Photo Feature - Fading Out. Exhibited at Explorations in Practice, UBC 2011.
I spent the first six years of my life in the village of Novachene, central north Bulgaria, where my grandparents and great-grandparents were looking after me. After the demise of the communist regime in 1989, the village’s population has plummeted by 60%, the latest estimate putting the number of residents at 1,289 (ESGRAON, as of 31 Dec 2009). With the constantly ageing and shrinking population, basic services have been curtailed and economic activity has died down. According to the Association of Bulgarian Villages, only around 5% of the rural population nationwide is below 18 years of age, painting a bleak picture for the future. It is expected that a fifth of the country’s 5,074 villages will disappear from the map over the next ten years. These images are trying to capture familiar sights, which are slowly and relentlessly drifting towards oblivion. Can you still call a place home after it has been erased from the collective memory of society?
Traces of the projects realized by the communist regime can still be found in the village of Novachene. The back streets were first paved and anti-flooding gutters constructed, using the income generated from communal farms. Indoctrination was carried out through measures such as the “model home” award, bestowed upon certain households in the village, the construction of monuments to communist guerrillas, and turning communist activists into household names (for example, by naming streets after them). Prosperity came to a halt with the collapse of the Berlin wall. Farmland was returned to the heirs of the pre-collectivization owners in its original boundaries, resulting in ownership structure unfit for efficient modern farming. Many of the younger residents left for the cities, or for overseas. The village is full of empty dilapidated houses, shuttered windows and locked doors.
Many of the remaining residents of the village of Novachene spent the most productive years of their lives under the communist regime. With the help of government-paid building crews, they built large houses and multiple farm buildings, intended to accommodate and support entire extended families. Mrs. Ivanova once worked at the post office, which used to occupy an entire two-storey building. Nowadays, the second floor is empty, while the post office shares the ground floor with the mayor’s office and two basic grocery shops. After the passing away of her husband, she spends most of her time in a single room of her spacious house. She finds it difficult to maintain the house and the lot, though regularly receiving help on weekend from her children’s families, who live in the city. In 2010, there was a reunion of Mrs. Ivanova’s elementary school class to celebrate their 80th anniversary.
Novachene’s kindergarten is named after Bulgaria’s first cosmonaut, Georgi Ivanov, and has a tall space rocket model pointing at the sky in its yard. At present, it is barely in use. The worn “School” road sign is barely readable. The village’s junior high school used to boast a large student body (two classes per batch), with most children born and bred in the village itself, until the 1980s. Today, the school hosts one class per batch, with children from several different villages commuting every morning to attend classes. According to the latest results from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA 2009), the gap in the level of education of 15-year olds between urban and rural schools in Bulgaria is as large as two years’ worth of education. The decline is not limited to the quality of education, but also extends to opportunities and services available to the students. The book store and the pastry shop have both been closed for more than ten years now. The village sees an influx of kids from the city during the summer holidays and on festival days.