Photographer Pepa Hristova in conversation with Sophia Greiff

Daniela Hinrichs February 2, 2014

Pepa Hristova (* 1977 in Sevlievo, Bulgaria), lives and works in Hamburg and Berlin. She has a degree in communication design with a specialization in photography from the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences.

Pepa, what does photography mean to you? What is it about photography that allows you to express yourself better than any other medium?

Photography has this power to bring everything to a standstill and open up a new space. By selectively picking out moments from reality you can discover things that you would otherwise perhaps never have noticed. This forces you to look at things in fine detail and directly invites you to get to grips with the world. You are confronted with people and these encounters give you many new insights about yourself.

DRANDE, 53, is a woman who chose to live the life of a man. She lost her hands as a child, playing with a hand grenade. After her father’s death, it was a point of honor for Drande to take care of her mother (Sworn Virgins)

DRANDE, 53, is a woman who chose to live the life of a man. She lost her hands as a child, playing with a hand grenade. After her father’s death, it was a point of honor for Drande to take care of her mother (Sworn Virgins)

So for ‘Sworn Virgins’, you met the last men-women in Europe. A collection of laws passed down from the Middle Ages by oral tradition, the ‘Kanun’, allows families who have lost their male leader – often as a result of blood feuds – to nominate a female relative as his replacement. The prerequisite is that these women must swear to preserve their virginity for the rest of their lives. What was it that interested you about this subject?

It fascinated me how a woman’s external appearance can transform her inner attitude so starkly. How the physiognomy, the facial features, the voice, the whole appearance can change and how authentic that is. This only happens when there’s a deep, personal conviction. I still find it unbelievable – this strength to come to such a decision and to give your word, which cannot be broken.

QAMILE, 84. After the death of her father, when Qamile was nine years old, her mother presented her to the local council of men. From that moment onward, she grew up as a son and has never regretted this fate (Sworn Virgins)

QAMILE, 84. After the death of her father, when Qamile was nine years old, her mother presented her to the local council of men. From that moment onward, she grew up as a son and has never regretted this fate (Sworn Virgins)

After a Bulgarian friend told you about the men-women in 2006, you travelled to Albania to learn more about them. How did you approach this? What conclusions did you draw?

I prefer to conduct my research locally and let myself drift along. If you keep an open mind, everything usually comes together quite easily – one thing leads to another. I love these small miracles and coincidences along the way. The people you meet, the things that you experience. If I really get into the place, I gather a lot of material very quickly. I collect different impressions, archive pictures, landscapes, everything that I see that I feel has an association with the subject – as with writing in a notebook, it’s an intuitive process.

And how did you go about working with them for their portraits? How did you gain their trust?

This comes from gut reactions too. I devote time to the people and open myself up to them. If I am truly convinced about something I don’t hesitate. Instead I can express what it is that I want very clearly. If the person engages with me it creates something like a space in between – it is completely magical. I improvise with the camera and the portraits, and sometimes a crazy intimacy emerges.

HAVE became a man at fifteen, because she felt she could never be a “full-fledged woman.” She walked with a limp, and therefore decided to stay at home with her parents. Have swore her oath of virginity before her family and the neighbors (Sworn Virgins)

HAVE became a man at fifteen, because she felt she could never be a “full-fledged woman.” She walked with a limp, and therefore decided to stay at home with her parents. Have swore her oath of virginity before her family and the neighbors (Sworn Virgins)

Your work encompasses many different genres. You combine snapshots with staged images and precise observations of situations. What must a picture say for you? When is it ‘good’?

I like it when images are ambiguous and can’t be so easily read. That fascinates me – something that is contradictory or triggers a discussion. In my photography I play with meanings and search for something deeper. With ‘Sworn Virgins’ for example, I have tried to find where the woman and the man is visible in the person. The images leave it open as to whether the individuals are happy or not. For me, it is more important to convey something that perhaps cannot be clearly expressed in words.

HAKIJE, 59, was raised as a boy by her parents from the time of her birth, because a dervish predicted that they would have a boy (Sworn Virgins)

HAKIJE, 59, was raised as a boy by her parents from the time of her birth, because a dervish predicted that they would have a boy (Sworn Virgins)

Your book to accompany ‘Sworn Virgins’ has recently been published by Kehrer Verlag. Here too you are very free with your interpretation of the topic and you challenge the reader a little. What role do the words play here?

For me, words are very important and I like to play with this union of text and images. In doing this, you can discover how humans function: how they make associations and how open they are to piecing the stories together themselves, without everything being explained. Of course with such a format you have to engage more with the work and grapple with it. But when it works, you can reach people on a whole new level. I always find it extremely exciting when people suddenly see something in the images, which has come from then and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the story. Moreover I like it when the text and the images form an individual artwork – when it emerges from the images, creating something new and unique.

And the images, how do you bring them all together? Do they immediately go into the finished form of the book?

Again, selecting photographic materials is also a process. It’s a very different task to actually taking the photographs but it’s actually just as important. You have to distance yourself and then approach it once again. I try a lot out, search and see different connections and experiment with how images work with each other. There are so many possibilities for steering the photographic language or taking it in another direction. Working on my book, I have re-learned a lot of this. I kept having to change the designer, because this emotional and holistic approach to a subject just simply isn’t in everyone. But that is what interests me.

ILMIJE, 30, has always wanted to be free and autonomous. In the northern part of the country, only boys have the privilege to leave the house. At the age of five, she went out to let the livestock graze without asking permission. After her mother’s death, when she had to take care of the household and her father, she finally decided to live as a man (Sworn Virgins)

ILMIJE, 30, has always wanted to be free and autonomous. In the northern part of the country, only boys have the privilege to leave the house. At the age of five, she went out to let the livestock graze without asking permission. After her mother’s death, when she had to take care of the household and her father, she finally decided to live as a man (Sworn Virgins)

Your method of approaching the photographic medium is very intuitive, open. To what extent is your photography connected to you and your own story?

For me, photography is definitely something personal. I want to meet people, work with them and learn more about topics that interest me through these encounters. The world has already seen so much and many stories have already been told – that’s why I find an individual or artistic view of the world much more exciting. And when I am able to do this authentically, I can also use my work to reach other people. But I don’t set out to convey something specific.
When it comes to my Bulgarian roots, I don’t see myself as obliged to create work about my homeland, which shows the story in a new light. I don’t want to commit myself to the east, but that is the topic I’m working on at the moment. For example I photographed a children’s home in Bulgaria for my project ‘Labyrinth aus Glas’ (‘Labyrinth out of glass’). It’s not an easy topic and confronting it left me in physical pain. Therefore I’m devoting a lot of time to it and leaving the project to rest in between. Currently I’m interested in the pagan rituals and traditions that still exist in Eastern Europe. I am completely fascinated by the east in general: the colours, the smells, the stillness. And also the fractured beauty within it.

SHKURTAN, 76, decided to become a boy at six, in order to be able to care for the domestic animals. “I wanted to be free and to spend all my time with the stock,” she says. Having a twin-sister, two other sisters and a brother, Shkurtan has always wanted to be like her brother, and to be as free as he is (Sworn Virgins)

SHKURTAN, 76, decided to become a boy at six, in order to be able to care for the domestic animals. “I wanted to be free and to spend all my time with the stock,” she says. Having a twin-sister, two other sisters and a brother, Shkurtan has always wanted to be like her brother, and to be as free as he is (Sworn Virgins)

You have another new project in the works, a collaboration with Daniela Hinrichs for DEAR Photography. How did that come about and what experiences did you have previously with this style of presenting your work?

To start with I had my reservations about an online gallery but Daniela’s personality and enthusiasm for photography and this project convinced me. She really dedicates herself to an artist, is very open to suggestions and wishes, and respects your artistic decisions. This is exactly what you need in this area – someone who supports you and will represent you. An agent or patron who will promote your work and get it out there. Otherwise artists always have to take on this role themselves. This works really well. Obviously it can take a while for a new concept to evolve, but Daniela is very brave, active and prepared to try lots of things out and to learn. This is something I definitely want to support her in!

Portrait

Pepa Hristova

Photographer Pepa Hristova was born in 1977 in Sevlievo, Bulgaria. She studied communication design at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences and became a member of the Ostkreuz photographic agency in Berlin in 2006. Her photographic work is driven by her fascination with the fractured beauty of the east and her interest in social phenomena and archaic traditions, leading to an examination of the unknown, changing side of Europe. She focuses on the alienation of Muslims in orthodox Bulgaria, documents a centuries-old custom in North Albania with ‘Sworn Virgins’ or looks behind the closed doors of Bulgarian children’s homes. She approaches her subjects with intuition and emotion and experiments with different genres and the ambiguity of photographic imagery. Snapshots combine with staged images and precise observations of situations, opening up an associative space, in which there is still scope for individual interpretations and points of contact.

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