For a country that is spending hundreds of thousands of euros trying to create an image of itself as a tourist destination where a rich ancient history combines with modern, high-tech sports facilities, all amply seasoned with plenty of shopska salata, Bulgaria can be surprisingly restrictive when it comes to one of the main pastimes of tourists: taking pictures. While it is true that occasionally you might see groups of camera-clicking Japanese in the centre of Sofia, deviate from the very beaten track of Aleksandr Nevskiy Cathedral and the statue of the Russian tsar in front of the Bulgarian National Assembly, and you will be faced with many bans on photography.
Visitors are likely to get very frustrated with being forbidden to take a picture of anything or anyone in Bulgaria, and here are the five steps through which the wouldbe photographer passes: respect, surprise, irritation, bargaining and acceptance.
Suppose you enter one of the many Orthodox churches and monasteries that dot the countryside. Some are quite old, with beautiful, if somewhat naive, frescoes that have been preserved through the centuries and illustrate the Orthodox belief in liturgy and canon, and its fear of hell. Because you are unlikely to belong to the Orthodox religion, those will look exotic and mysterious to you. You want to take a picture to bring home, post on Facebook and share with friends. After all, none of them has been to a place called Bulgaria.
No way. In contrast to other Orthodox nations, notably Greece, where friendly priests show you around, treat you to a sweet and a cup of coffee, and actually encourage you to take photographs because it is a part of their job to proselytise in any way possible, their Bulgarian counterparts will probably be rather brusque. At the sight of a camera, especially if it is produced indoors, someone will immediately converge on you: "No photography!"
The first stage (see above) is respect. You don't know anything about the culture and you may think that these people really do believe that taking a picture of an old fresco, or of them, is like taking a piece of their soul.
By your third monastery your initial respect for other people's beliefs will likely evolve into surprise. But why am I not allowed to take a picture? What can possibly happen to the old icons and wrinkled faces, provided I don't use a flash, if their likeness travels the world?
As there will be no one around to provide you with a reasonable explanation, the next stage is irritation. No, not again! Why the hell should these guys not allow me to take a picture of their hell! We will all rot there, won't we...
Bargaining. Talking about money with the priests and nuns may actually help. Many of them will gladly look the other way if you offer them a fiver. But make sure you give it directly to them, not put it in the alms box because then no one will notice.
Acceptance. You are on the plane back to Western Europe with a few pictures of Aleksandr Nevskiy and the Russian tsar in your SD card.
The Bulgarian Orthodox church may be among the worst enemies of photography in this country but it is not the only one. Any museum, whatever its size, importance or location, will probably have a ban on any kind of photography, unless you write a letter to them, know the director and are prepared to pay them money in exchange for being allowed to take a shot or two for keeps. I am not talking about professional photography, which in most European countries must be arranged in advance, especially if it involves the use of special equipment and lighting. I am talking about Ixus and EasyShare photography that will remind you, as a tourist and not a prying reporter, of this year's holiday.
No. Some of the worst offenders are in Sofia. The National History Museum, in the former Communist leader Todor Zhivkov's residence in Boyana, is one. Its somewhat eccentric director Bozhidar Dimitrov will never allow you to take a picture indoors, or outdoors in most cases. Forget the comfort and convenience of major cultural institutions in Europe. Forget about St Peter's in Rome and the British Museum. You can actually go to the British Museum and freely take a picture of the so-called London Gospel, a Medieval Bulgarian illustrated book considered to be a masterpiece of both clerical thought and calligraphy. But you cannot take a picture of its copy sitting in the Bulgarian National History Museum in Sofia. Very postmodern.
It is difficult to explain why Bulgarians are so reluctant to allow outsiders to take pictures of what they consider to be their national heritage, but in many cases the reasons are pecuniary and have nothing to do with issues of ownership or privacy. You are a foreigner and automatically this means you are rich. You must cough up some money to support those in charge of monasteries and museums alike. Simple as that.
Then there is the approach of the military to the sorry state of freedom of photography in Bulgaria. The military in any country are reluctant to see camera-waving people, especially foreigners, strolling around their property. In Bulgaria the attitude of the military, even when it comes to long disused and abandoned military installations, is notorious for its sheer stupidity. One telling example is the lighthouse at Shabla, a beautiful beacon that will greet you from Bulgaria's easternmost Black Sea shore in the unlikely event you arrive in this country by ship (Bulgaria operates a very limited passenger fleet). It has stood at Shabla for over 150 years, a pretty, "European" site in what remains a predominantly Eastern country. Strictly off limits. No photography! A military secret.
The funny thing is that the lighthouse was built by a French company commissioned by the Ottoman sultan in the middle of the 19th Century. With a bit of imagination the Bulgarian military, formerly of the Warsaw Pact but now in NATO, might be able to invent a better "military secret" than that.