Vibrant Photographs Capturing Bulgaria’s Ancient Kukeri Tradition

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Generation/поколение Theo Cottle book Bulgaria Surva festiva
Generation/поколениеPhotography by Theo Cottle

In his debut photo book, Generation/поколение, photographer Theo Cottle documents this enthralling tradition

Every year in the dead of winter, hundreds of Bulgarians, dressed in elaborate and hairy costumes, flock to the city of Pernik for the Surva festival, one of Europe’s last remaining folk traditions. The practitioners, called ‘kukeri’, travel from every region of the country to celebrate the ritual and wear outfits passed down from generation to generation. These wild, enchanting costumes are made with swathes of goat hair and adorned with enormous metal bells to scare off evil spirits, while glitter and shiny objects are said to reflect the face of the devil.

In his debut photo book, Generation/поколение, photographer Theo Cottle documents this enthralling ancient tradition. The images, though originally intended to be taken during Surva in Pernik, capture the kukeri and their families in their homes in rural villages across Bulgaria. The festival, Cottle explains, was cancelled last-minute because of water shortages in the area – but this was a “blessing in disguise”. He used Instagram and word-of-mouth to locate subjects, who he found were proud to share their unique vision with him, pulling their costumes out of storage and donning them for a series of intimate, joyous portraits.

The images combine Cottle’s roots in documentary photography with his commercial work for brands such as LNCC, CP Company, and Adidas. Like his 2019 project, Neapolitan Youth, which featured effervescent snaps of local teenagers on the streets of Napoli, there’s something deeply upfront and authentic about Generation. Yet the attention to detail, the rich textures and use of movement, reveals an appreciation of fashion too. There’s tactile snaps of locals dancing in head-to-toe snaggy garms, their long hair moving like wigs in the wind to a backdrop of crisp blue sky and telephone wires. A brother and sister, dressed in monstrous get-up, tilt towards each other so their heads are touching. Their towering, exaggerated forms and slight height difference give them the appearance of fuzzy matryoshka dolls. Elsewhere, two children in matching puffer coats and traditional folk tunics stand in front of a white van, evoking the contrast between old and new customs.

“I want to present a real view of where these people are from, because they’re always photographed in nature, yet a lot of these people live in urban places,” explains Cottle, whose images eschew the voyeuristic lens associated with some aspects of traditional documentary photography, in favour of something warm and spontaneous. “These people are usually photographed in a very National Geographic way, which I don’t feel represents who the kukeri actually are,” he explains.

Generation, as the name suggests, highlights a tradition embraced that’s successfully been passed down through generations, while remaining true to itself. “There’s a purity to everyone I met, it hasn’t been thrown off by people using the internet” says Cottle. “There’s a beauty within that, which we’ve lost in the West. We’ve grown up in a different way.”

Generation/поколение is out now on Trip. Find out more here.