Photographer Antoan Bozhinov explores the life of Bulgaria's 'Little People'
It is difficult to surprise anybody in Facebook, but photographer Antoan Bozhinov (a regular presence in Vagabond) has managed to do it. This tall, well-built man, who dwarfs the spacious rooms of our publishing office, put in his profile a picture where he is surrounded by a dozen "Little People."
Remarkably, no one looks different to anyone else in the picture.
Antoan features in his photo with the people who are the heart of his latest project, The World of L.P. Since its debut in October 2009 at the International Art Days in Plovdiv, the exhibition of black-and-white and colour photographs has been touring the country. All the photos have been blown up to 30x45 inches. "This is the average height of the Little People, so my pictures are actually nearly lifesize portraits," Antoan says.
In Bulgaria, midgets are an invisible social group to an extent that the term Little People does not even raise eyebrows. Their number is unknown and, when they get the attention of the media, they are usually presented in a one-sided manner, with mawkishness that smacks of pity. Against this background, The World of L.P. is something different. Antoan's calm photographs do not wallow in unnecessary sentimentality. What you simply see is people: trying to withdraw money from a cash dispenser that is too high for them, at the sea, walking in Silistra or getting married.
The wedding of Galya and Georgi Getovi
"It was an old idea, but I began working on it in April 2008 after seeing an interview with Svetoslav Chernev, chairman of the Organisation of Little People in Bulgaria," Antoan says. He took several photos in February 2009, but met the main faces of his future project in April, when he attended the national assembly of that organisation in Ruse. "There were about 20 of them in all. I explained my idea about the travelling exhibition, which would attract public attention and bring the group out of anonymity, so that more people could join, and certain activities would be triggered in different places, statistical data would be compiled and changes in legislation would be not press my views on them." The third obstacle was the choice of the shots. "I sent the pictures to them to approve. I threw out anything my models disliked. One of them did not like his back and profile –and a third of my work went into the rubbish bin," Antoan says. It was extremely hard for him to overcome the "deep-rooted conviction of non-photographers that photos are taken as a 'keepsake."
The models themselves chose the environment where they would be photographed. "Some invited me to their homes and others to their favourite srolls. For example, Svetlana from Burgas loves the jetty and Ventsi from Silistra enjoys the old Ottoman fortress. Ivan from Varna and I had a walk along the seashore and in the Pobiti Kamani area. Antoniy from Ruse is proud of the Catholic church, which has 1,000 seats and is one row of bricks taller than the one in the next neighbourhood," Antoan says.
Antoan's unbiased look into the little people's lives revealed an unexpected picture. "The Little People are a miniature model of Bulgarian society. Some are well-educated or study at universities, while others live in the countryside or in social homes. There are people who have technical, business or artistic jobs. Some work for the municipal or state administration. There are also ones who are unemployed," Antoan says. "Some little people are married or live with a partner. Usually, their relationships are with people like themselves but occasionally their partners are people of normal height."
Petar Pavlov lives in a home for disabled people in Stara Zagora
While working on The World of L.P., Antoan made friends with most of his models. He even attended the wedding of one of them. "Georgi Getov is the chairman of the Dignified Life Foundation and has an impressive background. He was born in 1949. He was of normal height but his fontanelle closed over too slowly. He was prescribed an overdose of an ossification medicine. As a result, he stopped growing. After going through difficulties, Georgi managed to leave behind his wheelchair for good. He graduated from the Higher Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, where he studied full time, and began working at an institute where he reached the rank of a first-degree researcher. However, he failed several subsequent exams. He learned only recently from a colleague that the heads of the institute were responsible for this. People with academic degrees travelled abroad and they thought Georgi shamed Bulgaria due to his height," Antoan explains. "Georgi met Galya, who is a bachelor of theology and suffers from cerebral palsy, at a seminar of the Dignified Life Foundation. They got married last spring. They invited me. As a rule, I don't take pictures at weddings, unless the bride or the groom is a friend or a relative and I can't refuse. But this wedding was not a burden, just the opposite."
After Plovdiv, The World of L.P. was exhibited in Montana and is on show at the Iliya Beshkov Art Gallery in Pleven from 19 February. For Antoan, the project is not over. "Some of my interviews with the models turned into confessions. I hope I can publish a book with them too," he says.
Boris Bogdanov lives in a home for disabled people in Stara Zagora
Geno Kolev, 27 years old, works in the Zaharna Fabrika area of Sofia
Georgi Getov, 60 years old, a computer specialist in Sofia
Svetlana Chausheva, works as a social worker in Burgas
Venetsiyan Petrov, 20 years old, from Silistra, a student at the Technical University in Ruse
Venera Velikova, economist with a high school special education, works for Somovit City Council