Setting foot onto dry land near the end of September this year, I had a feeling things were going to be action-packed. Long field seasons in the Polar Regions, typically, are followed by one of two phases: desperate rest and recovery, or sudden flurries of activity, during which one attempts to cram 4 months worth of activities and errands into a few crazed, busy weeks. This time around, my goal was to somehow fuse the two – but where, when, and what this would entail, were all yet to be unveiled.
First, a bit of backstory. In the early spring of this year, whilst on a ship in Antarctica, I received a peculiar email through our satellite communications system: an invitation to travel to Bulgaria for a solo exhibition of my photography. First I shrugged it off – spam, probably – but then I took a second look. Surprisingly, it seemed sort of real. It looked cool, actually. With a degree of skepticism, I hesitantly accepted the offer – but promptly made a back-up plan, just in case.
Fast-forward six months or so, and I was back on a ship, in the Arctic this time. Although the opening date of the exhibition had been set, and Jens had agreed to join me, we had no plane tickets. The date drew closer: One month to go. Three weeks. Two weeks, in which to somehow get from a ship in the Arctic, to Canada, to Sweden, to Bulgaria.
At one week left until the opening, I wrote Jens over the satellite email.
“Forget about Bulgaria,” I wrote. “I don’t think it’s going to happen. We can stay in Sweden, read books and stuff. Rest.”
No sooner had I sent the message than plane tickets appeared in an email from our mysterious Bulgarian hosts. With 5 days left until the exhibition opening, we decided to drop everything and go. As snow began to fall on Greenland and storms descended upon Svalbard, two weary expedition guides boarded aircraft on opposite sides of the Arctic and started the course towards eastern Europe.
Neither of us, I must admit, knew anything about Bulgaria. The whole of the Balkan region was, in my imagination, shrouded in mystery; the little I knew of it was a fantastical world shaped by photographers like Michał Siarek. We just went, operating in the same expedition mindset that defines much of what we do. You go, simply, to find out; and by traveling without expectations make yourself receptive to a potentially endless stream of surprise, delight, and amazement.
Bulgaria pretty much blew our minds. Not only was it real, it was beautiful – far less Soviet concrete (why had I imagined that?) and instead, lush, mountainous, and the city of Sofia full of warm colors, a meeting of East and West. More importantly, we were met at the airport by none other than Denislav Stoychev. All I knew about Denislav was that he was a talented photojournalist and member of the Bulgarian Press Photo organization which had invited me there. What I didn’t know was that he was only 25 years old, hilarious, and probably one of the friendliest and most talkative people I’ve met in years. He would instantly become our best friend, translator, tour guide, and agent throughout our time in Sofia.
“I hope you like interviews,” he said as we rode the subway from the airport. “You’ll be on Bulgarian National Television tomorrow, on the morning show. Local television at noon, National Radio the next day. Maybe some newspapers.”
How does one respond, after three months in the Arctic? The blur of the subway whirred around us, Cyrillic characters flashing by. Jens and I just looked at each other and laughed. What was this dream? How did we get here?
“Why are you laughing?” asked Denislav.
Sure enough, the next morning I was live on the morning show, promptly after breakfast and before actually having seen the exhibition I was speaking about. You can check out the interview here – it was my first experience speaking with a simultaneous translator, but I think it went as well as it could have. As we spoke, the wall of screens behind us displayed a slideshow of my work from Alaska, Iceland and Baffin Island. I imagined these pictures, and these spoken thoughts about the Arctic, glowing from television screens in living rooms across Bulgaria. “Surreal” does not begin to cover it.
The exhibition poster outside the gallery. Loving seeing it all in Bulgarian.
After the National Television experience, we went to see the exhibition that Gallery SYNTHESIS had kindly prepared in advance. The gallery adjoined PhotoSYNTHESIS – a cafe, camera store, print studio, and photo book library, all in one. It was a stunning example of how to make the documentary and fine-art photography worlds accessible and engaging to a wider public, by creating an inviting and multifaceted cafe atmosphere.
Cafe seating in front of the gallery door.
In the spacious upstairs gallery, the exhibition was already installed, combining images from my projects Polaris, Origins and Under the Same Stars. It was refreshing, for once, to have such a large exhibition curated by someone else – and novel, for me, to have all the text written in Bulgarian. The show was expansive, filling three rooms and two hallways, but here is a brief selection of installation shots.
No sooner had we taken a look at the exhibition than it was time for another interview, this time in English, with the local TV station bTV. Due to the amount of other news stories that day, the clip they actually used was very brief, but it was a fun and engaging experience. Here is the result.
With the exhibition opening that night, we decided to take a break from interviews and actually spend a few hours taking in the sights of Sofia. It was, after all, still less than 24 hours since we had arrived.
The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, for example, was nearby.
By some glorious accident, we stumbled upon an absolutely legendary restaurant called Made in Blue. Post-Arctic meals of dreams were enjoyed outside in warm sunshine.
We got dressed up for the exhibition opening and walked through a beautiful park right next to our hotel, full of locals taking in the late-afternoon light.
From there, it was straight to the exhibition opening! For being new to Bulgaria, there was a surprisingly large turnout of photography and art enthusiasts. Denislav and Nadezhda, the curator, introduced the show with a series of speeches in Bulgarian.
There were lots more interviews and photographs and smiling at cameras.
Some lovely ladies from the US Embassy, which had funded the exhibition, arrived to say hi and do some more interviews. (Here’s the one that ended up on their website.) After that, it was time for an artist talk about the Polar Regions, photography, and expedition travel.
Thus concluded one of the most amazing and intensive exhibition days I can remember, marked by the astounding hospitality, generosity, and kindness of our new Bulgarian friends. We ended the evening with dinner with Denislav, his friends, the curator Nadezhda, and the director of the Serbian photography festival Vizualizator, talking about photography, art, and all of its magic.
The days that followed, while considerably more low-key, were enjoyed to the fullest. There were more interviews, of course, at the National Radio and various newspapers, but there was also lots of time to explore and enjoy the city. Denislav tagged along with us, documenting fervently on Instagram as we went, showing us some of the highlights of Sofia.
I also got to conduct portfolio reviews for some up-and-coming Bulgarian photographers!
That night, we met Tsvetan Tomkchev, director of BG Press Photo, to watch the sun set over Sofia.
The next day, Denislav took us by train to the city of Plovdiv, where we spent the day enjoying the best of Bulgarian traditional cuisine, warm sunshine, and the beautiful cultural scene there.
On our very last day, the three of us joined Bulgarian photographer Vlad Donkov and his friend on a day trip in the Rila mountains! Like Jens and I, Vlad had also spent a significant amount of time photographing in the Polar Regions, and jumped at the opportunity to show us some of Bulgaria’s best wilderness – and swap adventure stories from the worlds’ cold places. After driving an hour or so from Sofia, we made our way up through the autumn landscape towards Malyovitsa Peak.
The trail was sunny, relatively warm – and tough! Jens and I could feel that we had been on ships all summer. It was heavenly, however, to feel our freedom of movement over the earth; to breathe mountain air; and to sense the wildness around us in every direction.
Denislav was representing BG Press Photo, of course.
While we didn’t make it quite to the top, our 8-hour trek took us through a host of alpine landscapes, past lakes and valleys, and finally up a steep scree gully up to one of the mountain’s saddles. From there, panoramic views fell away from us in every direction. We munched apples and chocolate at the top, feeling the cold evening air sweeping towards us as the sun sank lower into the sky.
Darkness fell over the landscape as we returned, exhausted, to the car. Denislav chatted rapidly into his cell phone in Bulgarian, hanging up and calling, hanging up and calling.
“Tonight we will eat at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant!” he announced happily. “Very, very traditional. Maybe with a singer.”
“Oh no,” said Vlad.
It is difficult to explain the full magnitude of what happened next. We arrived, sweaty with our backpacks, into a restaurant whose seating space also functioned as a dance floor; where a live band performed about 5 meters away from our dinner table, and lines of restaurant patrons wove around the tables in ongoing traditionally dance. Tsvetan awaited us enthusiastically, beaming in his BG Press Photo t-shirt under an assemblage of Bulgarian flags. We laughed and ate and yelled across the table at each other over the roar of the music.
“I love this song!” Denislav exclaimed suddenly, as the jubilant tune changed melodies.
“What’s it about?” I asked.
“Our uprising from the Ottoman Empire.”
It was a cultural dinner like no other. Suddenly, Denislav snuck across the room to speak to the singer, gesturing towards Jens and I with enthusiasm. The next thing we knew, we were asked to come on stage, where the singer gave a dramatic speech in Bulgarian encompassing our life stories – the Polar Regions, the ships, the animals, the exhibition, the photography, Antarctica, the Rila mountains from where we had just arrived – and promptly urged us to dance. The band burst into vibrant song.
What do you do? You dance. Everyone else, it turned out, danced with us too.
Thank you, Bulgaria. Thank you Denislav and Tsvetan, for inviting us; thank you Vlad, Nadezhda, BG Press Photo, the US Embassy, and all the others who made a 5-day whirlwind trip an experience that we will never forget. I came to Bulgaria thinking it would be an exhibition and nothing more; I left with an overwhelming sense of the warmth of humanity, feeling that we have made friends for life.
Sometimes, you just have to drop everything and go.