Asher Svidensky is one of those photographers whose photos you see once and remember for years. That’s why I was delighted to learn that he photographed the Kukeri, often described as one of the last pagan rituals in Europe.
For this photo project, Asher traveled to the village of Razlog in Bulgaria, photographing seedy costumes from Kukeri rituals. And as if the ritual itself wasn’t interesting enough – Asher’s story revolves around “Razlog’s Monstera girl who is a very unlikely star of this male-dominated tradition.
Asher is a freelance photographer specializing in fine art and documentary photography. In my opinion, he has a very distinctive style and he has a strong passion for mixing his photography with storytelling. In 2019, before the world changed, this passion brought him to Razlog, a remote village in western Bulgaria.
“I went there to develop my current photographic project on the theme of Successors of traditionswrites Asher. This series is about “the personal journeys of young individuals who will eventually become the ‘torchbearers’ of ancient cultures and traditions,” as Asher explains. One of these youngsters is a girl named Ivana.
What is Kukeri?
Kukeri is an ancient ritual still present in various Slavic countries, including mine. It’s something like a carnival and it has different names in Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia, etc. It is generally linked to the celebration of spring, the sun and fertility. When it comes to Christianity, Carnival takes place just before Great Lent, either at Easter or Christmas. As for the Bulgarian Kukeri, it takes place around New Year, just before Christmas Lent.
During Kukeri rituals, villagers cover their bodies in fur costumes and tie uniquely shaped bells to their belts and around their shoulders. They cover their faces with hand-made wooden masks (often two-sided) and paint. In this way, they “transform” into monsters (kukeri) who chase evil spirits from their fields. The “kukeri” are also believed to provide a good harvest, health and happiness to the village during the year.
As Asher writes, Kukeri is considered “one of the only pagan rituals practiced in Europe today”. of course, many other rituals may come to mind as you read this. There is the celebration of the summer solstice in Sweden or even Halloween. In fact, many “Christian” traditions are actually derived from ancient pagan rituals. Yet many of the rituals we know and practice today have either been entirely modernized or deeply tied to Christianity. As for Kukeri, he still retains much of his original form – although some things have changed. And this change is precisely where our little heroine, Ivana, comes into play.
Ivana, the Monster of Razlog
Like many ancient traditions, Kukeri was primarily practiced by men and women were prohibited from participating. However, what has made this tradition more modern is that women are now allowed to participate as well. “More and more young girls like Ivana have become interested in breaking social norms and actively joining their communities in Kukeri rituals,” Asher writes. “It created a unique new cultural shift that has been widely celebrated in recent years.”
Ivana is the only daughter of Radoslav and Elena. Asher spent time with the family and earned the daughter to admire her father. Apparently he loves it too:
“With a big smile, he proudly told me that as soon as she could walk, she was unstoppable. milk, and of course…legendary Kukeri ceremonies, so it was no surprise that Ivana would regularly join her father in the village’s annual Kukeri rituals, even having her own little monster costumes to show off.
While at Razlog, Asher documented the readjustment of Ivana’s original monster costume, as it became too small.
“Ivana and her father spent countless hours working together in the family’s old musky storage space. Diligently stripping down the various layers of leather palate and white hair and stitching them back together to ‘elegantly’ cover the newly added seams. Decorate each with a series of small bells to fit around Ivana’s waistband and shoulders. The sound and rhythm of these uniquely shaped bells are an iconic feature of Razlog Village’s version of the Kukeri Therefore, it takes a high level of precision and experience to correctly place the bells on Ivana’s body so that they produce that unique and distinctive sound.
A few weeks later, Ivana’s new and improved costume was ready: enlarged, decorated and washed. And it was time for Kukeri. “Disguised as gigantic white-haired monsters, groups of friends marched together through the streets of the village, alternately around the main square,” Asher describes.
“The elders stood on their porches, waving and waving at the passing groups of monsters. Friends met and greeted each other, forming larger and larger bands of monsters as they continued to roam the streets together. By midday, the village’s main square was packed with crowds of friends and strangers sharing food and Rakia (the local moonshine). Kukeri’s celebration brought families and neighbors together to celebrate together – a beautiful reunion of a big happy family of scary monsters.
Asher explains that little Ivana wasn’t the first girl in her village to wear a Kukeri costume. However, “her actions and the enthusiastic support of her parents encouraged many other families to make little monster costumes for their own daughters,” notes the photographer. Thanks to her distinctive character and strong devotion to the ritual, Ivana has even become a local celebrity over the years. And how could she not? She’s adorable, but so fierce and determined. In my opinion, children like that, with such support from their parents, can become anything they want.
This photo report tells us an interesting cultural story about one of the few pagan rituals that still persist in Europe, there is no doubt. In fact, I really enjoyed this part! However, it also tells us an important human story about love and family; determination and dedication; and preserve your cultural heritage and your ties to your community. And this is also how Asher describes it:
“As the celebrations unfolded in the village, I began to realize that the Kukeri rituals were not really about ancient druidic beliefs and the villagers’ war against evil spirits…This much-celebrated cultural event , which has survived for thousands of years, was about something much older and much purer than just tradition….it was all about community, family and strengthening the bonds of friendship.
Enjoy more great photos of Asher below and be sure to follow him on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube for more of his fantastic work.