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.