lives. It must feel elating to the point that it changes a person’s sense of worth.
Another particularly striking part of Exemplary Home is the presence of necrologs. These are A4 sheets of paper, similar to obituaries, that announce someone’s death. Very common in Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries, they blur the boundaries between private grief and public display. It’s astonishing how they’ve become a part of the daily landscape in Bulgaria to the point that people barely notice them anymore, yet they symbolise the end of a person’s life.
— foreword by Zak R. Dimitrov
Exemplary Home is a documentary work exploring the north-western part of rural Bulgaria. It aims to illustrate the effects of rapid urbanisation, progressive globalisation and corruption on the most vulnerable parts of Bulgarian society.
It engages with the surreal air of the province and its people through the viewpoint of a Bulgarian expatriate, returning to a landscape leaden with childhood memories. This moment led to the discovery of an intersection of narratives, spanning the periods of The Bulgarian Renaissance, through the Soviet and now Post-Soviet era.
The commentary feels particularly relevant in today’s time, with the tide on globalisation turning towards increased disunion and protests against the government breaking out in the nation.
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