The world through the Third Eye of photography

By • on October 15, 2012

Elle Ivanova

Ellie Ivanova: “Some deeply ingrained stereotypes still exist today in Bulgarian society because of a lack of contacts and familiarity. Things will be different once everybody in Bulgaria has a Romani friend. The Roma don’t really need to be “integrated”, but to have the same access to opportunities available to all other citizens and to be free from the discrimination that leads to isolation and poverty”.

1. What is the name of your project and what are its goals? Who assists you with its implementation?

The project is called „Third Eye Workshops”, which stands for a series of photography workshops for kids coming from marginalized Roma communities. The workshops introduce them to various means of photographic expression, which would help them share their viewpoint with the rest of society and give them the confidence that their voice matters. The name takes after the concept of the third eye as a symbol of enlightenment in the Indian tradition, which stands for the power of photography to capture the invisible. Although the project doesn’t receive any finaincing from any kind of institution, it enjoys a tremendous grassroot support from friends and many others who have learned about it and offered us used digital cameras, ideas and other kinds of non-material support. So all these activities wouldn’t have happened without our partner organizations: The Iskra Association for Ethnotolerance in Shumen, The Largo Association in Kyustendil, The Arete Youth Foundation and The Elite Center for Roma Culture in Sofia.

2. How long have you run the project and what does it consist of exactly?

It started in 2010, with the huge help of Ognyan Isaev and Yanka Totsev, which was essential to its beginnings. We first contacted Roma NGOs and proposed them to organize a photography workshop for the kids in their neighborhoods. Photography is such a powerful tool against discrimination, so it went very well with the mission and the work of these organizations. I travelled to these neighborhoods and when kids and I got together we started discussing different types of photography: portraits, landscapes, abstract. After that, kids were divided into groups, each group sharing a camera, and they went out to take pictures. We sometimes went on a photo safari together, other times the kids would go on their own. We later discussed and admired the pictures taken, and brainstorm for ideas that wouled improve their skills. Once we had enough material to plan the exhibition, I printed the images and prepared them for display. You can see a selection from our workshops at http://tretooko.wordpress.com

This photo, taken by Galina Nikolova from Kyustendil in 2010, is one of my favorite pictures of the workshop. While we were walking past a bunch of tubes piled on the side of the street, Galia got the idea to do something creative with them. Bocko was the willing model here. The symbolism: there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. This picture has everything it needs: interesting lines, a nice perspective, colors and contrast, and a great idea behind it. It’s inspiring and everybody who has seen it loved it right away.

3. What motivated you to start such an initiative (project)?

When I left Bulgaria in the 1990s I never wanted to go back. But after studying Spanish literature and culture and getting involved in programs for the bilingual and bicultural education of Mexican American communities in Texas, I started to think, how do these realities and situations apply to Bulgaria? Can they relate to each other? My scholarly background pushed me to return to my home country and share my experiences. And the first bicultural environment that came to my mind was the Roma community. I thought about the Bulgarian immigrants in the US who are so proud of their origin, even though they are a minority, and I became interested in how their experiences relate to those of Roma people. People need to be proud and not ashamed of who they are in order to succeed, and I started thinking: how come Roma are not allowed the same respect and pride in their culture? Where are their oral stories, the historic documents, the newspaper articles, the art? They exist, but nobody else in Bulgarian society knows about them. Ironically enough, leaving Bulgaria motivated me to return and learn more about it, to share my newly acquired knowledge. The second motivation was my love of photography and my firm belief in photography’s huge potential for changing hearts and minds. Roma people are a very popular topic for photographers. However, most works come from non-Roma and present stereotypical and dramatic pictures of utter poverty and disaster. I didn’t believe that this could be the everyday reality of the community. I thought it was the shock value that most people associate with this topic, and I found that unfair. As an outsider and a photographer myself, I wanted to convey the warmth of everyday life, the joy of life, the relationships, the beauty of Roma communities instead of focusing on poverty or other negative aspects. My dream is that, Roma photographers will become the spokespersons of their own communities and will be able to convey their experiences without stereotypes made up by outsiders. And the best people to do that are children and teenagers, because they are still free of stereotypes and prejudices at their age. So this is how I came up with this project. 

4. How many people (adults and children) are involved in your project and what is their role?

A lot are! Its most important component is the enthusiasm and goodwill of the contributors, and the main success of the Third Eye rests in the personal and the symbolic connections among people. I can hardly count the adults, children and teenagers who have been involved, but there must have been in the hundreds so far, in multiple roles that proved to be crucial even while being informal. Besides the people and organizations I have already talked about, I’d like to mention Galina Nikolova and Bocelin Mitkov from Kyustendil, teenagers ( young adults nowadays) who volunteered for the Largo Association and became young leaders in their neighborhoods and an inspiration for other kids. Sali Ibrahim told me many stories about her life and creative work to help me understand better Romani culture and traditions. Many other adults I’ve met in Roma neighborhoods and elsewhere offered advice, warmth and insight that helped shape our work. And the kids taught me and the others who saw their photos about beauty and humanity in general.

5. How many Roma neighborhoods have you been to and how many Roma children have you worked with? How many photos have you taken?

I’ve worked in several Roma neighborhoods in Bulgaria over the past two years: Byalata Prust in Shumen, Iztok in Kyustendil, Fakulteta in Sofia, a summer camp in Ravda organized by Arete Youth, and each workshop has included around a dozen children. Hundred of pictures have been taken and a selection has been exhibted in three venues in Bulgaria and one in the US. After the exhibitions, the pictures went back to the communities that have produced them.

This picture was taken by Bocelin Mitkov and I love it because it is such a great illustration of how breaking rules creates something beautiful. I always told kids not to use flash when taking pictures because it destroys the atmosphere of the image. However, I was so happy that they didn’t actually listen to me here. The flash in this pictures created an amazing source of light in this triangle of three geometric figures, which the subject of the photo contemplates before an important decision. It’s great that his hands are included in the image, otherwise it would have been a rather anonymous photo. The way it is, it is an image of the internal clash between rational considerations (the rectangle and the triangle) and religious feelings. Impressive!

6. What do your friends think about your project? Did anyone say “they will steal your camera”, because such are the prejudices against the Roma? What other prejudices against Roma did you hear during the project?

All my friends, Bulgarian and American, have been extremely enthusiastic about the project and helped me get in touch with Roma communities. Based on my Bulgarian non-Roma friends, I noticed that there is a great personal interest in Roma people, but people don’t have the opportunities to get to know them and draw their own conclusions. Nobody warned me about stolen cameras and I personally never had such fears. However, prejudices exist and some Bulgarians complained that I am putting effort and personal resources into the education of Roma kids instead of their kids. Unfortunately, even well intentioned people who see themselves as open-minded and inclusive harbor unconscious prejudices. This is all due to deeply ingrained stereotypes that still exist today in Bulgarian society because of a lack of contacts and familiarity. When everybody in Bulgaria has a Romani friend, things will be different.

7. What do you see as the main impact of your project?

The most important thing is the involvement of children. Photography has an amazing impact on those who practice it. When you take a picture, you have to think hard about the reality you are photographing. You are forced to express a point of view, to find its hidden beauty, so it impacts on the photographers, on the relationship with their environment,on their reflective understanding of it. For example, before I started photography I hated cold and rainy weather; now that I’ve gotten to know how beautiful clouds and fog can look in a photo, I actually appreciate and look forward to it. I love life in all its forms because I find beauty in it. Its second important role is within society at large. The Roma children who take pictures are unburdened by prejudices so their viewpoint presents the Roma community from their perspective, and shows that their lives, their emotions and values are just the same as everybody else’s. Even the differences are presented in such a way that other people appreciate them and find them beautiful. The most important aspect of the project is its impact against the prejudices, and the opportunity for Roma children to present themselves through their own eyes, and not in the way society sees them.

8. During the project, you met many Roma, and visited many Roma neighborhoods. What did you think about them? Aren’t you afraid of entering these neighborhoods that many of your countrymen find dangerous? What kind of a picture do you associate with the word „Roma“?

I’d never forget the first time I went to a Roma neighborhood. It was in Sofia, way back before I left Bulgaria. On that day I had an appointment with a doctor in his office in Fakulteta. So I went to the address he gave me and noticed that people on the streets somehow knew I was not local. They were watching me, I was watching them and I wanted to say hi, but was too shy to do it. That place and moment stayed with me through the years. So I was never afraid or concerned of going to Roma neighborhoods after all those years. I’ve lived in some places in Latin America that had the reputation of being very dangerous but where nothing bad happened to me and I would say that I felt rather safe and connected going to Roma neighborhoods in Bulgaria. People wanted to talk to me, take care of me, share experiences, rather than threaten me in any way. It has to do with being transparent and trusting people, and they will trust you back. It was one of the most emotional moments of my life. I love the Romani culture and would like to share it with other Bulgarians who only associate it with poverty and problems.

9. Are you satisfied with the results of your project? What did you achieve? What are your plans? Will you return again to Roma neighborhoods?

Of course I will return! I now have friends there that I certainly want to see again and keep in touch with. Also, the whole project is a long-term commitment. I never meant to be one of those well-intentioned, but unreliable do-gooders who show up, do something quick and then disappear. Good results are never fast or easy to achieve, their development takes patience, time and the good will of many, many people. So, in this respect, I am very satisfied with how the project has turned out and with its impact on Bulgarian public awareness related to Roma issues. But there is so much more work to be done, I am already planning more workshops next summer that would last longer and will feature larger presentations, and I am trying to find the institutional financing for it. My dream is to create a consistent and reliable platform some day that would offer young Roma people a venue for self-expression, and maybe a magazine, an online platform, perhaps a publishing house that would collect and then distribute their photographs or stories to mainstream newspapers and other Bulgarian media on a permanent basis. That would have a definite impact on mainstream society.

This is another amazing photo, taken by Emanoel Nikolov. It is fantastic because it is so unusual – the point of view is from the upside, looking up at a subject focusing on light. We don’t see his face, but we can see a normal contemporary room and the light creates beautiful lines and figures. This picture is so optimistic while at the same time tender and poetic.

10. What do you think about the process of integration of Roma into Bulgarian society? Do you think governmental efforts deserve such a name? Can you propose any solutions for this issue?

“Integration” is too misleading a word since Roma don’t really need to be “integrated”, but to have the same access to opportunities available to all other citizens. They also need to be free from the discrimination that leads to isolation and poverty. Their access has actually gotten worse with the advent of democracy. Unfortunately, the most effective solutions are the slow ones that work on multiple levels: in the media, public education, advocacy and social planning. There needs to be more public awareness about these issues and unfortunately, although many Bulgarian activists lobby for the rights of illegal immigrants, gay people or stray animals, Roma communities haven’t attracted their attention yet. I find this very puzzling and my goal is to promote the issue among my socially conscious and influential friends.

11. How long have you been living in the U.S.? How do you feel there? How do Americans see you, given that you are originally from Europe?

I’ve lived in the US for more than 10 years and simply love this country. Part of the reason is the warm welcome I received from the very beginning, and the help they offered while acknowledging that I was differet from them. Unlike in Europe, in the States it is actually an advantage to be from somewhere else, because your different background and experience can enrich society. And everybody here in the States (or their ancestors, at least) is from somewhere else!

12. What are the main similarities and differences between American and European (Bulgarian in particular) attitudes to diversity?

Both the United States and Europe (including Bulgaria) constitute very diverse societies, the Balkan Peninsula in particular is a melting pot. However, the diversity is open, well-recognized and very visible in the US. In Europe and particularly in Bulgaria, minority groups are hidden both from public view (from the media and the public sphere) and from mainstream discourse, such as history and culture textbooks, as if they didn’t exist and people didn’t see them as real. When I first read a history book on Bulgarian minorities that listed well-know public figures whose ethnical background I had no idea about, I realized that there is a history and social reality kept well hidden from Bulgarian society. It is so sad that many people today have to hide their ethnic origin to receive mainstream recognition instead of taking pride in it and trying to shape the ethnic landscape of our country in a positive way. There is a whole layer of Bulgarian culture that we don’t know and that we have to learn from scratch about. A lot of groundwork has been done in this respect in the US and I’d be really happy to contribute a little bit to the public recognition of Roma culture in Bulgaria. Of course, there is discrimination in America as well. But society as a whole considers it a bad thing; it’s considered bad taste and a behavior that goes against the norms of civilized society. In Bulgaria, on the other side, it’s not even recognized, and it’s considered normal. That’s the big difference, and for things to change, there is a huge need for a public debate on all of its levels and aspects. My hope is that my project will help change attitudes in this respect.

13. Would you like to thank someone or add something as final words or message?

Ultimately, the big reason for me to return to the Roma neighborhoods are the Roma people, my fascination for their life and culture. Being there allows me a glimpse of something that has long disappeared in mainstream Bulgarian culture and that I vaguely remember from my childhood: a sense of community, celebrations, the joy of life. It’s a pleasure to be there and experience it. For that reason, I think it is not just necessary for society to help Roma people get the same opportunities as everybody else, but actually beneficial for all other Bulgarians to learn more about Roma culture and the Romani wisdom and perspective on life. It’s not just one side giving by helping Roma kids, it is also non-Roma people as a whole who will receive a lot in return from this experience. So, I wanted to say a big thank you to all those who welcomed me so generously to their homes and hearts! I appreciate your love and care and hope to see you next year!