Photography: Vesselina Nikolaeva

"Coming of  Age in an Adolescent Society"
Museo Muncipal de Arte Contemporáneo de Madrid
June -July 2007

So how are things in Bulgaria these days? Not all that great, I guess, if we are to go by the teenage subjects of photographs taken by Vesselina Nikolaeva. They have just graduated from an elite high school in the capital, Sofia, where they had their little heads filled with all they supposedly need to know for that moment in time, now at hand, when the curtain goes up on Act II of what will be the rest of their lives and days. Funny, though, it doesn't look like they're too thrilled by the prospect.

So far, okay. This could be anywhere. A cross-section of affluent adolescents clearing out their desks in a deserted classroom, or preening for the senior prom. Easy to recognize sub-species like nerds and jocks, sluts and barbies, social climbers and social outcasts. All are being conveyed over the threshold of adulthood with the well-worn rites of passage: getting dressed up for the big dance, getting smashed at the graduation party, enjoying goodbye gropes at somebody's house where the parents have obligingly made themselves scarce.   

But the kids aren't all right. They are seventeen years old, which means they were born the same year their country put an end to one of  Eastern Europe's Looney Tune-class Communist dictatorships (the one that went in for murdering democratic dissidents with poison-tipped umbrellas) and dumped Fearless Leader who had ruled over them since the end of World War II.  The only reality their parents knew was everything that came before them; their only reality has nothing whatsoever in common with it. The state of mind and circumstantial dilemma that Nikolaeva brings to our attention is a problem foisted on them by history for which no one has any easy answers. "If the Old Generation was given identity by the political system, the New Generation is searching for one of its own," writes Nikolaeva in her introduction. "These fragile individuals have to transcend their material reality in order to find a passage from a world nonexistent to a world in the making."

Anywhere else on the planet, a bunch of pre-adults with well-to-do daddies in search of a) an identity b) a way to get people to stop calling them "fragile" c) a future or d) all of the above, would just be a tired cliché. Not here. These kids haven't even got a past. It was abolished the year they entered the world.

As to the photographs themselves, they are examples of the compelling power of straight-up documentary, in which the photographer lies in wait for and usually manages to bag the "telling moment". The camera is not used overtly as manipulating tool, except when the angle is slightly askew, suggesting that the world into which we  are given a privileged glance has gone out of kilter or awry. As well it might be said to be.


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