Shortly before their exhibition in Sofia, the duo tell us how they go about getting to know the unknown from Kosovo to Turkey via Bulgaria.
Vanessa Winship and George Georgiou have been partners in life and photography since the 1980s, extensively exploring – both individually and together – social, political and cultural changes in different parts of the world. More often than not these points of interest are in Bulgaria and the surrounding countries.
“I can make anywhere feel like home,” says Vanessa Winship, talking to us from Berlin, where she and George are holding a workshop shortly before heading to Sofia. Their exhibition “The Long Road”, curated by Nadezhda Pavlova and Nikola Mihov, opens on May 12 at Synthesis gallery.
Vanessa Winship, from the “Sweet Nothings” series. In it she takes pictures of schoolgirls from Eastern Turkey and looks at the school uniform as a unifying element in the lives of children in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
So where was the starting point of this long journey? For that we have to rewind back to 1989. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, all of a sudden there were a lot more photos from Eastern Europe in the mainstream media,” says Vanessa, who has been shooting actively since before she went to study photography in London. George also devoted himself fully to his vocation from an early age so the duo already had over a decade of experience before they began to travel regularly. “Then I came across this picture of a landscape with a person walking through it: it gave off a different vibe to all the other images at the time, which seemed to focus only on the poverty in the region.”
George Georgiou, from the “Fault Lines” series
It transpired that the photo was taken in Albania which back then was one of the least accessible countries in the Eastern Bloc and remained so until the fall of the Communist regime in 1991.
“It wasn’t possible for someone like me to go there at the time, but I immediately started reading as much as I could about the country. I read everything by Ismail Kadare. When the war broke out in Kosovo we decided to travel there by car. It was around that time that the seeds of our perennial affection for the Balkans were sown. Each discovery led to a new one, each country led us to the next.”
George Georgiou and Vanessa Winship, from the “College years 1984-1987” series
Why being a witness is more important than being a discoverer.
What is immediately striking about Vanessa and George’s photography is that they always blend into the environment while still keeping some distance and never resorting to stereotypes. Although they travel together all the time, over the years they’ve developed their own individual signature styles, coming up with different stories and nuances even when they’re both at the same location.
The fact that they move through time and space in comfortable anonymity undoubtedly contributes to the authenticity in their photos. Neither of them is publicity hungry and you won’t find many interviews with them, although their work has been on display at The Museum of Modern Art in New York and London’s “Barbican”, they’re represented by agencies such as VU and Panos and have won awards from World Press Photo.
George Georgiou, Konya, Turkey, from the “Fault Lines: Turkey from East to West” series.
The period between 1999-2009 saw Vanessa Winship and George Georgiou living and working successively in Kosovo, Serbia, Turkey and Greece, with Bulgaria becoming an increasingly bigger part of their lives. The upcoming exhibition will be their first in Sofia, but by no means their first appearance in a local event: in October 2019 they took part in the International Meetings of Photography in Plovdiv and then presented their photobooks at one of the PUK! Platform events in the capital.
A significant part of Vanessa’s work is devoted to the countries surrounding the Black Sea and the ways in which physical limitations create psychological barriers. “And the latter, accordingly, create further boundaries – between childhood and maturity, life and death, light and shadow. Still, we look for the similarities between places. What we share, not so much what separates us. I don’t think that what I do is related to any kind of discovery, more like I’m a witness to intense changes.”
George Georgiou, Martin Luther King Day parade, Los Angeles, California, January 18, 2016, from the “Americans Parade” series
East, West and does it really matter
Part of one of Georgiou’s most famous projects – the “Fault Lines” series, also released as a photobook in 2010, in which he documents the expansion of Istanbul and the political crossroads Turkey finds itself at – will be displayed at the Sofia exhibition.
“I remember that when I moved to Turkey, I had no particular ambitions other than to see more of the country. I quickly realized that to do justice to the place, as well as to satisfy my own curiosity, I had to look at modern Turkey through the lens of time, unraveling, understanding what was happening, “ says George.
Vanessa Winship – Balchik, Bulgaria, from the “Black Sea” series
“At that time, in 2004, the Justice and Development Party had been in power for less than a year and Erdogan had just been elected prime minister. The process of urbanization was in its infancy and continued at a very slow pace for the next five years, before going to the other extreme.”
That period made him think of how we use terms like “East” and “West”. “I had a lot of questions as I observed the rapid construction going on in Turkey. It was as if modernization symbolized the West, while the traditional and less developed areas signified the East, although the low-cost housing model generally failed in Europe and subsequently dispersed many communities in Turkey to small towns and villages.”
Vanessa Winship, from the “She Dances on Jackson” series. In it Winship travels across the United States, exploring the relationship between the daily lives of people in different states and nature.
From London to Mandritsa
Beyond the Sofia exhibition, they have an even warmer connection with Bulgaria. Currently they spend different parts of the year living between the village of Mandritsa (near Ivaylovgrad) and the English town of Folkestone.
According to George Georgiou they discovered Mandritsa while he was taking photos for a Greek travel magazine, sometime in 2004-2005. “It seemed to me like a place outside of time, very beautiful. We didn’t consider buying a house in Bulgaria, until a close friend did it and I went back to the village to visit him, and well…the rest is history.” George and Vanessa plan to turn their home into an artistic residence that will welcome guests willing to “experience the Bulgarian countryside and food”, and engage in “conversations about photography without the distractions of the big city.”
George Georgiou, Belgrade, Serbia, from the “Balkan Journey” series
“The Long Road” exhibition opens on May 12 and closes on July 8 at Synthesis Gallery. Both authors’ photobooks will be presented on Open Doors Day of the “Photosynthesis Library” (June 12) and some of them will be available for purchase on site. More info at vanessawinship.com and georgegeorgiou.net.
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