To distance myself from the relentless cycle of consumption and competition that defines modern existence.
It was perhaps inevitable that Valery Poshtarov should become an artist. His mother was a poet and his father a visual artist and so he grew up surrounded by creative people. As a teenager, he began developing his own expressive skills at the National High School of Arts in Varna before heading to Paris, where he undertook a degree in the plastic arts at the University of Paris I: Panthéon-Sorbonne. Over the course of the next few years, he presented more than thirty exhibitions around Europe, gaining for himself the kind of attention many emerging artists crave. Yet, in time, this kind of success began to pall. He became disillusioned with what he has called “the vanity of this lifestyle”. It was time to take a step back and recalibrate.
Speaking later on Radio Bulgaria he said of this decision: “I have always been interested in meeting the people I’m going to photograph, not the exhibition goers. The moment of artistic realisation is the point at which the artist does their work. This presents, perhaps, a very serious conflict for the artist who seeks success, be it in terms of public approval, material reward, or in the bolstering of his own self-image. But I believe that an artist works best when their freedom of expression is unconstrained by those sorts of consideration. Then nothing can dampen the flame burning inside.”
Thus it was that, in 2011, he returned to Bulgaria to settle in Sofia. Here he founded an online gallery, the first of its kind in Eastern Europe. This enterprise freed his own photographic art practice from the need to generate an income. Over the next dozen years, he undertook a series of in-depth documentary projects that have explored the lives of people who live outside of the modern urban sphere. The scattered communities of subsistence farmers in the Rhodope Mountains of southern Bulgaria. Those who come together in Rainbow Gatherings to celebrate a counterculture based on consensus, creativity, and non-commercialism. And the often-complex connection between fathers and their adult sons expressed in the seemingly simple act of holding hands. Bodies of work made possible by the artistic freedom he found in maintaining his independence from the allurements of the art establishment.
You work across a range of creative mediums. When you use photography, what qualities of this medium influence that choice?
In an era where the line between reality and fabrication blurs, the choice of photography becomes even more critical. It’s not just about capturing a moment; it’s about capturing truth. The camera doesn’t just see; it listens, feels, speaks… Through its lens, silent stories find their voice, fleeting moments gain permanence, and the intangible becomes tangible.
You spent fifteen years making ‘The Last Man Standing in the Rhodope Mountains’. How did that project begin?
It wasn’t just a fascination with a region or a way of life; it was a yearning for authenticity, a desire to reconnect with nature. To distance myself from the relentless cycle of consumption and competition that defines modern existence. Its genesis was rooted in a deeply personal journey. A pilgrimage to find solace and peace in an increasingly chaotic world.
How did the work – and your relationship with it – evolve over this extended period?
In my years of travelling in the Rhodope Mountains, I visited nearly one thousand villages. Many were already abandoned, which left me with an increasing sense of sadness. At times, I needed to talk to people and there were none. In these moments I talked to myself, holding imaginary conversations with people who were no longer there.
But I began thinking about the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. I realised that, by looking back to see Eurydice, Orpheus was actually turning to the past and, in doing so, he lost the future. I caught myself guilty of the same sin. Gradually, the project became a purgatory, from which I had to consider my own escape. This epiphany brought forth a new challenge: to embrace the inevitability of change. My initial exploration had been a deep dive into a world that was slowly disappearing, but as I came to accept the present, I found that I could no longer continue to make that backward journey. It was time to move on to new explorations.
What was your preferred way of showing the work?
I chose to exhibit in abandoned villages, places devoid of an audience. The exhibitions that I did were a sort of a bow of profound respect and reverence. Because I had taken a lot from this world and wanted to return something. I fixed the photographs onto old buildings and half-collapsed walls in derelict villages. And I showed them on Instagram. In this way, I wanted the exhibitions to become a kind of collective prayer, a shared moment of reflection. I never envisioned this project gracing the pristine walls of a posh gallery, where attendees might casually discuss the art over a glass of wine. The work demanded a rawer, more authentic setting.
I created a photobook, which I introduced at ten intimate gatherings across the Rhodope Mountain municipalities. While the book remains accessible to those who seek it, its journey is distinct. These presentations, always before smaller groups, have managed to maintain the project’s intimate essence beautifully.
Much of this project was shot in black-and-white, but in subsequent projects you moved to colour. At the same time your image composition becomes more formal: full figure, square on, facing the camera. What prompted these changes?
After a decade and a half exploring the world in monochrome, I felt an irresistible pull towards colour; to embrace the full spectrum of life. It was as if the images could suddenly evoke taste and scent, offering a more immersive experience. This wasn’t just about visual representation; it was a deeper dive into the multifaceted essence of existence.
The central, static composition I adopted serves to magnify the significance of the subject, asserting I am here, this is me. This goes beyond mere aesthetic intent. It’s the voice of a traveller, parched of human connection, navigating the desert of our modern, alienated world. Throughout history, human beings have sought to validate their existence, and art has always provided that illusion that we have our place in the cosmos.
With your next project you focus on another type of community. How did ‘In Search of Freedom’ begin?
It was born out of my ongoing existential quest for alternative ways of being in the world. The pressures of society often force us to find our place within predefined norms, but there remains a space for those who resist mainstream trends. This project is an exploration of that space, a blend of rebellion and refuge, where alternative and new-age individuals find a home and a sense of belonging in nature. It’s a journey into the lives of those who have chosen to step outside the conventional and embrace a liberated lifestyle that resonates with their personal beliefs and values.
What was it attracted you to these communities?
A curiosity about the nature of freedom. Could it be achieved within a collective setting, or was it purely an individualistic pursuit independent of group influences? These communities often have their own set of ethics, which can be challenging for an individual seeking their place within them. But in itself, the very act of joining represents an escape from the confines of our work-and-pay society. These individuals are seeking new moral frameworks by exploring alternative ways of living and, in so doing, they are actively pursuing their own definitions of freedom.
How did you build trust with those you later photographed?
Rainbow Gatherings are spaces of retreat from the modern world, making the introduction of technologies like cameras a sensitive matter. In these enclaves, where the modern world’s noise fades, even a mobile phone becomes an oddity. However, my approach to photography is rooted in the belief that a true portrait is not taken, but rather given. When I lift my camera, I am not taking a snapshot of them but entering into a joint endeavour to craft a portrait that encapsulates our mutual experience and shared identity. This profound connection, this merging of souls, is the true reward I derive from photography.
People, in their essence, are like icons, transcending their individual identities to become symbols of broader human truths and emotions. Through my lens, I seek to honour and elevate these living icons, celebrating the myriad stories and experiences they represent.
What do you want share with the viewer through this work?
Throughout history, the flame of freedom has been a beacon for humanity, a guiding light on our shared journey. Yet, as we navigate the modern era, how do we redefine and pursue this age-old aspiration? It’s my fervent hope that our understanding of freedom doesn’t become reduced to the commodified concept of financial freedom. I want to challenge viewers to reflect more deeply, to question and rediscover the multifaceted dimensions of freedom that resonate beyond mere materialism. I hope that my images will evoke introspection, stir the soul, inspiring a broader and more profound exploration of what true freedom might mean in our contemporary world.
What, in your view, does it take to be an artist?
Photography, like all art forms, demands an unwavering commitment, often at the expense of personal comfort or societal acceptance. Every artist is a voluntary victim. You must embrace your vulnerability if you are to deeply engage with and interpret the world. While many tread the well-worn paths of societal expectation, an artist chooses the road less travelled, questioning the status quo. This journey, though rich in discovery, is also fraught with challenge, self-doubt, and the scepticism of others. The worlds we craft through our art are reflections of our innermost thoughts and emotions. At times, it can leave you feeling isolated, as if you are the sole resident of this realm. Yet, it is this very vulnerability – this sacrifice – that allows you to create, to resonate in the imagination of others, and to leave your mark on the canvas of human existence.
The work which has perhaps brought you most attention recently is ‘Father and Son’. What was the seed from which it grew?
Its inception was deeply personal, stemming from my own experiences as a father. Watching my two young boys grow, I was struck by the fleeting nature of time and the inevitable moment when they would stride confidently into the world, no longer needing the reassuring grip of my hand. This realisation led me to reflect on the intricate dance of identity formation, where we often delineate ourselves by highlighting our differences rather than recognising the shared threads that bind us. This project became a quest to explore those shared threads, to delve into the interplay of generational values, and to understand how traditions and beliefs are passed down, reshaped, and redefined. Through ‘Father and Son’, I sought to capture the essence of these shared moments, the silent transmission of wisdom, and the enduring bond that bridges generations.
In some Arab, Mediterranean, and North African cultures, adult men holding hands is not unusual. How is it in Bulgaria?
In Bulgaria, adult men holding hands is not a common sight, nor is it ingrained in our cultural norms. While there are individuals for whom this gesture comes naturally, symbolising their deep bond and affection, for many it remains a challenge.
What happens when a father and his adult son hold hands after maybe many years…?
There are fathers who, perhaps due to societal expectations or personal reserve, have never ventured into such displays of physical closeness with their sons. When asked to hold hands for the project, they often stepped out of their comfort zone, revealing the intricate layers of their relationship. It’s a powerful moment, sometimes filled with hesitation or even resistance. There have been instances where either the father or the son has declined to participate in this simple yet profound act. Such moments, charged with palpable tension, underscore the significance of the project in shedding light on the complexities of father-son dynamics in our society.
You do not identify the men in these images, simply captioning with place and date. Why is this?
The narratives behind my portraits are intentionally left incomplete, inviting the viewer to integrate their own thoughts and experiences. We are all part of this story.
How did you go about meeting the men you photographed and how did they respond to the idea of father and son holding hands?
I often embark on a soul-baring journey like a wandering storyteller, seeking chance encounters with fathers and sons. This way of discovering subjects gives me a unique sense of being alive, but it can also be a tiring pursuit. So, I also employ a more structured process, where I collaborate with individuals who reach out to me via social media. These two approaches offer distinct but complementary experiences. In the first, I catch my subjects off-guard and ask them to hold hands, placing them in a spontaneous but sometimes vulnerable position. This approach brings forth raw emotions and provokes controversial responses, which add depth to the project. Conversely, the second allows the participants to reflect upon their relationship as they prepare for the photograph. I see both approaches as an unconventional form of participatory photography. The people in front of my camera do not simply pose but are engaged in a full-fledged act as they step onto the stage of their own lives.
What broader themes do you seek to explore in this body of work as a whole?
While the series focuses on fathers and sons, it transcends this particular relationship. Instead, it serves as a metaphor for the broader human experience, our shared journey of understanding, growth, and connection. The essence I aim to capture is one of unity, and a shared destiny. Through these images, I hope to evoke a sense of collective responsibility, a reminder that while our individual roles might seem small, together we shape the course of history and the legacy we leave behind.
In making these bodies of work, what have you learned about yourself?
I’ve come to terms with the transient nature of existence, understanding that our time here is fleeting. This realisation has instilled in me a profound sense of purpose. Rather than being consumed by the pursuit of personal gain, I’ve become more concerned with the legacy I leave behind. Every photograph I take is a testament to this desire to contribute positively to the world, to add to our collective narrative, and to cherish the ephemeral beauty of each moment.
Valery Poshtarov was born in Dobrich, Bulgaria, in 1986. He was raised in a creative family, his father being an artist and his mother a poet. He attended the National High School of Arts in Varna before undertaking a Bachelor of Arts degree in the plastic arts at the University of Paris I: Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris. Following graduation in 2007, he presented his work in thirty-five exhibitions across Europe, and the Bulgarian Cultural Institute in Paris nominated him for the prestigious Cartier-Bresson Award. However, in 2011 he returned to Bulgaria where he founded the first online art gallery in Eastern Europe: Cavalet. Ten years later, he established the PhotoAnthology Foundation whose mission is to promote artistic practices in photography and undertake documentary projects of public importance.
Valery Poshtarov’s photographs are held in a number of prestigious public collections including the Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris; the Museum für Fotografie, Berlin; the Nederlands Fotomuseum, Rotterdam; and the Museum Gallery of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Moscow. In 2022, he won first prize in the Cortona On the Move Award. His monograph ‘The Last Man Standing in the Rhodope Mountains’ was published in the same year. He lives and works in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Photo: Florian Demirev