Conversation with Emi Barouh

 A conversation with Emi Barouh, Director of the Fotofabrika Festival. Though the festival of news and art photography is yet young, it does not cease to surprise us with its ambitious programs. From photography to cinema, creativity in advertising and what not – this is a festival you do not want to miss.

Milla Tarabanova: I noticed that in the beginning the press described you as a boutique festival with an inclination towards a more elite public. I don’t know if that is your goal?

Emi Barouh: I think that in this scope between the definition boutique and the definition mass culture photography, we could situate both because by placing exhibitions in the street – each year we have such exhibitions of several of the biggest news agencies– on the Lover’s bridge, in front of the National School of Music Lyubomir Pipkov,…this year we extended the space where we showed them, next year we will extend even more.

This is not a boutique element of a festival, on the contrary, these are photographs set where everybody can see them and their purpose is not the admiration of their skill, but rather to provoke a reaction in the passersby. All the themes that we chose presume that you will stop and think, and as we try to do is to experience through ourselves, through our sense of values, knowledge, age and thoughts what we see. These exhibitions have become an invariable part of the festival, so in any case it cannot be defined as boutique. I am not sure what a boutique festival is actually. If it means that we show some of the best representatives of photography – OK, then I have no quarrel with this definition. This is one of our objectives because for many years there haven’t been any regular exchanges of the arts between artists in the world. One of the motives is to make up for what was missed out on. That is why we not only seek the avant-garde, but also that vision of the highest examples of photography which haven’t been seen in Bulgaria. Our public is not acquainted with them, aside from the specialized magazines. When we started the festival with the collection of Alcobendas, one of the biggest collections of primarily Spanish art, the reaction that I heard was flattering. When people like Erwin Olaf and Chema Madoz come – they really are exemplary masters of photography. Once again I wouldn’t call it boutique because the interest towards them was big. The proof of which were the lectures of Cristina Garcia Rodero and Chema Madoz during the first year. Two names which I thought and still think were unknown here, but obviously there was and there still is a hunger for such a presence. This again does not fit the definition of boutique. When you say boutique, you isolate part of the public and at any rate this is not our intention. Moreover, we want to place the festival, I am referring to my first words, in the scope between the most accessible way art can reach an audience – the street to the National Gallery – the highest wall you could put art on (experiments, super avant-garde art and classical which is obligatory for our literacy) which is why Fotofabrika is not a boutique festival.

On the site of Fotofabrika Festival it is stated that you fabricate an environment (with the exhibitions, the educational programs, the lectures which you organize). Can you say that you are successful in this aspect?

This is a slow process. It would be presumptuous if I answer positively to this question. No. Before one reaps in this terrain, which in any case is a territory assuming some kind of literacy, there should be a basic level of literacy in the country, but the erosion there is overwhelming. Just today I was discussing with a colleague journalist the startling, stupendous failures in the results of final year pupils in elite schools and that the results of the survey from the end of 2016 were no surprise, which gave us the next rock bottom statistic of the functional illiteracy of young people in Bulgaria. And if we don’t have this, one would ask: why am I doing anything else? If we were on a farm, we first would have to plough the earth. Sometimes you say to yourself: there is no point in doing all of this, if a big number of people cannot even understand what they are reading. They can read the sentence, but they cannot understand what it is saying. This is scary. Then how can we say that we are changing the world? No.

Then why do you do it?

We continue to look for the meaning in what we are doing. I have this inclination for the themes of the festival to carry a message. It wasn’t a coincidence that the first year I was very interested in political protests, then the marginal person as a state of being. After that I wanted us to touch upon the intimate, within the person. You cannot just give up because of these circumstances, because they are just a drop in the water of the not very bright world and it would be a loser’s stance to keep saying: no, nothing has meaning! You try. If the air in Sofia is very dusty,  you keep dusting. To try doing something of the sort. Let us pull the focus away. People say that there is meaning in what we are doing – I would like to believe that it is so, but it depends on how far you are looking and how far you can see.

Looking at the themes of the festival (protest, marginalized person and conflicts), I wanted to ask if the festival is an educational corrective, a lesson in alternative thought or maybe therapy against fear and feebleness?

As to its purpose, I can give an example with one of the projects we did – the Strange Other. It was in the framework of the festival titled The Marginal Person. We researched the subject and met with people from places that had driven away refugees. I won’t retell the whole research that was done. We did what we did. What we got as feedback from the people who had seen the installation at the former House of the Bulgarian and Soviet Friendship, which was shown for nearly a month, was astonishing. One of the comments was thrilling and I quote: “I didn’t like the refugees. I was brought here against my will. I didn’t know anything about them. I leave changed and humbled.” If you are able to make one person think about people not as a mass, but as individuals, you have achieved a lot. This is a slow process. All these people who I don’t know, have written. We have made them think about it, that behind the anonymous talk about the unfortunate refugees of the war stand human faces, names,  lives and tragedies.You have felt it. In everything that we do, we look for that element, even in the prestigious Erwin Olaf whose series Blacks, gives you that experience. But here, you really do have that complex element. It is true that you need a translator for one part of these art installations and photographs. The public is not set on one level. There are people who have seen the exhibition and did not understand it, the next time this experience will trigger associative connections of meanings.

Let’s come back to the fact that the festival has become an all year round event, is that so?

No, it is not, but for it to happen, we work during the whole year. This year incidentally we started on September 1 with Pepa Hristova’s exhibition at the National Art Gallery and our last exhibition was in December of Pavel Chervenkov at the Sofia Art Gallery.

It has expanded.

Yes, it has. I don’t want it to be so because it is exhausting. Even if the festival continues for two, three months, you have to work on it all year. But it isn’t an all year round event.

With all the screenings that Fotofabrika makes and continues to do now at the Cultural Institute of France?

Actually – yes. The screening of Bulgarian films created just before 1989 and right after that (note: the fall of the Communist regime) I called the Useless Stories of Yesterday. The screenings continue. This period of history which is unknown to many, has brilliant examples which show these years in a very emotional way. It is absurd for these films to stay in the drawers and not to meet its public. I repeat, I am not a person working in the cinema profession. I am so glad that I am not from that trade because the questions of why to show this film and not the other always occur. But these are lessons in history and they have to enter the educational programs. Pupils and students have to see them. I saw the reactions at the screenings that we made at the Czech Cultural Center,  that is why I persuaded the French Institute to provide me with their cinema hall once a month. It is a wonderful hall at the Slaveikov Square where these films can be seen. This is something aside from the festival. It is not a financed project. There is no money in it. Nobody gets money out of it, the authors just gave me their films so that they can be seen by their public. The French Institute provided the cinema for free. Well, I did have to pay for the films to be transferred from Beta cam to Blu ray so that they can be screened, which does require money. I will look for financing, but for now I am paying from my own pocket. This is not a Fotofabrika project. But there is a point in doing it. After the first film, made by Tatiana Waksberg (Technology of Evil), people didn’t want to leave. They had so many questions about what they saw that stirred them. Another film that was shown was made by one of the best in documentary cinema in Bulgaria, Yulii Stoyanov, who unfortunately passed away. This is the first film made about State Security.

Before there were screenings of documentaries every Tuesday at the cinema house, Dom na Kinoto, but that practice has ceased. Everything that is non-commercial becomes extinct and what I am doing is non-commercial. I lack resources and time because you need it to announce the events for it to reach more people so that they can come and see the films. No tickets will be charged by us and it is offered for free. The filmmakers agree to show their work without any payment because there is a point in doing it. Maybe that is the drive in the things that I am doing. There must be meaning in them and I do see a point in what I am doing.

But the public which goes to the cinema of the French Institute is primarily elderly. What about the younger public?

If one has enough time, they would go to all the schools, they would talk to the history teachers and would bring the classes to the cinema! The cinema is theirs, once a month.

Let’s talk about socialism. There were several exhibitions on the subject of socialism in Bulgaria – The  Resistance with the curator Krasimir Iliev, another curated by Georgi Lozanov and Georgi Gospodinov, your films,…Is there any progress in the discussions about socialism, communism and is there meaning in bringing up the subject. Have we reached the point of dialogue and actual analysis of that period?

I don’t see any progress in the talks on the subject and I think that we have not unified the definitions of the concepts we talk about. We use the same words, but put different meaning in them, including when we talk about the left and the right political wing. The different circles talk, but no bridge is built between them. There is still that division among the now middle-aged generation which we drag behind us from those years of the transition from the communist to capitalist regime when the theme of who is a communist and who is not was crucial. This younger generation shouldn’t be interested in that. But the films I talk about are an honest look at communism, made during that communist time. That is to say, they are not flirting with history. After the year of ’89, the interpretations became politically used. By everybody. Clichés were imposed and it is very difficult to talk reasonably on that mined territory of words. Is there any point in it? What we cannot achieve, in contrast to the Serbs for example, is the wise and honest way they talk about their failures. We don’t. We, as a nation, cannot laugh at ourselves. We always need to be pretty in the mirror. This is a dishonest conversation with ourselves. We have failed in many ways, in others we have been successful, but we must learn to talk calmly about our failures. We must learn to forgive ourselves. We cannot entirely put under one banner a whole period of history as totally black – it is not all black. For many people these are precious years – of their youth, theirs loves and parties. So we can talk about that period without demonizing absolutely everything. Not everything should be demonized. We lack the nuances. Of course, many lives were wrecked.

But when we look at the Serbians, the Hungarians, who lived through the same experience…

Look at their literature, their cinema. They talk about it. They are able to process that time – their personal and national stories. We are not able to do that.


Here is an example with the saving of the Bulgarian Jews. If you talk of how the Bulgarian army treated the Jews in Macedonia and Trakia, you would be beheaded. It was an occupation army, which rapes, steals and behaves outrageously as any army of occupation. This is a fact. It does not undermine the fact that many Jews were saved. The former and the latter are true. But, no, these two truths cannot go together! Why? 45 000 people were saved. 11 343 were annihilated. This happened during the same time span. We only want to say that we are saviors. The rest isn’t possible. This is a difficult question. I don’t know if I can give an answer to this question. The same problem is with the Bulgarian Turks. The movie Technology of Evil made by Tatiana Waksberg is horrifying and this happened yesterday – in 1988 and 1989! We like turning people into heroes. Let’s say that this was yesterday and that the participants of these events which were inflicted on the Bulgarian Turks are still alive. But what about the saving of the Bulgarian Jews? We like creating myths at the expense of other facts. I don’t know, I cannot answer this question and I don’t see any progress made in this direction. It would be different if Bulgaria had a good educational system. It is in bad shape now. Everything should start from there. For you to be able to speak well, to understand the past, you must learn to think, you need an understanding of definitions and you must be able to read.

But art can reach people without them being educated.

That is true because it goes through emotion. Exactly, this is one of the motivators for me and the people with whom I am doing this. As well as showing the films. Knowledge received through emotion doesn’t have to be structured as knowledge.

In this case I will ask this question again – all the themes of the festival are dedicated to fear, to otherness and all are on the brink of confrontation and all that we avoid – obviously, you are giving us a lesson in thinking.

Let’s say that it is. Although when you say it this way, it sounds very single-minded. While we show all the components of the festival, conversations are held at the same time. Maybe it is pretentious to call it a lesson in thinking. They are a point of view, a different outlook on reality.  You pull at someone to show them something which in the routine of everyday life he has not been able to notice, has lost his sensitivity to it. There we find the meeting point between meaning and justice. All of this touches upon social wounds. I don’t know if we are succeeding in this. I have two notebooks with comments from our public. I was surprised when I saw what people had written. We are not so big to be giving lessons. It is a conversation. A conversation with someone you don’t know. I think that one of the things which are lacking in this territory are the conversations, the sharing and if we can achieve this, when we achieve it – this is no small matter. To share and to provoke the other person to share – this is an exchange of ideas, a connection which turns the individuals from a scattered state into a whole society.

I understand that the festival will start its program earlier in 2017.

The festival will take place in May and June. There are many reasons for this change.

I wanted to talk about the other projects that you are engaged in – the books, the interviews, etc.

It is very important for me that a book accompanies each festival. The first year we had a partner in this initiative, the New Bulgarian University, and the fact that a university was with us was an important element because it gave a different weight to the project. The book that we created – it is called The Protestors – is a book for which we invited international commentators who were not Bulgarian to discuss protests around the world. From Tahrir to Gezi, through Maidan to the yellow pavement of Sofia. All these protests were looked at by a good group of world analyzers. A wonderful book came out of it which was finished, though with delay, but it did come out. The second year we published the Strange Other. The third year we have a small Erwin Olaf catalogue and a catalogue of the Luis Bassat collection. It is difficult and it is expensive to publish the books, especially those of photography. We have the ability to do it, but the finances are more difficult to gather. I, as a more old school person, insist on the print issues. Aside from our site, our facebook page with how many visitors…for me to touch the book is of value. This way you can follow a process differently. Non-virtually. If we have the financing, we want to publish books that accompany the festival. We have Kiril Zlatkov, Filip Boyadjiev and Albena Spasova in our team who are enough for us to have such a book production. Everything depends on the financing. The up-coming exhibition of Cristina Garcia Rodero, for example, which we are organizing could be done with minimal resources or it could be done as it should be. Whether we get support or not, we will do it.

As to the Foto archive – there are interesting Bulgarian photographers whose experience is of interest and we want to make a virtual library of their photographs and of what they want to share with us. In that library we have Veselina Nikolaeva, Pavel Chervenkov, Bogdanov and Missirkov, Nadejda Chipeva. Everything is a question of financing because behind these interviews you have a team that shot the interview, then you have the montage, the music and each person must be paid. The interviews have to do with something which is very important for me – the memory of the artistic process. We do not take good care of this memory here. We don’t have a museum of photography in Bulgaria, no archive which preserves samples of photographs, but this should be a task which the State should take care of. This is not our goal.

A Museum of Photography recently opened in Kazanlak, but it is just starting to develop and again it is created by an enthusiast……. .

This is what I mean, everybody is doing what they can. Photographers have told me about the gigantic archive of the Bulgarian News Agency of that socialist period, the one we just talked about. Another project which I wasn’t able to realize are the Cinema chronicles. They are a unique document of their time, but they must be digitalized and to be preserved somewhere. We don’t take good care of our memory, of our past – how do we talk about the past and make peace with it when we don’t care about the past. We have a very short sense of life, of today and now. How do we conclude yesterday when there is no bridge between yesterday and today? This includes our family memory, it doesn’t exist. We do not remember our family history beyond that of our grandfathers. The history of a family – what and how everything happened. This is the culture of a nation and this is something which is taught.

So this small, tiny, minimal archive of Fotofabrika is for us to have a memory, a chronicle of the time and the experience of people who have proven their qualities. Of course, the exertion of the private initiatives is very important, but it goes only so far. From there on the significance of what it has achieved is a task for the State to preserve and support.