Alternative Facts: When Photographers Rewrite History

Alternative Facts: When Photographers Rewrite History

As photographers, we have a responsibility not to misrepresent the history and culture of our subjects. An exchange on Instagram gave me a stark reminder of how easily this responsibility is forgotten and abused, especially in the world of urban exploration.

A few days ago I reached out on Instagram to a fellow photographer to tell him that his description of a historic building was inaccurate. The photograph that prompted me to get in touch was of a snow-laden Buzludzha, the memorial house and monument of the Bulgarian Communist party, a surreal structure that stands atop a mountain in the Balkans. For years it has been a classic destination for urban explorers, despite the repeated efforts of authorities to prevent visitors from gaining entry. While living in Bulgaria, I could see this incredible building on the horizon from the window of my home, and I was fortunate enough to visit it at a time when gaining access didn't require forcing our way inside.

Alongside his photo of Buzludzha, the photographer had written the caption "Soviet UFO." "This is not Soviet!" I wrote in my comment, slightly annoyed that another self-proclaimed explorer had happily trekked all the way up a mountain to photograph the building but was being extremely lazy with his research. The photographer replied with a link to Wikipedia that did nothing to support his caption. My reply was not entirely diplomatic — I sent a quote from Buzludzha's architect, Georgi Stoilov: "This is not a Soviet monument." After this, I was immediately blocked and my comments deleted. I can appreciate that not everyone's historical knowledge of Eastern Europe is extensive, but if you are going to travel and photograph something, at least do some research.

Slightly annoyed, I dug a little further. On the photographer's website, I found a self-published book, available to preview, that compiled a few of his exploration projects, including his trip to Buzludzha. Darmon Richter, a historian who specializes in Bulgarian history, identified a few of the book's inaccuracies: "I looked at page one and I have some comments. The altitude is 1432 m, not 1441 m. The tower is 70 m, not 107 m. It was abandoned in 1997, not 1989. The [architect's] name is spelt 'Georgi Stoilov.' And no, it's not Soviet."

Richter told me not to get too sniffy, explaining that a lot of erroneous information regarding Buzludzha had been circulating on the internet — including Wikipedia — for several years, something he was working hard to correct. It's likely that the photographer had stumbled upon some inaccuracies in doing his research so perhaps I shouldn't be too critical, but it does raise questions as to how photographers record (and perhaps even change) history.

A superficial preoccupation with a monument's appearance can create problems, but, as I've written elsewhere, this can also be a good thing. Like many monuments, Bulzludzha was designed deliberately to seem otherworldly and to inspire a sense of awe. Criticizing someone for being captivated by its appearance is doing a disservice to the architect and the culture that created it; its aesthetics are a fundamental part of how it was intended to function as architecture. And, arguably, the fetishization of Buzludzha over the years is now helping to find a future for a structure that has always held an awkward place in Bulgarian culture.

That said, turning culturally distinctive architecture into clickbait can come at a cost, and clumsily portraying a country's culture can be incredibly offensive, as well as politically charged. As a Bulgarian friend explained, "When a photographer is the one who misrepresents us, to me it's clear this is political arrogance rather than personal ignorance." At first, this may sound harsh, but, in a post-truth world, if your images are reaching thousands of people, you have a moral obligation to ensure that you are not disseminating alternative facts.

To any budding urban explorers — and photographers more broadly — I'd urge you not forget the importance of respecting the culture and history of what you discover. That's not to say that you shouldn't create striking, otherworldly images of bizarre locations from around the world, but please think twice before romanticizing them further by stripping them of their cultural context, and please take care to make sure you do your research properly. Scanning a Wikipedia page on the plane back home is not enough.

To learn more about Buzludzha, click here. Bulgaria is an incredible country with a rich and diverse history, and a trip to the Balkans should be on every photographer's bucket list.

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48 Comments

Kenneth Jordan's picture

To much has already been lost or changed in history. We really do need to preserve what's left. Integrity is in the most minute details.

Anonymous's picture

Timely and necessary information. What I find most distressing in this new "post-truth" age is not so much the spread of misinformation––that's nothing new unfortunately–– but the avoidance (if not downright hostility) toward accepting corrections. That this photographer blocked you rather than correct the inaccuracies is inexcusable.

Maybe it's a product of digital communication where we can't use social cues to understand intent, and genuine attempts to correct something are seen as attacks. Or maybe our culture's infatuation with "winning" (rather than being accurate) has bred a subset of pompous, stubborn buffoons.

Either way, those who jump onto Wikipedia and claim to be experts on something, then doggedly protect their right to "their opinion" rather than address facts, do our culture, our future, and themselves a massive disservice.

I'm sorry, what? A guy captioned a photo "Soviet UFO" and the part you took exception to was "Soviet"? Either the guy was having a bit of fun, in which case he was probably right to block some nutjob screaming at him about "historical accuracy", or he was serious, in which case I refer back to the original question... THAT'S the part you took exception to? And you thought you could reason with a guy regarding the historical nature of something he actually believes to be a UFO?

It sounds like he's not the only one deluding himself in a post-truth world. Did I miss something? Have I now fully entered the Twilight Zone? Did Fstoppers get hacked?

Anonymous's picture

Well, it was identified and not flying (although it is an object) so the captioner knew it wasn't a UFO. And Andy did mention that the architect purposely designed it to look otherworldly, so I understand that description. That he thought it was Soviet is historically inaccurate, however, so what exactly is wrong with correcting him?

I see this as the equivalent of someone pointing at the Statue of Liberty and saying "Look at that Canadian lady!" We can assume they don't think it's an actual 300ft tall green woman and know it's a statue of a woman, but we can still correct them for thinking it's in Canada.

You can, but you'd still be deluding yourself in thinking you're fighting the good fight and taking an actual stand against misinformation. Seriously, if you were going to write an article about the importance of moral obligations regarding facts, would that really be the example you'd go with? A guy making an offhanded comment about the nationality of a statue that's not even in the country he's referencing? I think your example is actually a perfect illustration of my point. Some things are just so absurd you need to let them go, A) because you're not going to educate a person who is that insistent on being clueless, and B) because it's far too irrelevant to be a good example of the dangers of alternative facts. Now if it had been printed on the cover of TIME with that statement, I'd think it would be worth an article. When it's just a comment on one dude's Instagram account? Mountain out of a molehill.

Anonymous's picture

"I think your example is actually a perfect illustration of my point. Some things are just so absurd you need to let them go."
Fair enough. I understand how you can see this as pointless, and you my be right. I don't how many times I've tried to correct someone who insisted on remaining clueless and thought afterward "why the hell am I doing this?" I wouldn't necessarily fault someone for trying, however.

"Seriously, if you were going to write an article about the importance of moral obligations regarding facts, would that really be the example you'd go with?"
Personally, no, this wouldn't be the example I'd go with because I'm not an expert in the subject, nor do I have a passion for 20th century Bulgarian history. I don't want to speak for the author here, but he has written pretty extensively on monuments and the region (he links to his work in the article). So it's obviously important to him.

"When it's just a comment on one dude's Instagram account?"
The photographer had published a book of the images as well, with other inaccuracies. So it's more than that. Granted, the author probably could have gone about the whole thing differently (which he does admit), but there was a lot of misinformation being spread around on a topic he cared about. I can understand his curtness.

Just to reiterate what I wrote above: I don't want the fact that this is an online conversation distort what I've wrote and make it sound like I'm being argumentative. I definitely get where you're coming from, but I also understand why the author would do what he did.

All fair points, I think, had "UFO" not appeared so prominently next to the word he took issue with. At that point, like I said, it's either a joke or the guy has bigger screws loose than mischaracterizing the national origin of a structure. I suppose I just wonder about the thought process of somebody who glosses straight past that part in order to engage in a serious discussion about something that clearly wasn't the most telling part of that description, and then write an article about it.

"Alongside his photo of Buzludzha, the photographer had written the caption "Soviet UFO." "This is not Soviet!" I wrote in my comment, slightly annoyed that another self-proclaimed explorer had happily trekked all the way up a mountain to photograph the building but was being extremely lazy with his research."

I mean, that has crazy written all over it. ;)

Anonymous's picture

"it's either a joke or the guy has bigger screws loose than mischaracterizing the national origin of a structure."
LOL

Where is the line between what is clearly satire and what is ignorant misleading? Or worse, intentional misleading?

The UFO part was, to me anyway, clearly on the satire side of the line. Only people with tinfoil hats would not get that it was satire. The Soviet part is however on the misleading side. I think most people would swallow the Soviet part in one gulp without looking back.

Satire must be intentional and such that it is clearly satire (and ideally communicating something in the process). Otherwise we are intentionally or ignorantly misleading people.

If it is monument of the Bulgarian Communist party, then it is more Soviet than UFO...

imagei _'s picture

Of course it is a soviet monument, it has the bloody star on it, doesn't it? Look at the history page you linked to -- there are red soviet flags with sickle and hammer all over the place during the opening ceremony. Bulgaria was a communist country controlled by the soviet union. Apart from being built in Russia can it get any more soviet?

Despite the unfortunate reality of those times one has to recognise the efforts of many who tried to do good, perhaps Stoilov spoke about his intentions when designing it when he says “It is completely free from that association.” but the fact is it has the star on it, it was built under the communist occupation therefore it is not free from that association.

Perhaps you take issue with the exact word? In the former soviet (sic!) block 'soviet', 'bolshevik', 'communist', 'socialist' and 'stalinist' all were words used to describe the same murderous regime and were an equally damning insult.

Andy Day's picture

"Apart from being built in Russia can it get any more soviet?" Er, yes. It could have been built in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus... 😂

imagei _'s picture

...which were part of the same country at the time, usually referred to simply as Russia at the time; I may have used more technically correct term USSR to spare you the laughs.

Daniel Medley's picture

I tend to agree with your take. Bulgaria was part of the Warsaw Pact/ Soviet Bloc; an extension of the Soviet Union. It was a satellite of the Soviet Union.

That's like saying France is a satellite of the USA just because USA created NATO in 1949. Both NATO and the Warsaw pact were military defense treaties. Bulgaria was a communist country but was never a soviet one. The term 'soviet' only applies to countries which were part of the USSR.

Daniel Medley's picture

During the Cold War, France kind of was a satellite of the USA. But your point is not correct because the Soviet Union was a totalitarian entity that forcibly imposed its will on its satellites. If Bulgaria had chosen to go against the USSR, it most likely would have been crushed, like Czech and Hungary.

Anonymous's picture

This is from The Calvert Journal article that is linked about:

"Western media is intent on labelling Buzludzha as “Soviet,” but locally it was viewed as an exercise in world architecture: an expression of Bulgaria’s new freedom from Soviet-style architectural formalism. The 550 square metres of interior mosaics may offer a sparkling celebration of communist ideology, but, crucially, Buzludzha celebrates Bulgarian, not Soviet, communism. “A Pantheon of Bulgaria,” Stoilov calls it. “This is not a Soviet monument,” he says. “It is completely free from that association.”

Supposedly the star on top is the logo of the Bulgarian Communist Party. None of this is my forte, so feel free to find evidence to the contrary. But the architect and the Bulgarian people do not see this as Soviet.

imagei _'s picture

I don't know enough about Bulgarian history to comment about how it is or was perceived but to me it sounds like distinguishing between different types of cancer. One may be less deadly than another but they are all a disease and have a common label for a reason.

It's like saying that a building constructed under the nazis was viewed as a symbol of a particular land. That may be but it doesn't make it any less associated with the nazis. It is pointless to argue which regime was worse but, sadly, they are part of our history and neither is a laughing matter. Thank you for a considerate reply.

Andy Day's picture

"I don't know enough about Bulgarian history to comment." And yet...

Anonymous's picture

I understand your opinion on communist regimes (one that I generally agree with you on) but the purpose here was historical accuracy, regardless of personal judgements. To further your example, we do differentiate between Vichy France and Nazi Germany, or Fascist Italy, for instance, not to make judgement calls on either governments, but to be cognizant of cultural and historical differences that defined them. I would argue (at least from the evidence posted here) that a similar differentiation should be made between Bulgarian Communism and Soviet Russia.

Also, if I had cancer I’d like to know if it were brain, lung, skin, etc. and if my doctor said “it doesn’t matter, it’s all cancer” I’d get a new doctor. :)

imagei _'s picture

My point was they are all a disease and neither is good. I'll stop here as I said what I felt was necessary and any further discussion would become more and more personal opinion, perhaps more suitable to argue about over a pint.

Anonymous's picture

"perhaps more suitable to argue about over a pint." As all good arguments are! :)

In the context of historical accuracy, it doesn't matter whether or not you feel that "they are all a disease and neither is good". What matters is accuracy.

The person calling the building a "Soviet UFO" had inaccurately described the building. Since the building was not constructed by the Soviet Union, but by the Bulgarian Communist regime, the statement was inaccurate.

Since many folks won't bother to read an encyclopedia or other source of accurate data, accurate descriptions matter. Simple as that. Arguing your subjective opinion in the context of matters of fact is unacceptable.

Motti Bembaron's picture

Nothing new there. This photographer might have done it as a results of ignorance but there are many working 'professionals' who would have no issue changing and skewing facts as a result of their ideology.

Although the world press and all its associates should thrive for objectiveness they are probably furthest from objectiveness than most.

jean pierre (pete) guaron's picture

I wouldn't worry too much about it, Andy. Ignorance has always been available in abundance, and it reflects on Instagram and other parties - not you. Since we can never get rid of them, we have to ignore them and move on. A problem is something you can only do one of two things with - solve it, or keep having it, and if you can't solve it, there's no point in wasting time worrying about it.

well said.
Another issue I have, not so relevant to this topic, is seeing "blog traveller" taking the amazing 10k likes pics while riding elephants and camels.
And how those animals are treated is pretty straightforward, beaten in front of you if they don't collaborate for the ride, you can see the abuse mark on them, and yet they have no problems to continue and fish likes with it

This article is in itself dishonest and an attempt to distort history and language.

Firstly, the term "Soviet" can be used in a multitude of ways. In this case it was arguably being used to refer to the PERIOD. And yes, the building was constructed when Russia was the USSR and Bulgaria was its satellite. The "Soviet UFO" that the author of the article so pompously objects to is entirely justifiable on these very fair grounds.

Secondly, the quote from the architect is not a statement of fact but of an ideology:

>>locally it was viewed as an exercise in world architecture: an expression of Bulgaria’s new freedom from Soviet-style architectural formalism. The 550 square metres of interior mosaics may offer a sparkling celebration of communist ideology, but, crucially, Buzludzha celebrates Bulgarian, not Soviet, communism. “A Pantheon of Bulgaria,” Stoilov calls it. “This is not a Soviet monument,” he says. “It is completely free from that association.”<<

No one is obliged to accept this - it's ***branding,*** not history. And in fact the monument would look completely at home next to it's Russian contemporaries, and most Bulgarians would laugh at the idea that the Bulgarian party ever had the sort of independence claimed in this statement from the Russians. (I almost married a former aide to the president of the country - so I think I probably know more about how Bulgarians think than the author.)

..You can certainly make an argument that the building is not Soviet (I think it would fail) but to ***assume*** that argument is dishonest. This article is entirely pompous and self-serving. Except where it is downright stupid - which it is when it accepts a politically-charged, self-serving statement from the architect as fact. Especially as that statement concerns something isn't actually factual but a question of viewpoint. And not only that but architect who was high in the favour of the Bulgarian Communist Party, which is a virtual guarantee that he lacks any close adherence to the truth...

And let's look at another way that the author mis-represented his social media feud:

>> Darmon Richter, a historian who specializes in Bulgarian history

Well, you COULD call Richter a historian - to the same extent you could me one. I.e. I've read a book or two on the subject. But I don't have a recognised research degree in the subject, which is what most people would assume - ie I don't have an qualifications to show that I have a reasonable standard of objective knowledge and competence. Neither, so far as I can tell, does Richter. In fact, he seems to be just a guy with a blog, who organises tours. Presenting him simply as "a historian" specialising in this area is misleading - most people will assume a Phd in a Bulgarian history.

...To be fair to Richter, he doesn't seem to call himself a historian! He refers to himself using descriptions like blogger, independent traveller, and "dark tourist". But of course saying that a blogger has agreed with you isn't nearly as ego-soothing after you've acquired a case of Teh Internet Butt Hurt as claiming that a historian has...

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