Emancipation Through Tradition
Pepa Hristova’s Eastern European Portraits

Pepa Hristova’s series “Sworn Virgins” portrays women in the mountains of Albania who live as men based on age-old traditions. Yet Hristova’s pictures, some of which were purchased for the Deutsche Bank Collection, are anything but voyeuristic reportage photographs. They artfully convey an image of cultures on the periphery of Europe, shedding light on concepts of home and identity. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf talked with the Bulgarian photographer.
The transition from feminine to masculine is not brought about by hormones or surgery. It is solely a vow that enables this transformation. In the West, the idea of transsexuality, of flowing transitions between the sexes, is a much-discussed topic right now, for it radically questions gender roles and family structures. In the remote mountains of northern Albania, however, the changeover from woman to man is rooted in ancient traditions. It is the Kanun of Lekë Dukagjini, customary laws transmitted by word of mouth and preserved to the present day, that permit women to take on the role of a man as a Burrnesha, a “sworn virgin,” in the family or village community and to live henceforth with a man’s privileges—to smoke, drink, and work in male professions.

Burrneshas can even be members of the tribal council, albeit with no voting rights. The price they have to pay is sexual abstinence and not being able to marry and have children. The reasons for such a decision can be that a woman wants to escape an arranged marriage without being dishonored due to a break with tradition, or simply because there is no male head of the family, no man to succeed as the patriarch. In the old days, the Kanun and “besa,” the word of honor, were widespread. Today, however, there are only a few Burrneshas.

“Many years have passed downstream through the valleys. But up in the mountains this transformation is occurring only slowly.” These words are written at the beginning of Pepa Hristova’s wonderfully poetic book of photographs Sworn Virgins. Published in 2013, it marks the climax and endpoint of a project on which the Hamburg-based Bulgarian worked for years on end. One fall evening in 2007, while they were sitting together in front of a fire, a Bulgarian girlfriend told her about the phenomenon. Between 2008 und 2010 Hristova travelled repeatedly to various Albanian villages, drifting around and asking questions, until she was finally able to establish contact with the Burrneshas. The closeness she had with them is shown by the very intimate photographs from the series, with which Hristova is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection.

“Nothing comparable had existed hitherto, there were no artistic projects about the men-women,” says the photographer. “There was only the book by the anthropologist Antonia Young published at the end of the eighties that confirmed the existence of the men-women. Then, during my work, droves of journalists and filmmakers suddenly came, even from Hollywood. I received inquiries several times a week for years asking for contact information. There was a real wave afterward. But the “before” was incredibly important to me, the time I spent with the women alone. I wanted to show how I experienced them, their dignity and respect, their great sensitivity, their sensitivity to tradition. I didn’t want to show only sensational aspects, as many journalists did—how backward Albania is, everything that happens there, and how bad it is that women have no rights.”

Indeed, Hristova’s book is far removed from photo reportage. The overtures are photographs of Wagnerian, opera-like force: inhospitable mountain ranges that rise up into a dramatic sky; fog spreading all the way down to the valley; sunrays that refract through thunderclouds; lonely lakes and rivers. Hristova places her protagonists in primordial, austere landscapes that look like a macrocosm, but that also seem to mirror their souls. “That was the idea. To walk through those landscapes, which were always there,” she says. “To convey a sense of the region, to emotionally introduce the viewer to this area.”

Diana, Lule, Quamile—for each Burrnesha, she created an insert in which archive photos tell of their lives. They are pictures from the days when they were still girls or women, everyday shots from different decades. Hristova transformed all of the personal photos into black and white. She cut out everything that was superfluous—passers-by, guests, unknown people—focusing entirely on the women’s immediate environment: family members, relatives, furnishings, clothing.

The portraits of the Sworn Virgins work the same way. There are only a few panorama shots or landscapes; the detail is usually reduced to a house wall, the living room, the veranda, the couch, a view through the window or doorways. Hristova’s photographs always seem to be formally framed, composed with clear horizontal or vertical axes that cross in the people portrayed, as though they are in the crosshairs. The astonishing thing is the openness with which the subjects look at the camera or an imaginary horizon, how they show Hristova their pride and strength, but also their hard lives. Despite this intimacy, the Burrneshas are constantly aware that there is a camera. These pictures invariably deal with the staging of photographs, with the interplay between photographer and subject.  

With their incredible personal closeness, Hristova’s pictures recall the work of the American photographer Nan Goldin, who became famous in the 1980s for her photographs of New York and Berlin subcultures. For Goldin, who often portrayed her friends, the subject’s personal relationship with the photographer was important; the creation of a situation in which the camera is not a “foreign body” but part of what is happening—either because the subject does not have to think about the fact that she is being photographed, or because she performs shamelessly in front of the camera, exposes herself. With her snapshot aesthetics Goldin and the so-called Boston School shaped the discourse about photography at the end of the twentieth century. “Yes, that inspired me a great deal,” says Hristova, “the emotional link to reality, the emotional connection to the motif. That is one of the main reasons I photograph at all: my personal connection to the protagonist, to the motif. So it’s important for me to spend time with my protagonists, to develop a relationship with them although they are very different from me. That drives me to get to know them, to experience why they are the way they are.”

But unlike with Goldin, with Hristova the creation of intimacy leads to staged pictures and to a rather static, ritualized aesthetics. In her work, too, there is something like an agreement, giving the subject some control over the picture. At the same time, however, the photographer is always reflected in the person she is photographing, with her feelings, memories, as well as cultural and political attitudes. Born in Bulgaria in 1977, she went to Germany in 1997, where she studied art history in Kiel and then photography in Hamburg. Hence Hristova is a border crosser between cultures. Not only between the East and West, but also between urban and rural life. Even in her first photo series, Rodina (2004) and Stories from Bulgaria (2005), she investigated the concept of home and the loss thereof. Already here, as well as in the series Strangers in Their Own Country (2006), in which Hristova portrayed members of the Moslem minority in Bulgaria, she used a technique that runs through her entire oeuvre. Like the American photographer Philip-Lorca diCorcia, she uses flash in daylight to light up the faces or the outlines of the people she portrays. In this way, she makes her subjects stand out from their surroundings and simultaneously isolates them. Many of the people in her photographs seem to be turned inward, dreaming, lost in thought.   

Hristova occupied herself with the issue of cultural identity from the very beginning. “These topics emerged very quickly,” she says. “I wanted to discover this unknown home, this edge of Europe that isn’t associated with Europe at all. It was a strange world even to me. I went to the remotest corners. Whenever I returned to big cities, even cities in Bulgaria, I felt as though I was in another country. I was always so torn. Regarding my family too. My father, for example, is a real Balkan person, who lives isolated in the mountains, like many of the people in my works. But I grew up in the city. All of this played a role, the completely different values people have in rural areas, values I often didn’t understand at all and that led to conflicts in the family.” Her series Rodina, devoted to the village in which she spent her entire school vacations in the summer, is, she says, “marked by inner conflict, by a search for a home and warmth.” For her, the pictures are like “film clips from childhood that spring to mind. Smells, tastes, colors—everything the East means to me.”  

Yet Hristova is not being nostalgic. There is always distance, incomprehension, an impenetrable secret in her photographs. “They sacrificed their lives for their families,” she says about the sworn virgins. “That is a point of honor. And then see myself in the pictures again, someone who cannot understand this honor at all.” However, she vehemently rejects the interpretation that these women are unhappy or oppressed. “Are things that much different here?” she asks somewhat provocatively when the conversation turns to the extremely feminine role models that appear in her work: not just men-women from the Albanian mountains, but, as in her series The Bartered Bride from 2014 and 2015, also girls from orthodox Roma communities who are auctioned off at a Bulgarian “bride market.” Wearing high-heeled pumps, they stand in front of photo backdrops such as parking lots, fountains, and socialist memorials, squeezed into cheap colorful stretch dresses that are like goods in a window display. Hristova wonders whether women in the West are really accepted as equals. She has her doubts when she is in rural areas of Germany.

At the same time, she resists the idea that her photographs mainly examine gender roles and images of women. “Everyone asks me about gender, and I try to make it clear to them that I’m only a photographer. What interested and motivated me was the change in these women’s physiognomy, such peculiarities in Europe, and the traditions that still exist here today; this rural world that is so different from the urban world—which is perhaps the reason for the explosiveness in the Balkans.

Hristova’s photographs tell of a world in which ancient traditions, new technologies, and globalization meet, giving rise to village communities, isolated groups that have their own rules, and very special conditions. Hristova portrays Eastern European communities that exist like subcultures, that cannot be clearly categorized, that are neither archaic nor modern. “Tradition offers women in Albanian mountains the opportunity to liberate themselves,” says Hristova: “A kind of emancipation through tradition.”