For over a year, Bulgarian photographer Eugenia Maximova travelled across the Balkans photographing kitchens and documenting the eating habits of the nations that populate the peninsula. Through her extensive body of work, she depicts the kitchen as a common denominator for the whole region. The colorful, kitsch rooms immortalized by Maximova embody the spirit of working class homes of the Balkans and mirror an aspect of society that in many western countries is extinct.
Fine Dining Lovers spoke with the awarded documentary photographer to find out more about her photographic journey, as well as the self-published tome, Kitchen Stories from the Balkans, that summarizes her work.
How did you start photographing kitchens?
When I was selected to participate in a master class organized by World Press Photography where the topic was the Balkans, I started thinking of what would be the best theme. I came up with food because across the entire region we eat more or less the same things. From cheese to dolma or yoghurt, our staple dishes consist in variations of the very same recipes. Then I remembered that one of my earliest memories as a child was spending time in the kitchen with my grandmother. For families like ours, the kitchen was a really intimate space. Not pretentious at all. And I thought that it might be interesting to document all that.
What was the first kitchen that you photographed?
First came the kitchen of a neighbor in Ruse, the city where I grew up in Bulgaria. Just after I photographed the kitchen of my father. I picked two familiar spaces in order to test if my idea worked. Having to produce a consistent body of work in just one month, I travelled to Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Albania, Montenegro, Romania and Bosnia without ever stopping.
Many of your images look like set ups or compositions arranged specifically for the needs of the take. Moreover, we don't see any human figures in there. What is the process that you follow?
First of all, I believe that less information leads to a more intensive use of imagination. This is the first reason why I avoid including faces in my pictures. At the same time if we want to talk about this specific topic, in the Balkans people are suspicious, they ask questions and don't open their houses that easily. So I decided to stick with still life, not showing faces or defining locations in order to facilitate the process. Then in many of the kitchens that I photographed the shooting was prearranged so when I arrived, everything was cleaned up and made beautiful for me. What I did, was to look for the most interesting elements and compositions of each room.
What would you say that is the most characteristic element that differentiates all those kitchens from what you see in Western Europe?
The main difference is that in more developed countries kitchens are more modern and wealthy. In the Balkans instead, it’s all about survival - people don't throw away things, they use everything and find a place for every object. The most characteristic element that I encountered in my journey was the plastic tablecloth, decorated with the most unexpected themes from dogs and kittens to fruit and flowers. You cannot find anything similar in Vienna but in the Balkans they are particularly popular. For instance in my book I included 10 different recipes using the pictures of those tablecloths to illustrate them.
What is the most interesting situation that you have experienced during your journey across the Balkans?
The strongest experience that I had was in a tiny village in the mountains of Bulgaria. I went to meet a very old lady who despite her age was so physically strong. She was living alone, producing most of her own food in her small garden. And she was so happy to have me there as a guest. She welcomed me with a fresh pie and when I was about to leave she gave me gifts, little things that she had made with her hands, in that house. She was the most carefree and open person that I met in the whole journey.
How do the people who see your pictures react?
The first thing they say is that they remember those kitchens. Some people make comments as: “My grandmother had a kitchen like that.” For sure they see a connection to how certain areas of their countries looked like decades ago, when people earned and owned less. Even in the Balkans, those colorful rooms full of random objects and memorabilia are gradually disappearing because people try to renovate their houses with the little money that they have and get rid of the old stuff. The food though stays.