Jörg Brüggemann: Hello Pepa. In 2008 you photographed a very interesting, though hardly known subject in Albania: the "Sworn Virgins", living in the villages of the "Cursed Mountains". What is that all about?
© Pepa Hristová/OSTKREUZ
Pepa Hristova: "Sworn Virgins" are women, who have sworn for a life-long virginity in order to fit into the role of men. This has nothing to do with transsexualism. Instead, it is about a rise in the hierarchy of the strictly patriarchal society in Albania; from there on they are classified as men. I was interested in the continuation of this ancient tradition for the preservation of the male domination in a country, which, belonging to Europe, is located no further than 1200 kilometres from the western educated world. Secondly I am very interested in the striking role change of these women, which also has a great impact on their psyche and physiognomy. Over the years their facial features hardens, their voice becomes deeper, outside the family they are not recognized as females anymore. Many of them were also saying that they have never experienced menstruation. They renounce every kind of sexuality for their entire life, which includes any kind of partnership and marriage. I have great respect for these women and the life they have chosen. I am fascinated by the power of this inner attitude.
JB: How did you learn about this anachronistic form of society? And what obstacles did you have, realising this project?
© Pepa Hristová/OSTKREUZ
PH: A friend in Bulgaria, who has a Ph.D. in Gender Studies, brought the "Sworn Virgins" to my attention in the early 2007. We began to inquire about this subject and found that even though there are some studies, the research in general had hardly addressed this phenomenon. The tradition was probably kept more or less a secret for the outside world for so long due to the communist regime until 1991, which separated the country from foreign influences. Only in the 1980s, the cultural anthropologist Antonia Young explored the mountains of northern Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro and confirmed the existence of these "man-women". Later on, some journalists exploited the poor, remote part of Albania, leaving scorched earth, by offering money to some of the woman without avail. Thus, some became very cautious in dealing with strangers. Yet with a lot of patience, compassion and understanding, I managed to gain their trust. I first only observed for at least one day before even touching my camera. That did not, however, make me miss out anything. On the contrary, it even helped me to get a more intimate insight into their life as men. I did not have the look of the sensation-seeking photojournalists. I sought a deeper understanding of this issue and wanted to try to understand the phenomenon from a more personal point of view. In my photographic work I consistently deal with issues of identity.
As a Bulgarian living in Germany, the topic of identity loss and social phenomena, which are beyond the Western European identity and values, are especially on my mind. In this respect, it all fits into this project and also fitted together very easily, because it was so personal. The only obstacles were in my head, because I wanted to understand their feeling of being powerful, their attitude and especially the consistency of these women, living years and years with this acquired identity. For this reason, I try to grasp these values as a means of enriching my Western European understanding, instead of an anachronistic point of view.
JB: Why did you choose to integrate pictures into this story, which you did not take yourself? These pictures are from the family albums of the portrayed "Sworn Virgins" and partly present them as women, through which their development and change over the years becomes visible.
© Pepa Hristová/OSTKREUZ
PH: I chose to include these old photographs from their family albums, which I had originally only taken for myself, after reviewing all of my photographs. From the very beginning these pictures were an important part of my personal sketches of the research. Since this tradition is slowly disappearing, most of the "Sworn Virgins" are already more than 45 years old. I really wanted to know what they looked like throughout the years. I am also fascinated by family albums, because they tell about a person from a very emotional perspective.
Later, I cut out single elements from these old pictures. I focused on different aspects of each man-woman - for example only the face or only pictures with other women and so on. When looking through some of the negatives one of the "Sworn Virgins" gave me, I even found a picture of her in the wedding dress of a friend, who had persuaded Sanje to secretly try it on. What a great picture - even only as a thought! In my photographs I try to concentrate on the emotions of those portrayed, just how I personally see them. This includes such old pictures from family albums for example, because they enforce exactly this emotional mood, which I am trying to depict. The photographic form, which I am trying to achieve, is open, complex and defies conventional categorization.