The Roads to Love

“You’re handling life with velvet gloves,” I once said to a friend some years ago. “You touch life with a pair of gloves and you will never experience the bitter taste of disappointment.”

Years later, I found that I had put on these very same gloves myself. My faith in humankind fading, I had done so out of disillusionment, out of a fear to love my fallible fellow man unconditionally. I had sealed my soul and, without realising it, I had extinguished its light. Through fear of being burnt, I had denied myself the light and warmth of fire and my limbs had become cold and numb. My soul, not daring to love, had frozen over.

For years, any closeness I’d had to that lonely fire of Man had been an illusion. Humans had become featureless, lonely shadows that scuttled from my gaze. Using my camera, I had tried to capture Man’s image from a distance, tried to find a way to capture His soul, to snare it with photography’s noose and make it immortal. I reduced myself to His shadow, camouflaging myself so as not to spook my object, so fragile and solemn in its endeavours. I set out to steal His soul – not for me, but for Himself – to extract it from its transient, mortal shell and make it timeless.

My path to Man was crossed again and again by Frank Horvat’s words: life can either be preserved or lived. Thus, I imagined myself humbly adopting the role of a passive observer – a soulless machine, indifferently recording life’s inescapable reality. Unknowingly, I had put on gloves with which I could dissect people’s souls with surgical precision - all without getting my hands dirty. My so-called love for Man was reduced to the sterile curiosity of a pathoanatomist.

The light had gone out. I’d forgotten that I should have been watching over Man as one would a sick child: tenderly nursing it, loving it, unafraid of catching its fever. I should have stayed close to the fire, rather than shrinking away when I felt tired. When I got burnt.

Then one day I had a dream. It was Yordanovden and I was lying on my stomach, leaning over the banks of the Maritsa with my camera. I was there to shoot those brave, half-naked men, ready to hurl themselves into the freezing waters to catch the holy cross. The bank was slippery and I felt my body start to lose its grip. Somehow, I managed to slide my camera back just in time to protect it before I fell into the dark river. The priest had not yet finished his sermon but, caught off-guard by me plunging into the water, he hurriedly threw the cross into the river, with the men following at once.

The cross landed so close to me it was as though it had been thrown purposefully for my benefit. I reasoned with myself that this couldn’t be the case and did not reach out to catch it. Before any of the pursuing men could claim the cross for themselves, an apparent glitch in time reverted it back to the priest’s hands, as if he had never thrown it.

Once again, he launched it in my direction. Once again, I refused to take it. Another glitch and he was holding it again. On his third attempt, he threw the cross as far away from me as possible. This time, I rushed forward, mustering all my energy to propel myself through the water and past the others. The cross – wooden, with a bunch of geraniums tied around it – was being tossed gently upon the river’s surface by the waves. But, as I approached, it suddenly began sinking. Without hesitation, I dove into the muddy, greenish waters and, with the surface’s light trickling down around me, I grasped the cross.

Thus, with Epiphany Day came my own epiphany. The light was back. I had saved Man and my love for Him. No longer an indifferent spectator, I’d stepped into the waters along with him and was once again His equal, standing shoulder to shoulder with Him in the stream of life. In doing so, I’d saved myself. Now I understood: one needs to let go of obsession - give in to life as it is, get wet, absorb the heavy smell of sweat and flowers, taste its hardships - in order to love. In order to be eager to preserve life. To get attached to it. To not want to leave it for a long, long time. To fight for it – and for the Human Spirit.

The people I captured with my camera in the Rhodope Mountains don’t wear gloves. Their chapped hands have many blisters. Their sinews and veins map the winding hardships of their lives – roads trodden, suffered and endured. The roads they have lived. The roads to love.

Vana (Momchilovtsi, Bulgaria, 2008)Grandma Vana never had children and this photograph is the only proof of her existence. I heard the story of her life long after her death when this photograph was published on Instagram and some folks from her village recognized her.

It was a beautiful, starry night. I was by the Arda River, far from the sheltered tourist destinations, under the steep, hard-to-reach cliffs between Bryagovets and Madzharovo. That same day I had passed through numerous villages, abandoned and isolated, their interconnecting roads obliterated by nature and time. Nowadays, shepherds beat paths to the paved main roads to catch a glimpse of occasional cars driving by – proof that humanity still exists. Houses here are tall and empty, speechless guardians of a forgotten past, their broken windows looking out as their former inhabitants did many years ago. The mountains, once filled with echoes of their cries and laughter, have long been silent.

In my dream last night, I saw a stern, fierce Janizary riding straight towards me. His eyes flashed like lightning in the dark, sparkling with flames that had set alight the faith of hundreds. I knew his horse rode straight out of the Land of the Dead.

Unafraid, I spoke to him as if to a small child: “Come to me, I’m not afraid. Let me take a photograph of you!”

A group of women came down from the surrounding fields and gathered around me. Right behind them, countless other people moved slowly, quietly, closer and closer… Free of fear, their cruelties or differences no longer mattered. All they strove for was life. And they knew that I was the one who could give them this illusion. A portrait of being. A picture of another life.

I pressed the shutter.