Darren first started taking pictures at university in Bristol where he got involved in the photographic club. “I met some inspiring photographers that helped me get over my fear of approaching people with my camera,” he says. “In a way it helped me get over the shyness I had suffered from during my childhood, because to photograph people you need to get close to your subject and engage with them.”
What inspires him to take pictures depends on the subject. “Generally it is ideally about capturing a moment that will never be repeated and can reveal something about the subject in a universal visual language. If it’s people, it’s their stories and experiences that inspire me.”
Darren was born near Norwich in the heart of East Anglia, “one of the least mixed regions in the UK”, but where “the countryside makes up for this.” After five years in Bristol where he studied and set up as a freelance photographer, he moved to London. ‘Planet London’ (as my friend calls it) is a marvellously international, unexpected, time-consuming and complex place that I love, but need a once-yearly break from at least.”
These breaks often involve visits to Bulgaria, where Darren has been visiting the Bulgarian side of his family for the past 20 years. “During this time, the aspect that I have most noticed about Bulgaria is the commercialisation of the country. It’s interesting for me to remember the dollar-only Corecom shops, and then four or five years ago to witness the first supermarket in Varna. It’s also the visual changes in how people dress. When I was younger, people didn’t have access to as much Western-style clothing, but now you can hardly tell the difference between a young Sofianite and a Londoner in many cases.”
The changes over the last three to four years in the foreign expat community and the construction boom have also struck him, and provided the inspiration for his most recent project here. “I wanted to take pictures of English people coming to Bulgaria as I felt it was an interesting phenomenon, especially as at the same time in England we are/were experiencing a wave of East European immigrants. Being of mixed parentage I am interested in seeing this mixing of cultures and wanted to explore this photographically. I am working on a series of portraits in England of Bulgarians that my English portraits in Bulgaria will be exhibited alongside with accompanying quotes for each portrait.
“About half of the photos are of people near Varna who I knew or bumped into in Avren, known for its English community. The portraits from Avren are from chance encounters with people who I started talking to. The other half was through the estate agents Bulgarian Properties who put me into contact with several friendly people from around Elhovo.”
Darren would like to continue this theme in future projects. “It is a social phenomenon that has just begun and I have only been to two regions really. I plan to go to Bansko, Veliko Tarnovo, the Black Sea resorts and tiny villages to take more portraits. I also want to produce work about the changes that will result from EU entry and how certain aspects of Bulgarian life will diminish or disappear. There are many people taking photos of old village practices in Romania and other countries. I would like to do something a bit different.”
In terms of more commercial and public work, he would like to publish some artistic landscape pictures celebrating Bulgaria’s rich nature and history. “I am part of a collective that have plans to organise a series of mini art events to publicise Bulgarian film, photography, art, design and music in England. We hope to highlight new and upcoming acts from the younger generation.”
Kelvin came to Bulgaria after seven years in the army when he was injured in a truck collision. He considers himself a gypsy of the world, having travelled all around whilst in the service. He has been renting for two years in the village of Avren near Varna, which has recently experienced a mini invasion of 20 or more foreign families. Most only live here through the summer, but growing numbers are deciding to take up full-time residence. I met him in the local bar where he knew the family that run it very well.
It is interesting to observe the banter and joking between Kelvin and the owners despite the language differences, although the daughter had a good level of English from school that she was practicing.
Later on I stumble across another family-run bar in the village, this time things are noticeably different. This new, small café-bar is run by an English family and when I get there, the daughters are peeling potatoes for the Sunday-roast-invasion of Brits from around the area. There is a karaoke machine ready to entertain in contrast to the television broadcasting local news in the corner of the first bar. Before long, the place is filled with the sound of the owner serenading the bar packed with English, Scottish and one Dutch couple, feasting on an “English” roast dinner followed by Bulgarian Kamenitza.
I was led past Sam’s house where I met his dad preparing local grapes, a gift from a neighbour, for wine-making. How long will it be before we see the first commercially produced English Bulgarian wine, or even bacon? I thought.
Sam is pictured outside his parents’ house near Avren. Inside their cosy house I notice little touches of England, such as their Aga and pet dog. He moved here around a year ago with his brother and parents. He is 17 years old and says he likes the girls and clubbing most about Bulgaria. He seems not to be worried about learning the language at the moment.
Sam stands on the edge of his new swimming pool and metaphorically a new future. For me, this picture captures a little of what moving here is about, putting down new foundations. These are exciting times for many people coming here as they are reinventing themselves and their surroundings. Getting away from the rush of Western society and fragmented lifestyle is also important for some and I can see a closeness within some families that must be necessary to re-adjust and set up home in a foreign environment.
Phil and Chris
Phil and Chris bought their house straight off the Internet two years ago. Even then houses were going quickly so they acted fast. In reality the house was a bit worse than it had looked in the Internet pictures, but after the obligatory renovations they are feeling settled. They appreciate the quiet and the cost of living here. To emphasise the quietness Chris tells me about sitting in her garden and being startled when a small branch fell to the ground. They found out about Bulgaria through word of mouth and now, after two summers, they hardly want to leave when autumn comes and they return to Northampton, England.
They are pictured here in front of their friend’s garden, probably the equivalent size of a country lord’s front garden back in the UK.
Val, from Lancashire, has lived close to the Black Sea in the village of Priseltsi for four years. Priseltsi, like many other coastal villages, has seen a big increase in the construction of houses and, therefore, naturally a rise in prices. Many locals such as the father of the baby in the picture have turned to real estate to cash in on the boom of the last few years. It wasn’t the first time in my travels that I’ve been offered commission to pass the word back to England about lucrative pieces of land that will only rise in value with Bulgaria’s EU entry.
It was on an excursion to Croatia from Italy that Val learned of the low Bulgarian property prices. After being a nurse for over 15 years, she and her husband decided their pension wouldn’t be enough in the UK so they decided to relocate to Bulgaria. Favouring the local woods over the nearby sea, she feels happy in her new home. If there is one thing she feels bitter about it is that, despite both her and her partner contributing to pensions for 40 years combined, they are not entitled, at least for the time being, to NHS treatment as they are now permanent residents in Bulgaria.
Danny and Adam
Danny and Adam, (15 and 18), have moved here to Avren, 35km from the Black Sea, with their families from Yorkshire. Avren is a small village which some people claim has the highest percentage of English residents in Bulgaria, but despite this the village has kept its rustic charm. There are small signs of the English presence: a tiny English cafe/bar, a real estate sign on the main drag, a builder’s supply shop, and houses in the process of construction. The council building shows obvious signs of the new influx of money into the area, with its fresh pink paint job, complete with bank machine. These young lads are very happy with their new life in Bulgaria; they work on their family homes and have enough free time. “The things we like the most about Bulgaria are the girls and Golden Sands resort,” says Adam. Danny’s mother is pleased too that her children are 70 percent free of their previous PlayStation-addicted lifestyle in England. In the recently opened English-run bar I meet three English teenagers preparing for the Sunday roast that acts as a gathering for many local expats. Carly, (17), who’s been here for over a year now, says she was initially homesick, but now feels that Bulgaria is home.
Brian (far right) bought property here two years ago like many other Brits. He found Bulgaria by accident, having initially looked at Turkish house prices. After finding that Bulgaria was just next to Turkey and doing some Internet searches, he couldn’t believe how cheap the prices were. “I had to ring them up to confirm the prices I was seeing!” he says. Having worked as a prison officer and engineer in Scotland for over 20 years he is enjoying his pension. “People say they see a new Brian now,” he says about his new relaxed state. His dream was to open a bed and breakfast and the last place he found fitted the bill, but now his aim is for himself and his friends to enjoy the fruits of his labour in his transformed house. Brian is part of the growing minority in certain areas that are staying in Bulgaria throughout the year. With his new Lada Neva and new wall insulation, he’s feeling prepared for the cold winter months.