The only way you could look different is if you made something yourself, which is why a lot of people used to sew.
Tina Boyadjieva grew up in a place and time defined by aggressive homogeneity [an excellent band name! — Ed.]. The Bulgarian, who now lives in New York City, spent essentially the first decade of her life under Communist rule. It was in this crucible of conformity that the artist began to quench her creative thirsts, sewing with her grandmother and making outfits that were different than the ones already in her wardrobe. These childhood memories laid the groundwork for Tina’s recently completed project that imposes the bright clothing the fashion photographer currently captures onto the dull constructions she once called home.
The editorial covers the first nine years of my life, basically up until the Berlin Wall fell. My first memories of fashion and creative expression were shaped by my upbringing. Kids literally had the same clothes, toys, bikes, and book bags, as there were no alternatives in stores.
We also didn’t have access to anything from non-communist countries, so there was only one foreign fashion magazine available to us: an East German publication called “Burda.” My grandmother and I would await the new issue every month, and I would spend hours looking at the pages and selecting designs, sometimes changing them myself. Then, we would buy the textiles and sew them up. I would dress up in my mom’s heels, find accessories from my grandmother’s box of necklaces and earrings, do a really bad job of putting lipstick on, and voila!
This project had been years in the making and, in line with the theme of the shoot itself, everything seemed to come together all at once. After receiving feedback on her overall body of work, Tina started this editorial in earnest by recruiting a team of Bulgarians local to her hometown of Sofia while simultaneously hoping none of them would “think [the project] was stupid.”
I had been thinking about this for two years. Then, this past December, I met a photo editor who told me my portfolio was lacking editorial creative work, and I knew it was time. I needed a strong team and people from home who wouldn’t think I was crazy because most people don’t see anything attractive in that style of architecture — it’s considered ugly and embarrassing.
I reached out to a photographer in Bulgaria who I found on Facebook. She put me in touch with an amazing makeup artist and stylist, both of whom jumped on the idea when I showed them my brief and location selections. The photographer then put me in touch with the booker at Ivet Fashion, who gave me a model for the shoot.
Instead of getting blowback for her unique idea, Tina was met with support by people who were eager to help bring her vision to fruition. Each member of the team, most of whom did not grow up saluting a hammer and sickle, contributed in practical ways and learned quite a bit about what their homeland was like before they were born.
The stylist did a great job of understanding my vision and finding looks that met my requirements for each location. The MUA was also fantastic — she did the hair as well — and was extremely helpful organizing the notes location by location. Finally, my assistant was great because he drives and knew where to park, which for me would have been impossible.
Since the team, aside from the assistant, were about a decade younger than me, none of them actually ever lived under Communist rule and had no idea what it was like growing up like that. It’s funny how only 10 years can create two different and completely separate generations.
In one day, smack dab in the middle of an Eastern European winter, Tina’s team hit an assortment of locations and completed the entire shoot. The photographer wanted the model, Victoria Dimitrova, to wear a different outfit for each spot, with every ensemble harkening back to the looks Tina and her grandma used as inspiration for their sewing sessions. Not only did the crew members cooperate, the weather did as well.
I wanted each location to have its own outfit inspired by a specific person or time period within the context of the 80s and 90s fashion my grandma and I designed with. The shoot was super improvised and risky because I had only a few days in Sofia, where the winter weather is unpredictable. I had no time for a backup shoot day but, luckily, the booker at the modeling agency was as flexible and kind as possible, and, honestly, we lucked out with everything.
The first place Tina’s squad visited was a children’s park and monument called Kambanite, which is decorated with bells that were donated by kids from other communist countries as part of a quadrennial event called the “Assembly of Peace.” The program was started by Lyudmila Jivkova, a dictator’s daughter who used the gathering as a way of exposing Bulgarian school children to different cultures and people. Victoria’s outfit pays homage to Lyudmila’s style, and the location recalls the time when Tina herself stood by the bells during Kambanite’s opening ceremony.
Lyudmila used to wear turbans as well as plain and square white two-piece suits, therefore the first look is along those lines.
During my childhood, there was absolutely no chance of meeting foreigners because only Russians and Cubans were allowed to come into Bulgaria and no one was allowed to travel abroad unless on assignment from the Communist party. Lyudmila was the only person in a leadership position who tried to support international interaction, arts, and creativity for kids.
She launched this “Assembly of Peace” for kids that happened every four years, and only the top students could participate. I had good grades, so I was invited to the last such assembly. I was astonished to see Asian people and black kids as well as foreign outfits and languages. It was one of the most important events of my childhood and I am forever grateful to this woman, who was later killed, mysteriously, for it.
I was actually in the opening ceremony of the park with the bells, and a journalist took a photo of me holding a white dove, which then got published in the paper. That’s why I wanted to have the model dressed Lyudmila Jivkova-style in the exact same spot where the journalist took my photo.
From there, Tina’s team traveled to her mostly unchanged primary school. In a world where everyone’s clothes and accessories were the same, school uniforms were no different, so the second outfit cribbed that look.
Since my memories revolve around marching and saluting communist leaders at manifestations, I wanted this to almost look like a uniform. Hence, we picked the long coat which blends with the color of the panel blocks but with the big buckle, which gives it a spin.
Spot three is as close to home as it gets for Tina, as it’s the actual block where she grew up. From an early age, it was clear that the photographer had a desire to add color to her otherwise drab surroundings. Her shots also convey a deep-seated yearning to explore the outside world — even as she was told she’d never get the chance. Shoot, she’d probably never have had the opportunity to leave if she wasn’t careful around that intimidatingly industrial “playground.”
The third location is the block where I lived until I was nine years old and the playground on it. The look was a Burda 90s style with a Coco Chanel twist. This block is literally my first memory of life, and I expressed my creativity by drawing with colorful crayons on the grey walls of our balcony, which infuriated my parents.
The car and boat were very important for me in particular, first because I used to pretend to drive them around the world — I was brought up being told I would never travel because we lived in a society and under a political regime that allowed no such freedoms — but also because that’s where I first developed my survival instincts.
If you look closely, they’re built in a very unsafe way with nothing but cement underneath. So, if your foot ever missed a bar while climbing, you could end up splitting your head on the ground. I saw this happen many times.
Another monument became the background for the fourth stop, a canvas for insubordinate artists whose pointed vandalization inspired Tina’s approach to capturing imagery there.
The fourth location was the monument of Russian Liberators, which was the place my schoolteacher took my class on the first day of school. The monument was never destroyed after Communism fell, but the actual statues have made the news on a number of occasions because graffiti artists painted the soldiers as various Western characters. Hence, I picked a very colorful outfit for this location.
The final spot took Tina’s team right into town, where the U.S. resident first began her journey toward bilingualism. Fittingly, the last stop pays tribute to the time in Tina’s life when she first realized she could do what she wanted to do and be who she wanted to be.
The last location was the cobblestone street in the old center of Sofia. I used to go to English and French classes close by, which educated me about the Wind of Change. I wanted the poses here to be very free and almost rebellious, so I picked a very free flowing dress and asked the model to jump and dance.
With personal projects, the reception can be hit or miss. Something so close to your own heart might barely register with others or, worse, could cause those same people to ridicule the work. Tina was a bit apprehensive upon releasing her shots into the wild, thinking that many Bulgarians didn’t want to look at the brutal edifices that serve as painful reminders of the country’s past. But the earnestness of the work — and the technical ability of the person who created it — led to extremely positive reception and got it picked up by a host of outlets, including Cosmopolitan Bulgaria.
I actually did not think anyone would appreciate this project. The panel blocks in Sofia, or anywhere in Eastern Europe, are considered the crappiest and ugliest apartment options. They are old, exactly the same, and often run down. The idea was a very personal expression and I actually thought most Bulgarians would find it ridiculous.
I never expected it to be published in Cosmopolitan Bulgaria only a week after we did the shoot. The stylist, Stanimira Stefanova, deserves all the credit for that because she was the one who presented the material to the editor, as they work together on regular basis.
Like any great artist, Tina has expertly translated some decidedly dark memories of childhood into the kind of personal expression that can inspire others to tell their own stories in their own ways. A world traveler, Tina has spent much of her life interacting with people who come from backgrounds much different than her own. But the way she’s forged connections with these individuals is by understanding the similarities between her early-life challenges and theirs.
When I travel internationally, often to third-world countries, I always spend time speaking, eating, and interacting with local people, especially kids. I remember watching foreigners and their things — the Western goods, Barbies, BMX bikes — from a distance and thinking ‘they are impossible to reach.’ I thought of myself as a second-grade human. I know that for many around the world, the thing that counts more than money is being acknowledged, being encouraged, and given hope. That’s what I always try to do; some of the most rewarding and touching moments with people from completely different worlds have been exactly that.
Sometimes, it feels like the universe is working against you at every turn, a sentiment Tina could’ve turned into a mantra during her childhood. Instead, she went the opposite route, doing as much as she possibly could to forge her own path in life and control her destiny. Maybe that’s why, on a wintry Sofia day, the powers that be decided that everything was going to work out for Tina’s personal yet relatable editorial project.
We did everything in one day and didn’t have problems with traffic, schedules, or people walking in the frames. So, honestly, it was just meant to be.
The project’s message is basically about how I’ve always lived my life. I refused to accept that life is hopeless. You never know what will happen even in the worst of situations and you have to be strong. If you don’t like your status quo, look for ways to change it.
Explore our global network of photographers on our Find Photographers page!