Interview with Hristina Tasheva

Hristina Tasheva’s newest book, Far Away From Home: The Voices, the Body and the Periphery (Self-published, 2023), is an ambitious attempt at mapping the disparities between two national experiences of Communism in the twentieth century — the Dutch and the Bulgarian — as they were impacted by the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. The book draws heavily upon archival research and found imagery to invoke the lives and struggles of those who ardently resisted Fascism, as well as those whose lives were extinguished by it. Tasheva adds her own contemporary photography made at sites of historical importance to her project, including court houses, holocaust memorial sites, seemingly hidden gravesites, and so on. More than being an exercise in archival research, though, Tasheva’s consistent but selective use of text throughout the book in the form of quotations from, for example, communist members of the Dutch Resistance, or from novelists, poets, and academics, all of whom comment in some form or another on World War II, historical memory, ideology, personal and national sacrifice, all adds up to deeply thought provoking and visually dense work. It is a book that takes images and their sequencing seriously, while at the same time insisting upon the necessity of text and its capacity to expand what images do. We spoke via email over several weeks about the background of this project, its historical underpinnings, and Tasheva’s methodology. Far Away From Home was shortlisted for the Paris Photo/Aperture PhotoBook of the Year award.

Zach Ritter (ASX): I would like to start by establishing how this project first developed and what your original goals were when you began. You have written that a critical moment for you was when a Dutch citizen asked you if you were a Communist, and you explain that, considering the two national histories of Communism (the Dutch and the Bulgarian) that contribute to your own personal political history, such a question became about more than simply declaring yes or no. What did this question prompt you to think about and want to explore at length, and why? Was the question a properly catalyzing moment for this project, or had you already been thinking about it in some way?

Hristina Tasheva: “Have I already been thinking about the project in some way?” This question takes me twenty years back in time. I was twenty-four years old when I left Bulgaria to emigrate to the Netherlands (now I am 47). I had no idea what path I was taking; I wanted to work, like many other Eastern Europeans, to save money to have a better life perspective in Bulgaria. In 2001, Bulgarians did not have the right to work in the countries of the European Union. So the illegal life at that time offered me a job as a domestic worker. Soon it became clear to me that in the Netherlands, many didn’t care about migrant cleaners: not what their name is, where they come from, whether they have an education, why they are migrants, whether they have families… 

Migrants are still in most cases black labor: domestic, agricultural, construction, and sex workers, ‘pimps’, ‘thieves’, the ‘ones draining the social system’, ‘aliens’… Far-right parties compare migrants to insects and animals, that is to say not people, or if they are, they are literally and figuratively on the fringes, a kind of social scum. I found myself placed in the cleaning supplies closet of the people I worked for – I wanted to know what I looked like as an inanimate object, where I belonged, and why I was invisible. As an artist, I have built a laboratory to research the questions I ask myself, provoked by my environment that is created by other people. Every project I worked on was a reaction to the questions and an attempt to enrich my surroundings with a more nuanced narrative. 

To be able to research and visualize the questions I asked myself I had to make a list with kind of help-questions, like who is the migrant; how is she changing when living in a foreign country; where does she belong; where is home; if a migrant is mentally situated in-between two countries, how does this in-between space look like; how does her body respond to the in-betweenness and what are the surviving strategies; what are the parameters of the migrant’s ‘guilt’ towards parents and homeland; does she feel nostalgia and what will it mean to return home?

Conceptually every work of mine is connected to the next one as part of one bigger narrative; the works accumulate knowledge that I visualize every time with a nuance and a different perspective, keeping it close to my experience. The question “Are you a communist?” inspired me to think of my questions from a different angle again, to find out where I am standing, what are my responsibilities; and what is the story I can tell.

ASX: Before we discuss the book’s structure and your expansive combination of text and images, I was hoping you could briefly outline the important differences between the experience and legacy of Communism in the Netherlands and Bulgaria, respectively. As you suggested, the question “Are you a Communist?” would, depending upon in which country one is asked, carry with it an enormous difference of, let’s say, possible suspicion, animosity and accusation, as opposed to a more simple and straightforward personal or historical curiosity. In America, for example, the history of both Communist thought and political organizing is an entirely suppressed one as far as pre-university education is concerned. To ask someone that question here would likely result in the expression of a kind of humorous disbelief towards the very possibility of someone answering in the affirmative, with the underlying assumption being that no “serious” or “mature” person would call themselves a Communist.

Tasheva: The biggest difference between the Netherlands (Western Europe) and Bulgaria (Eastern Europe) is that a communist regime was never established in the Netherlands. And today I ask myself, despite the changes in Eastern Europe after 1989, will a real functioning democracy ever be established there?

Despite declaring neutrality, on the 10th of May 1940 the Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany. The Dutch forces surrendered on the 15th of May. The Dutch government and the royal family fled the country. Although the Nazis banned the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN), the Party continued to exist as an illegal organization that already had good experience with illegal work. Before the war, the Gestapo received information about the Dutch communists from the Dutch intelligence service, which is why they were able to prosecute the communists in the Netherlands so fanatically: they were murdered; sent to prisons and concentration camps.

After the war, there was targeted propaganda against the communists in the Netherlands, and the word communist became the same as fascist. The communists were purposefully kept without work, and because of the poverty they suffered their children couldn’t receive a proper education. Although the Dutch communists played an important role in the Resistance during the war, they did not receive real recognition for their deeds after the liberation. However, today they are remembered as Resistance fighters. It is important to add as well that after the war, when finally the terror of GULAG became widely known in the West, there were Dutch communists who were strongly disappointed and then distanced themselves from the communist ideology. 

Bulgaria didn’t take sides in WWII until March 1941 when it joined the Axis Powers. In September 1944 Bulgaria changed its position again and aligned with the Allies. At that same moment, the Red Army invaded the Bulgarian territories and occupied them until 1947, helping the Bulgarian communists to establish the Communist regime with great terror – over a period of just a few months after the 8th of September 1944, more than 30,000 people were murdered, and many others “disappeared.”

Born in 1976, what I learned in school was that the USSR liberated Bulgaria from the fascists. Although in 2000 the communist regime was pronounced criminal by law in Bulgaria, many Bulgarians today are turning a blind eye to the atrocities of the past. Bulgaria still “guards” the Soviet monuments. In 1993, a decision was made in Sofia to dismantle the Monument to the Soviet Army erected in 1954, located in the very center of the Bulgarian capital and almost 40 meters high. The following inscription is placed: “TO THE LIBERATING SOVIET ARMY FROM THE GRATEFUL BULGARIAN PEOPLE.” This “gratefulness of the Bulgarian people” seems to finally have started to fade at the end of 2023, when activities were carried out to move the monument to the Museum of Socialist Art.

ASX: The book is structured around archival documents and photographs, along with a copious amount of text and literary excerpts, which you pair with your own contemporary photographs. It’s obvious from the start that your book will demand a high level of active attention to parse through the historical narrative you’re constructing, and to make sense of the investigation into place and memory that you carry out through a combination of sketches, maps, photographs and texts, for example. What was your strategy for arranging and sequencing this material together? Or, to put the question differently, what ideas were already in place that were used to create the structure? Was it something you found during the making of the book?

Tasheva: At the beginning of my research, I came across a quote from Georges Perec’s book Thoughts of Sorts: “All utopias are depressing because they leave no room to chance, to difference, to those who are ‘different’. Everything has been ordered; order reigns. Behind every utopia lies a great taxonomic design: a place for everything and every thing in its place.” To me this was a question of the center and the periphery – when utopia is placed in the center under the form of political ideology and there is no room for those who are “different” and the order reigns… What does the periphery look like? The term periphery in my work often coincides with the term in-betweenness (illustrated by a Venn diagram). Who are the inhabitants of the periphery – how do they end up there, what happens to them? I wanted to visualize the periphery by photographing places of isolation and torture like prisons and concentration camps. I imagined a work that contained only photographs. My first title was Encyclopedia of Pain. (In the past I worked on a project titled Imagine that the migrant was not a human being… (Towards an Encyclopedia of Metaphors for the Migrant Identity)).

When I started slowly to accumulate knowledge and visual material and discovered more and more aspects, layers, and nuances of the questions I posed to myself, it became clear to me that I might have a problem conceptualizing the structure of the work, coming to terms also to some moral issues. There was a need for a new title (quite often I start a project because I came to think of a title that inspires my work further and not the other way around) that will help the understanding of the content and my relation to it: Far Away From Home: The Voices, the Body and the PeripheryWhen I worked on the visual and textual development of the question “Am I a communist?” what I found most interesting was its ambiguity. I wondered: “When and where do the roads of the Dutch and Bulgarian communists cross each other?” I choose the Leipzig Trial in Germany that took place between the 21st of September and 23rd of December 1933, where on the bench in court next to the Dutch Marinus van der Lubbe were also the Bulgarian communists Georgi Dimitrov, Blagoj Popov and Vasil Tanev; and the German Ernst Torgler. While Marinus van der Lubbe was found guilty and sentenced to death, the rest were set free. This historical event became the Prologue of my book. 

The rest of the content is organized chronologically:

Part I – The Struggle for Utopia

The participation of the Dutch communists in the Resistance in the occupied Netherlands and their prosecution during WWII. The visual material that I am using in this part of the book is structured around the timeline of 1933 – 1945.

Part II – How to transcend evil without being taken as the embodiment of good?

Being asked if I am a communist, I wanted to know ‘Am I seen as a victim (resistance fighter) or a perpetrator by the local people?’ Here I present the result of my visual research on the questions above and the ambiguity of human nature: how the same person in different extreme circumstances could become a victim or perpetrator, using my own body as a model.

Part III – Living in Utopia

The criminal deeds of the Bulgarian communists in order to realize the communist utopia in Bulgaria after the war unfolded through the period from the 9th of September 1944 to the end of 1989 in Bulgaria.

Epilogue – “We were normal people”

The last chapter of the book came into existence after asking myself questions about my family’s potential involvement in the political life of Bulgaria in the period of 1944 – 1989. 

One question posed to me was why I went to so many memorial sites, and whether one of them or a few was not enough to make my point. To me, every place was unique although all were born of an enormous cruelty. If you were a relative of a person murdered in Auschwitz, you would commemorate this family member by going to Auschwitz and not to Buchenwald for example. It was important to me to visit as many memorials as possible but limited by time and budget I could spend. 

The design of the publication–as minimal as possible–refers to a compiled document that can be found within an archive. A definition for an archive could be “a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution, or group of people.” What people have to have in mind of course is that an artist created this archive, with the intention that it serve as a ‘place’ to return.

ASX: One could be forgiven, I think, for seeing this as a book concerned as much, if not more so, with history and historical memory as it is with the photographic representation that those two processes necessitate. Your own images are often unassuming in style and quiet in tone, even seeming close in their overall manner to the archival images you often pair them with. Seeing these qualities in your images makes sense considering that one of your primary objectives is to create a new kind of historical record, or account, of the divergent experiences of Communists in the Netherlands and Bulgaria, respectively. It should also be pointed out that you are photographing architecture, building interiors, landscapes, all places and subjects that are framed by the historical events you invoke with text but which are also conspicuously without people in the present tense. Did you try, or want, to make portraiture a part of the contemporary work you made for this project? When visiting the many historical sites and landscapes, what did you want to emphasize and describe about them? How did you approach making pictures for this project?

Tasheva: The book is concerned with historical memory (visualized mostly by photography), but also with subjective memory. I am trying to ‘rebuild’ my own memory by investigating other people’s individual memories (through the text I edit or chosen quotations from books), but also different memory cultures (the memory that forms a nation – memorial sites or the non-existent ones) relating respectively to the forming of the personal and national identities (based on their difference from other nations). Georgi Gospodinov wrote in his novel Time Shelter the following: “I no longer remember who said that a nation was a group of people who have agreed to jointly remember and forget the same things.” 

When I was visiting Nazi concentration camp memorials, I searched for fragments, close-ups, structures, elements, and tools that all together invoke the process of remembering. Using photography, our memories will also be fragmented and chosen. Tzvetan Todorov writes in his book Facing the Extreme: Moral Life in the Concentration Camps the following: “Memory cannot reconstruct the totality of the past–that would be both impossible and undesirable. It can only reconstruct a selection of those elements we consider worth remembering, and never more than that. The defenders of totalitarianism choose certain segments of the past and cover up the others; their enemies fight this selection–by proposing another one in its place.”

This book is also a form of commemoration – “a process including understanding your own history through the histories of others.” But to ‘commemorate’ it seems one has to be allowed to do so – who keeps the memory, how and to whom this memory is shown? While searching for information about the Dutch communists, I discovered the existence of the CPN Archive (Dutch Communist Party Archive), part of the Archive of the International Institute for Social History in Amsterdam. After the liberation of the Netherlands, CPN published a message in the communist newspaper De Waarheid (20/11/1945), asking their audience for the names, photos, and data about the arrest and prosecution of the killed communist resistance fighters. The idea was to be a Memorial Book of Fallen Resistance Fighters, but the book was never published – the data collected was only about half of the resistance fighters, 1000 people, and not the expected 2000. The letters, completed forms with their details, and photos were carefully preserved and later stored in the CPN Archive.

I asked for access to the CPN collection – I explained my motivation and intentions and how I would use the material (portrait photographs of the Dutch communist resistance fighters, goodbye letters they wrote to their loved ones before being shot dead, etc.). The board of the Foundation for the Management of the Archives of the CPN told me that my question “has been discussed extensively and with great interest.” With all due respect for my motivation and my artistic ambitions, they have nevertheless concluded that they cannot cooperate with my project: “The reason is that we have a responsibility towards the donors of the archive and the relatives of the resistance fighters. We consider it our responsibility that the archive of the Memorial Book is used as intended by the donors: to preserve [honor] the memory of communists who gave their lives in the fight against National Socialism. In addition to our doubts on this point, our regulations also require that the interests of living persons are not harmed. In this case, we believe we cannot guarantee that using the Memorial Book material in your project will not harm bereaved families by evoking painful feelings about this still sensitive period in our history.” That is why the victims or perpetrators are not represented with their facial portraits in the book. In my concept the elements of Part I “The Struggle for Utopia” and Part III “Living in Utopia” had to mirror each other in order not to prioritize one over the other.  

Photographing places of the periphery and tending to visualize what the periphery looks like (where Nazi and communist concentration camps were built) inevitably a person think about all the torture and death exercised there. A guide at a Nazi concentration camp memorial said to the visitors that these places are like graveyards – almost everywhere here people were dying, had been murdered, or their ashes from crematoria were dumped. Maybe that explains why my images are unassuming and quiet. Nevertheless, there is portraiture in the book – of the body (the human is seen as a body and a material by totalitarian regimes and not as an individual); the self-portraits I created of myself (in Part II “How to Transcend Evil Without Being Taken as the Embodiment of Good?”); the voices of victims became visible through text; the Epilogue “We Were Normal People” contains almost only portraits from my family archive.

The book is not a work that shows the faces of the people who were the victims or the perpetrators. It became instead a form of research on the ambiguity of human nature. As Haidi Hautval, a survivor of KZ Ravensbrück shares her observations: “There is no clear line between the person who thinks he is ‘good’ and the person who is no longer so. We have all possibilities within us. It is a matter of choice.” That is why it was important to me to start the project with the question of positioning myself (“The proper study of Mankind is Man”) in specific times in history and taking responsibility for what happened in the past – I could have been the victim or the perpetrator or become one. The collage on the cover of the book is a self-portrait. In the course of my research, I discovered the existence of Pernkopf Anatomy: Atlas of Topographical and Applied Human Anatomy by Eduard Pernkopf. Many surgeons have used the Atlas, as it was considered the best example of anatomical drawings in the world. Until 1990 when academics finally wanted to know who were the people drawn in the Anatomy book. It was revealed that these were bodies of Nazi concentration camp prisoners. 

The people of our present times are almost missing in the book. On my way, I met a lot of tourists (even during the Covid-19 pandemic) or almost no one as is the case in Bulgaria. I was very often denied information or access to certain locations because they were part of operating businesses; or else I was surrounded by a wasteland where there was not a living person to be seen, only the occasional stray dogs. If I met and talked to people, they often responded with a shrug of the shoulders, or my desire to understand what and where happened in the past caused them to be reluctant to even mentally go back in time. I have chosen to ‘photograph’ the invisible, the lost, the disappeared without a trace, the former/past tense people, and the places where this happened. The process of trying to make such places and people visible is actually what my work consists of: “When justice does not succeed in being a form of memory, memory alone can be a form of justice.” (Ana Blandiana)

ASX: As the book concludes you turn your focus to your own family, with a sequence of pictures of your grandparents, parents, yourself as a child, along with pictures of the community you all lived in (at least, this is what seems evident to me). The quotation you use for this chapter’s epigraph is from Franz Kafka’s short story Homecoming: “Whatever else is going on in the kitchen is the secret of those sitting there, a secret they are keeping from me. The longer one hesitates before the door, the more estranged one becomes.” The conceptual and thematic focus here is, in the first instance, about self-understanding in an expanded sense: how one is shaped by custom, tradition, familial and social history, and how those processes work upon and shape one’s own self. The assertion by your parents that they “were normal people”, which you include early in the sequence of this chapter, is a claim made complicated by the material that precedes it. We are left to wonder, I think, whether one can truly be “normal” in extreme times, or whether one can remain at a distance from or be unaffected by historical upheaval, tragedy or catastrophe. It seems to me that you are asking us all to pose such questions to ourselves, today. I wonder how you think about this project, and its expansive range of thematic concerns, within the context of present-day political events. Did this project teach you anything about history that has been a useful or illuminating tool for understanding and making sense of the present?

Tasheva: The last chapter of the book came into existence after asking myself questions about my family’s potential involvement in the political life of Bulgaria in the period of 1944–1989. I had conversations with my parents about the lives of my grandparents (none of them alive anymore), and also about their memories, but nothing ‘unordinary’ emerged from the past – in general none of the family members were perpetrators or resistance fighters. But like many other Bulgarian farmers at that time, they lost their property with the nationalization (confiscation of the all ground and animals that my great-grandparents possessed for the creation of the state cooperatives), chose to be members of the Bulgarian Communist Party or not, obeyed the totalitarian rules or not, etc. When looking back to two or three generations that all made their own choices, it is difficult to put all of them in one category. This last part of the book was not meant to be judgmental. 

What is interesting to me is the ‘definition’ of ‘normal people’. I thought such a definition could be ‘all of us human beings before making choices in extreme circumstances, which will place us in these two categories that later generations will name perpetrators or resistance fighters.’ And becoming a perpetrator or resistance fighter is also an expression of human nature. To analyze the past we need a distance – a distance perhaps of two, three or four decades, or even more. Sometimes living in the present of extreme events it is difficult to understand how decisions taken now will reflect on one’s own future and that of the society in general. 

As a teenager, I was not conscious that I was growing up in a totalitarian state. My family, for example, didn’t have other non-totalitarian experiences to be able to compare with another way of life. They had no idea of the existence of the communist concentration camps. In 2019, I traveled to Belene camp with my father – I wanted to be present on the day of the Commemoration of the victims of the communist regime. My father, hearing what happened at this place, and reading the stories of the survivors exhibited there, reacted with the words: “I could have died without knowing what happened here. I didn’t know… Who is there to tell you?” And recently: “When I learned about this part of history [there, of Belene concentration camp], I was really disgusted with the [Bulgarian] communists.” I still remember the expression on his face – of a person who spent his whole life based on the deception of a utopia that was never realized; how is it possible to become a part of such a lie? 

If we focus on ourselves – people from the 21st century… Do we know our histories? Do we want to know? What are our responsibilities to future generations? In what way are we different from the generation who preceded us? What do we do to keep and protect the values that will prevent history from repeating itself? Is there a conflict today that is not connected to the unsolved problems of the past? History shows us that remembering leads to even more death and suffering, but “forgetting can also have dire effects.” 

In his book Hope and Memory Tzvetan Todorov asks: What is memory for? 

“If we do not want the past to return, we have to do more than recite it. George Santayana’s old adage that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it is misleading because it implies that those who remember the past are likely to avoid its mistakes. The historical past, like the natural order, has no intrinsic meaning, and by itself it produces no values at all. Meaning and value only comes from human subjects questioning and judging the past, or the nature of things. The same historical fact, as we have seen, can be interpreted in opposite ways and support mutually contradictory policies.  

All the same, the past can make a contribution to the constitution of collective and individual identities, and it can support the development of values, ideals, and principles. But to allow the past to serve in that way, we have to subject our own values, ideals, and principles to rational examination and to the test of debate; we must not seek to impose our ideals just because they happen to be ours. The relationship of the past to values is essential, but it is also limited. The past may enrich our principles of action in the present, but it does not provide the meaning of the present. Today’s forms of racism, xenophobia, and exclusion are not identical to those of 1950, 1900, or 1800, and they do not affect the same people. Sanctifying the past robs it of all effectiveness in the present; but if we simply assimilate the present to the past, we blind ourselves to the nature of both past and present, and this in its turn leads to injustice. It is hard to find the path that skirts the pitfalls of sanctification and of trivialization, that leads us neither to serve only our own interest nor to give lessons only to others. But that straight and narrow path does exist.” (p. 176)

Hristina Tasheva

Far Away From Home: The Voices, the Body and the Periphery

Self-published, 2023

(All Rights Reserved. Text © Zach Ritter. Images © Hristina Tasheva.)

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