Gergana Petrova Finds Home Through Documenting Bulgarian Youth Culture

I am no longer sure the concept of home is possible in late capitalism. We either flee its toxicity and become estranged or, we see capital come to distort and re-alter our communities in front of our eyes. Either way, home increasingly feels like a dated concept. For a generation of individuals born in the post-socialist period, home has become an impossible concept where Ryanair flights to Dublin or London await for hopefully a brighter future. Most times, it is just a job at Costa Coffee.

For Gergana Petrova, leaving home meant living out essentially a photographer’s greatest fantasy of moving to Berlin, being regularly commissioned by Vice, and becoming the assistant to photography god, Nan Goldin. Sadly, this dream turned out to be far more alienating and depressing than it appeared to be. Whatever Berlin was, it was never home. The constant feeling of something being amiss never disappeared with time. As such, Gergana left Berlin and returned to the decidedly less fashionable Sofia to continue her career as an artist.

Recently, Gergana finished her series “Crystal Trips”, which looks to capture youth culture in Bulgaria in a truly unique fashion. Instead of looking to locate what youth culture is in modern-day Bulgaria, she locates both their joy and loss in that vague space conjoining the two in the backdrop of a quickly transforming post-integration Bulgaria. She unlocks that sense of youthful exploration at both a physical and emotional level. Her photos present questions of temporal loss and echoes of the past that are impossible to grasp. The images in the series are understated, showcasing the negotiation between a desire for change and the loss that change invariably brings.

I caught up with Gergana in Sofia in July, where we talked about her recent series and more. Don’t forget to follow her on Instagram to see her work process.

 

You have worked in Sofia, Berlin, Barcelona, and China while often focusing on youth culture. What is it exactly that attracts you to telling stories of a particular generation that grew up in the 90’s?

When I first moved to Germany, I lived in this small picturesque town where I studied, which was a cultural shock for me. You know, coming from post-socialist Bulgaria to a sterile residential German village was very difficult. I needed to understand better the place where I came from while trying to adapt to a different cultural mindset. I became very sensitive to the differences between “here” and “there”, and the search and evaluation of those differences became a center of my work at the time.

My generation that grew up in Eastern Europe during the 90’s fascinates me since we had a taste of both the Soviet regime in the late 80’s and the Western influence in the 90’s of democracy. It was quite a transition to experience in your youth. We grew up surrounded by concrete blocks and massive monuments whose values suddenly no one could relate to when the first malls started appearing and filling the void. Our landscape politically and culturally is quite diverse from the rest of Europe, and I wanted to understand how this experience has shaped us as people, a society, and a generation.

Each time I travel now, I try to capture these differences, as a means of comparison and understanding. Each place has its own energy and this particular generation has some quirks that I find worth examining.

Recently, you have re-settled in Sofia after living in Berlin for a number of years. You really appeared to be living the ideal existence there. You were working for Vice, were the assistant to Nan Goldin, and appeared to be really doing well. It was really the sort of dream for most aspiring photographers. Tell me what brought you back to Sofia?

Truth is, I never got used to Germany. I always felt estranged. There were great moments (like meeting Nan and working for Vice) but it takes a lot of time to build your life anew. Moving abroad is like starting from a blank page. Before you were someone that had a family, friends, relationships etc., and now you are a nobody without those connections. No one knows you or cares about you. When you are down, you are truly down to the bottom, man. It’s not a good feeling. At a certain point, I felt a bit disassociated while feeling incomplete, longing for home, and the feeling of it.

Most of my friends abroad felt that way too. Unable to stay and feel at “home.” Unable or unwilling to go back. I decided to move back for an uncertain time and see how I’d feel. It’s been great! Sofia is my home and I never felt better anywhere else. I love the nature, the warmth, and the people despite all the misery and imperfections. It is this warm feeling that brought me back.

You’ve finished a series about Bulgarian youth. Much like other aspects of Bulgarian culture, it is a subject that is not given much attention. What did you want to express about Bulgarian youth through your work?

Exactly, I was frustrated that it is so different, crazy, liberal, and fun but no one in the West knew about it. I wanted to capture the freedom of it. The intoxicating feeling of just being there and together. We explored the cities and the strange remnants of communist architecture, doing stupid things, or marveling at the amazing Bulgarian nature that wild and untamed, like most things in Bulgaria. I called my series “Crystal Trips” because of this crystal-shaped building we once found in the middle of nowhere along the highway. Truly a masterpiece that nobody expected to find there. I also tried to capture this feeling of discovery we shared and everything else before I knew would change.

Some of the monuments and buildings we loved are now removed, crumbling, and shaded by the malls and business centers. It is strange to live with the constant notion that everything that is happening to you and what you are seeing is temporary. I tried to capture what we had the way it was before we grew up and got scattered.

Whether it was drinking in Crystal Park, hitting up an exhibition where seemingly everyone supported each other, and the manner in which every photographer seemed to encourage me to check out five of their other friends, Sofia seems to really have a tight yet supportive artistic culture. Beyond your personal connections to the city, how does the city differ from other places you used to live?

It differs in the way that these artistic enthusiasts are a really small group. We all know each other, which is great but sometimes frustrating. It gives us the impression that we live on an island. Bulgarians are also very straightforward people and very emotional. We rarely hold anything back. Call it lack of manners if you wish, but it makes things a bit easier for communication and you can really feel at ease there.