This Week In Photography Books: Pepa Hristova

by Jonathan Blaustein

The French have laws to protect their culture. Films. Cheese. What have you. It’s embedded in the legal code; a bulwark against rampant McDonaldStarbuckWalmartization.

Similarly, the Romans insist a good tomato sauce can include garlic or onions. But not both. Try to mess with a traditional recipe there and you’ll be met with either shock and horror, or anger and gesticulation. It’s not the done thing, messing with their bucatini all’amatriciana.

It’s these little, idiosyncratic elements of human existence that differentiate one society from another. Culturally speaking. We all need food, water, shelter, family, and a way to provide for ourselves. These are non-negotiable elements of human existence.

On the big stuff, almost all human societies have come to an agreement. A roof over you head is better than a cave. Toilets are preferable to outhouses. Cell phones are better than smoke signals. And guns and ammo are more efficient than bows and arrows.

Yet in some places, black is a funerary color, while elsewhere it’s white. Which is the proper bridal color at weddings in some places, while elsewhere it’s red. Rotten shark meat is a delicacy in Iceland, but you couldn’t get me to eat it for $50. I’ll tell you that much.

These details have fascinated photographers for as long as we’ve used cameras. Why? Because we’re observers, and the camera is the ultimate recording device.

With respect to the weird stuff, in the 21st Century, if something eccentric is going on in any part of the world, the global photo community has heard about it. Last summer, for instance, I saw a project about a small community in the Albanian mountains. There, unlike everywhere else, (except Northampton, MA,) there is a group of women who live their lives as men. They take an oath, swear to be asexual, and are left to walk the earth as if they were Adam rather than Eve.

I mentioned the project to one of my editors, who told me he’d seen photos of the sub-culture before. Everyone knows about it already, it was suggested. So I was not exactly shocked when I picked up “Sworn Virgins,” a new book by Pepa Hristova, published by Kehrer Verlag, which presents a thorough portrait-based examination of the women/men. (The narrative is introduced by a set of establishment shots with a serious cinematic bent.)

I’m not sure you’ve seen this world before, though, and the book is very well put together, so I thought I’d share it with you today. To be clear, I’m not suggesting the artist is derivative; rather that it’s just really hard to find something new to observe these days.

What most interested me about the book was its seeming anonymity. The title and artist’s name are incised into the spine, but were not legible. And there is no title page, or authorial information in the front of the book at all. So it wasn’t until I scoured the end credits that I even found the artist’s name.

Lacking that knowledge, I was left with only the story to parse. The book is divided into segments that are separated by a few pages of small, pink paper. Each contains the subject’s name, and a brief bit of info about each of them. (Great use of a paper change to keep the viewer interested.)

You’ll be enchanted by the weathered lines in each woman’s face, and scratch your head in wonder at the veracity of their biological sexuality. A woman? Really? Can it be?

Or maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll just think they’re sequestered lesbians living in a world that created a convoluted way of explaining human sexuality. Further text suggests that the tradition evolved out of a dearth of men, as so may Albanians died at the hands of violent vendettas. (Albanians being to Italians, gangster wise, what Russians are to Jews.)

OK. You get the point. This book will provide a window into one more way of understanding the absurdity of the human condition. Is it for you? I don’t know. I guess that depends upon what your definition of is is.

Bottom Line: A well-made book that explores Albanian transvestites

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Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.

Jonathan Blaustein

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