Petya Shalamanova was born and raised in Bulgaria. She grew up roaming the streets of her old world post-communist town Plovdiv, where she made friends with strangers, tamed numerous stray cats, and ate sunflower seeds. She moved to the United States in 2002 to reunite with family and lived briefly in Las Vegas before moving to Chicago where she received a BFA in Photography from Columbia College in 2010. She is an artist based in Chicago where she works as an editorial photographer and a creative. She travels to Bulgaria as often as possible to photograph and more often to Las Vegas to photograph and study her mother and sister. Petya has been an on-and-off immigrant in some form since the age of seven, and because of her colorful life as a refugee, “illegal”, and child of an exile, her work is inspired by resilience, perseverance, and the people she photographs.
The Privileged Land
This is a series of photographs taken upon my return to my homeland after years spent away. I look to explore how people persevere in the growing pains and aftermath of revolution as well as the political, economic and spiritual changes that have taken place over the last 29 years. I’m interested in reflecting how this perseverance is expressed as people engage in daily life, with each other, in rituals and with nature.
Elena is a body of work which explores my newly established relationship with my mother.
This work examines the complexities and peculiarities of my mother as a present figure in my life in which the ideal, imagined and real person exists. I explore the levels of comfort and distance in our relationship through picture-taking and play. Through photography we create a bond as we collaborate to project Elena. I am interested in revealing the mother and the woman Elena beneath the myth I’ve long known her as.
SB: I like how far our convo format has come. I used to hazily stumble into that little coffee shop to glean wisdom from you, and now it’s an official interview. So let me start by saying thanks for doing this. I know you’ve worked hard on these bodies of work and I know you’re hustling out there so I appreciate you making the time.
PS: Haha, thanks for the invite! I’m glad I get to show this work and talk about it. It hasn’t been shown anywhere yet as it is still very much a work in progress.
Have you really tamed a bunch of stray cats? Is it difficult? I just keep reading that in your bio like dang…for real?
19+ stray cats tamed and good to pet.
Wow. And I’m attacked every time I’m around domesticated cats. I can’t even imagine.
Takes commitment, effort and love.
I’ll start with a couple of general questions to warm us up before we dive into the projects. When did you first start taking photos?
I first was introduced to photography at Columbia College while I was studying to be an illustrator. Photo class was part of the prerequisite and as soon as I made my first darkroom print I was in love with the medium and the way it allowed me to interact with the world. This was in 2006. And I couldn’t stop taking photos or photo classes so it wasn’t long until I changed my major to photography.
Oh, so you originally went to Columbia for illustration? I had no idea. So the darkroom locked you in…
Was there anything in particular that grabbed you at first? Certain subjects or just playing in different types of light?
Yes, all the visual elements were important but what really made me fall for photography is the way it allowed me to interact with the world around me, truthfully or in an abstract form. The first photographs I took were of my Bulgarian friends who shared the immigrant experience with me. Photography allowed me to record us and tell the story of our experiences. This work became “We Are Here”, photographs of the Bulgarian Diaspora in the US– work that is still being continued.
And we’re here to talk about that project on Bulgaria, and another about your mother. And we’ll soon get to how they connect but do you have plans once they’re completed to show at galleries and/or make books out of them?
I hope so. With all my work that I produce, and that feels finished, I hope to be able to give it a life of its own. And that means as many eyes on it as possible. That being said, the two bodies of work are not at this stage. I wonder if I will ever feel that these works are complete as they are long-term projects.
Certainly, because it seems like both of these projects are also about you and your relationship with the subjects, and that relationship is still very much growing. Are you considering exhibiting the work as on-going projects?
Yes. And I will be very happy to do that. Also, it will be great to hear some feedback on the progress of the images as well. I have been making these pictures in complete isolation to maintain focus, without interruptions or opinions thus far. I wanted to keep my process as genuine and unedited as possible while shooting, but at this stage, I’m happy to show it and I am glad to be here talking to you about it too.
Very glad to have you and honored you’re willing to show the work through us. And that isolation makes total sense to me. I think in school we were taught we need to be under constant critique, and as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized it’s really important to not let other people in until the time is right. Which requires a lot of patience. How long have you been simultaneously making these projects?
The images of my mother since 2006– when I first was introduced to photography, and the work in Bulgaria since 2011– when I was first able to go back after a long absence of 10 years (due to immigration laws in both cases). Both projects are made in an attempt to explore and study a subject after years of longing and separation.
Which brings me to my next question. For as ‘documentary’ as they are, what I find particularly special about these projects is that it feels like there’s so much of you involved. Everything feels connected. That is to say that you, your growth as a young person into adulthood, and your relationship to both of the subjects are as important to the images as the subjects themselves. How you do think these projects have helped you identify with yourself over the years you’ve been making them?
They fit in the context of being an immigrant and returning home, but the strands of intimacy and memory are woven into these larger realities of our time, as Bulgarians away from the Motherland, ”Privileged Land”– a place known yet far.
I haven’t thought much about how the work has played a part in my identity as I try to keep the focus on the subjects. Yes, the work is informed by our leaving home and me being part of that wave of people, but it is not made to tell my story or the story of my family (the work in Bulgaria). The photographs I make in Bulgaria are informed by growing up there, but I make the images in hopes that this knowledge will inform me in showing a more real Bulgaria, a place I know well. The images are a study of how people live and how they persevere in a difficult economic and spiritual state. I study people closely, I photograph subjects that reflect these anxieties and celebrate life at the same time.
The story is in the images themselves. It’s in the photographs of abounded schools and men anxiously dragging on their cigarettes in front of gleaming sunsets. Glorious romantic landscapes of suburban communist utopias are the backdrop of where the drama of daily life unfolds. That being said, what propels me to photograph in Bulgaria is not the subject of post-communism, or why what’s happening is happening, but to actually reflect on this changing national identity.
That’s interesting. Because I know your approach was purely documentarian, but I think inevitably as artists we grow through our work. Some healing takes place. So even if the images themselves are not directly about you, it’s your connection to the subjects that makes the work strong. Your heart, in my opinion, is very present in the work. Would you argue that you would be the same person you are now had you not made these projects?
Perhaps growing up in this backdrop is reflective in the images I make. It’s interesting what brings us to the subjects we choose. My childhood and adolescence spent on the streets, as with many of my subjects, reflects my connection to them and to the place in which makes me able to confidently talk about it in pictures. But I also know how large this thread of common experience is for many Bulgarian people. For example– the image of the boxer on the street in his silent and youthful strength, the girl carrying a screaming baby through the streets to calm both of themselves down, these are the closer look at what is a larger context of people and a place who persevere in a semi-unstable environment.
Both projects are essential to me as an artist and as a person. I learned about photography and making portraits by learning how to get closer to my mother, both went hand in hand. I learned also the limits of the medium too– the push and pull between projecting and making a desired picture versus waiting for something to reveal itself to you. In life, such as in art, the study of my mother went hand in hand with the study of how to reflect on what’s essential. As for the work in Bulgaria I see myself photographing there as long as I am alive and able to. My love and fascination for the people there is endless.
In terms of choosing subjects, I know you’ve already touched on this a bit in the conceptual sense of representing the perseverance you’re witnessing through this moment in Bulgaria’s evolution, but I guess I’m asking a little more literally. Do you know a lot of these people personally or are these strangers you’ve connected with upon revisiting the country? The portrait of the boxer sticks out because he seems so comfortable and earnest around you and your camera. How did you choose your portrait subjects for the Bulgaria work?
As in almost all my subjects, excluding a few who I revisit, I stumbled upon the boxer on the street not too far from where I lived. He was hanging out with his friends. He was wearing the boxer gloves and the tracksuit- which so many teens love. I approached them with my camera and asked if I could take his portrait. He said yes and asked me if he should pose. I said that I wanted to record what was already happening as if I wasn’t intervening. He said ok and just stood the way he did when I took his photo. I also photographed his friends hanging out, though the photo of him was better because there was a sense of trust and connection between me and him.
Whenever I approach my subjects, who are mostly strangers, I establish trust first and tell them about my project. Most times people respond and there is a great sense of gratitude between them and I. It’s one of the most intense experiences. Other times I observe a scene and will try and catch the heightened moment, such as with the man smoking in his car or the couple kissing. I stay aware and keep in sync with the temperature of the surroundings.
Sometimes subjects ask “why me” or “why this”, as often they don’t find their surroundings ‘beautiful’, but I explain to them my point of view, what I see, and sometimes they will take me to a place more poignant than the original meeting place. Like “A Girl in a Field With a Broken House”, when I met her I asked to photograph her and her siblings who were playing outside, but she grabbed my hand and brought me in front of what was some broken bricks not far from where we were. She said I want you to take my picture here, and I did. The broken house was important to her.
On the topic of subjects, your mother might be the person you photograph most. Can you give me a brief timeline of your relationship with her, when you moved to America, and when you reconnected?
In February of 1990, we fled to Canada, the second plane of Bulgarians to leave after the fall of Communism. We were the first wave of Bulgarian immigrants to seek asylum, and a new life, on a plane originally headed to Cuba. We lived in Newfoundland, Toronto, and Edmonton as we were looking for a home. After the first two years I was sent back to Bulgaria temporarily until my mother and sister could get permanent and safe status in the US, where they immigrated to afterward. It took ten years to resolve my immigration papers and reunite with my mother, during which I lived in Bulgaria and was raised by my grandparents. In December of 2001, I was able to reunite with my mother and sister in the US. I was a few months shy of 18.
So it was originally supposed to be temporary, and you had no idea it would take that long to reunite?
Yes. We thought 6 months to a year at most. But we had no reference as we were the first wave of Iron Curtain immigrants to go through the laborious immigration process and, because of it, had no one to ask about it. Also, the cases are all individual and unique so what works for one case doesn’t apply to another one like it very often. But all in all, the power of the bureaucratic system has changed the trajectory of many lives.
Did you have a way to process any of this as it was happening? An outlet?
No, it was too much to deal with, but as I have matured I’ve been coming to terms with the effects this separation has left on me.
Once you were reunited with your mother and began to get to know each other again, when did you start making the images?
Before photography I drew her often, sometimes from memory, sometimes her sitting, and incorporated her into my paintings. In 2006, as soon as I learned how to use a camera, I took photos of her– when we were hanging out, had coffee or watched TV. I wasn’t mindful of what was happening but it was the beginning of what grew to be about interacting with my mother and establishing her as my muse. It was a beautiful experience in seeing where the mother began and where the projected muse began. Or what I projected and wanted VS the real live woman that this process has always been about– as the woman before me will forever remain a mystery.
I record her as a pioneer of her generation and time, a woman who chose a life away from communist and political constraints; and a Bulgarian who, as an exile herself, pioneered a path for many after to follow. I make my work of her with that in mind but my images of her are more personal and intimate. I keep all this in my mind when I work, always aware of my motivation and intent.
Definitely some of the images of your mother are as inquisitive as they are affectionate, and your light in a couple is as mysterious as it is flattering. I asked this about the other project, but would you describe the photos as helping in the healing/reuniting process?
Not sure if the photos themselves have a healing power. Even the most amazing images or fantastical dreamlike work won’t substitute for real experiences missing, but taking images of Elena has been my tool to attempt to know her. I am not 100% certain that photography can reveal a concrete truth or that art can save, but in my own practice it has helped me see things deeper and has engaged me to get closer to a place unknown. Over time I’ve seen that art has always been the tool which connects me to deeper things, things which are sometimes too grand for words and are unresolved for a reason, but there is wisdom in making art which is beyond me, so I let it be a part of my life and when I am lucky it is a big part of it.
Does she have any feelings on the images?
She likes them. Some she loves. But she understands the process and is inquisitive of the outcome and very open-minded. She has never tried to constrain the natural process of things or let vanity play a part in our process. She trusts the work, the camera, my attempt to engage or not, the whole thing. She is as curious as I am about the whole thing.
That is amazing. And honestly probably kind of rare, right? I think a lot of people aren’t fully aware of how strong and special photography can actually be. My family doesn’t understand that a portrait can be this thoughtful and authentic thing. They think everything is a Target Ad and that they always must have big smiles. It’s amazing that your mother is able to be so naturally open and involved in the process like that. If I even said the word “process” around my family they’d be like “no thank you”.
Haha, yes I am very lucky. Art is the thing that bonds my family since we are all artists in our own way. It’s just the language which flows in our blood.
And is this your sister in one or two of these photos?
Beautiful. It’s very foreign and intriguing to me the idea of being able to have conversations with my family in that language, surrounding art. That gives me context as to how you came up with this series of images. So mom and sister are both artists as well?
My mom is a writer and poet. My sister is very artistic, knowledgeable and sometimes writes as well but she is someone who is like an art piece of a person– very complex and fascinating. I hope to take more photos of her someday too but she’s more guarded. My mother is brave and unapologetic and this is part of why she lets me in, Maria is more protected but she and my mom have a fascinating relationship of which I hope I will be able to capture one day (Maria and Elena have always been together).
I think that’s something you’d obviously capture well, given the current work. It could be a natural evolution from this. I will look forward to seeing that if it ever happens.
Thank you, yes. I have been actively waiting for it.
I think we’ve done a good job here. Is there anything that we have not touched on or that I haven’t asked that you were hoping to talk about?
If you think we are good we should be.
I think we’ve done great.
Are you happy with it?
Yeah, I am. And I’ve never exhibited or had any press so I can’t really talk but you should definitely try to exhibit and show more of this work once you’re ready because it is very strong.
Thank you, Spencer! I really appreciate it. You as well. You know it’s really up to us to do it. And we must, because just making the work is not fair to it, it should be shown, so I appreciate you asking me to do this.
Thank you for doing it, Petya!
To view more of Petya’s work please visit her website.