In December 2020 I found myself spending my first “Pandemic Christmas” in Bulgaria out of necessity to meet a few criteria necessary to travel onwards (via Istanbul) to the USA. I initially arrived in Sofia, Bulgaria with an open mind, without real plans or direction, but it didn’t take long for me to pick up a few options and ideas for how to invest my time in the city, and where the most photogenic spot to spend Christmas would be.
I learned that the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral would be hosting an early morning service, and that while many were expected to be dissuaded from attending due to the potential risk of crowds in an indoor space, it was still anticipated to attract a congregation. Even a small, intimate ceremony would be enough for me to consider it worth my while, so I made an effort to arrive half an hour before the service was due to begin – 9am.
My time in Sofia had been impacted by various pandemic-inspired restrictions, but most of these were lifted on the 20th, which allowed such gatherings to be possible. The streets were silent as I made my way from my hostel to the Cathedral, and on arrival I saw that as well as quite a group of worshippers, there was also a small contingent of press-photographers and videographers. I introduced myself to them, but their English wasn’t the best – although a few admired my Leica’s; always nice to know that some things are universal!
Stepping into the cathedral as the service started I was met with lovely acoustics, and low but very atmospheric light. The chandeliers were higher up and diffused so did not provide me with a lot to work with, but a few spotlights set up by the TV crews proved a bit more useful. I was shooting mostly on Tri-X, which was an accident as I thought I’d picked up T-Max (not the first time I’ve made this mistake, once again a win for Ilford’s colour coded cassettes), and used 50mm (Zeiss) and 35mm (7Artisans) lenses, although switched out to 90mm towards the end.
I remember this following frame very clearly, although it felt much better in person that what I actually recorded onto the negative – I saw the potential through the viewfinder, but reacted slow as I was composing through one of the candle stands, which can be seen in the left foreground of the frame. Technical failure aside, I think the combination of the face shield, and the memorial candles lit for the dead remain a strong semiotic pairing.
The light was interesting to work in, and the spotlights offered some great effects as they came through the perspex of anyone wearing a face shield. I liked this man who wore one over just his lower-face, and shot a couple of frames from different distances. This one has a bit more of the crowd as foreground, but the version of this I ended up publishing in print is a bit more minimalist, and uses the lights above him as more of a halo dancing above his head.
After the service the priests set up for the Eucharist, and a long line of people began to queue up – some to receive communion, others for blessings, and some to place candles at some of the other alters. I didn’t stay long at the communion queue, the sight of all the congregants sharing a spoon to drink the wine was oddly unsettling, and even a little sinister in the middle of a pandemic – I’m not one to share cutlery even before this global health emergency!
I liked the candles, both aesthetically and for what they symbolised, so made an effort to capture a few more images featuring those as they were held by members of the crowd waiting to place them in the holders.
There is a glow to some of these images as the contrast was high, and all rolls from this trip were stand developed, which meant there was slight bleed between areas of developed/yet-to-develop negative. I think this is some of the most pronounced “stand dev glow” I’ve encountered, but I don’t think it’s the worst aesthetic.
This Christmas service was a lovely way to round off my trip, and I’m glad I spent my morning there. I’ve produced a 100 page zine which contains photographs from the fourteen rolls I shot during my two week stay. You can find it currently available for pre-order at a reduced rate on my website. None of the images in this article feature in the publication, you won’t find those images online for a long time, if ever!