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Prometheus with Love
Joshua St. Clair, NYU Florence student
La Pietra Dialogues
December 3, 2014

“Does it mean to wait or to go into the night without fear? [...] Does it mean to trust people, to follow them and to believe [...] to [show] the life in their hands, to give and to understand our security [...] in front of the insecurity in their life?”

 

Thursday night marked the end of La Pietra Dialogue’s official fall semester series. The dialogue was more than appropriate; it was a fitting conclusion to a semester of cultural immersion. Students crowded into the venue as they had done three months earlier—this time with the sun already long set and the sharp fall breeze biting at their heels as they crossed the Villa’s threshold, some of them for the last time that year. The room was hushed, the coats were off, and the lights were down when photojournalist Monika Bulaj began.

She spoke softly, immediately apologizing for her English—a barrier that became less and less apparent as her stories resonated with the audience. “What interests me a lot,” quietly began the photographer, “is the person—the human being—the focus of my attention, of my sensibility, of my kindness.” The individual is “the mirror of the invisible, the reflection of the invisible.” Though Bulaj can be seen as a photographer, her real aim is to capture something beyond the purely visual; she is interested in another element, an internal element, an image we all share at the deepest levels of our being: the human element.

It is in the spiritual lives of cultures and peoples that Bulaj finds an affinity. The explicit theme of her work is religion, the mystic traditions of Kabbalism, Sufism, Christianity, and other enclaves of mainstream faith. But her focus remains the “sacred” and its profound ability to “transcend borders.”

Bulaj’s inspiration traces its roots to one particular set of borders, the small cities populating Soviet Poland. “As a child I had a feeling of something that was much bigger than me,” the photographer reflected. She started walking, following the “constellation of the villages in the small, forgotten parts of Poland—trying to understand the beauty that was lost, the beauty that disappeared from the daily life.” Bulaj found herself drawn to the various Jewish communities of the region. The faith of such communities became a great “influence on my sensibilities and forced me to find an explanation, an answer,” she recalled, “but I was not sure what I was searching for.” All she knew was the profound feelings garnered from the spaces she inhabited and the people she encountered, spaces that “wanted to be alive in some way” and people who filled them with that very life.

“The photo is not important; it’s not my goal,” Bulaj clarified. “In reality, my goal is to meet people and to talk with them and spend time with them.” Art is an exercise in empathy. “To follow this means to dream and to sleep [where they sleep], to see their seeing—going inside their body.” And through her travels and the many nights spent with people from across the known world, the photographer began to see: “I discovered that the same images [...] reveal something very simple, like a substance, something very essential—the similitude of gestures, of the looks of people, of the emotions.” She began to explore these “different archetypes,” different reflections of the same universal form.

“I felt with these people this attention to the time, to the light, to the darkness, to the sacred,” Bulaj recounted. The sacred resides in the spiritual objects of faith, “the vocabulary of the human being.” But this vocabulary is also reflected through the human being itself, “the desire for the sacred passing through [the] body,” as well as through objects. In mystic traditions, the body is the vessel for spiritual transformation. Believers “give their body [...] as the biggest gift for God—as they dance and they sing,” explained the artist. The ritual transcends faith. “This marvelous expression of spirituality,” seeks a connection between the natural—the material, the elemental—and the incorporeal dimensions of the human form. “We can find the same movement in all traditions,” Bulaj expounded. “This sacred, invisible geography, topography, in each country crosses the borders. And the same attention to the life, to the love, and to [each other] I saw in the synagogue, I saw in the mosque, I saw in the church.” This is the aim of her photography: “To discover in these similar spaces bridges [...] that will now connect each other.”

The image of a man faded onto the screen behind the photographer. The man was standing along with a multitude of fellow worshipers in a dimly-lit Kabul mosque. They all faced the camera. “I was [standing] close to the sheik,” Bulaj reflected. “In front of me there was 200 people—men—only men. And all these men were crying. For only one reason: because one Christian stranger came to visit with respect. [...] And all of these people were looking to me—as you are looking to me—and asking me to show these images in Europe.” She paused, smiling. “What I am doing is like a postman: giving a letter from one country to another.” And it is in this exchange where Bulaj finds the meaning of her work: “This is for me the source of my greatest pleasure—not a sacrifice. So this photography is also in some way a consequence of my pleasure to be with a people and [...] to share with another people, like you, the gifts that the other people gave to me.”

Photography is an exchange. “Sometimes the photograph is a mirror in the darkness,” explained Bulaj, a mirror reflecting a hidden light. It is merely “the opening of a space to another.” There is one image in particular that Bulaj wanted to share with the audience. In many ways, this image represents the very nature of her artistic and individual endeavor.

In the Jewish tradition of Shabbat, candles are lit during the final moments of Friday night, signifying the dawn of creation’s final day as observed in the story of Genesis—the evening preceding the morning. Part of the ritual entails gazing at the light reflected onto the fingernail.

“The light cannot be seen directly from the source,” explained the photographer, but “only behind the reflection.” The nail becomes the mirror. But the mirror is also in the subject; it is in the eye of the Other. We need the Other, for just like the light of the candle, so too does the light of life reveal itself only through reflection. “The sacred we can see only in the reflection of another person [...] Only behind this kind of reflection in another human being,” Bulaj clarified, is the light revealed to us. And this light is not merely the radiance of a candle, but the warm glow of our shared humanity. We can understand ourselves, therefore, only through understanding each other. (“I” is only an “I” relative to a “you”).

This delicate image becomes a “metaphor of my work,” Bulaj explained, “to see the sacred in [another] person.” Individuals are the “mirrors of the invisible”—the invisible condition that connects each and every one of us. The photographer merely passes on this reflected light—bearing it like a fire thief to the corners of the world shrouded in the darkness of ignorance. “This light appears like a revelation,” Bulaj exclaimed. Through this light we gain knowledge; through it, we attain empathy.

As Bulaj concluded, one audience member inquired about the other dimension of human nature—not that of love, but of hate. How do you manage the hatred? she asked. Bulaj had mentioned the difficulties, speaking of a particular town in Kosovo. The space had appeared “like the paintings of Bruegel: so beautiful, full of gardens, full of plants and flowers, but it [was also] a very difficult place full of ugliness and full of very, very bad memories.” But “even in the much more difficult situations,” the photographer answered, “in the bottom of the desperation in a country like Afghanistan, I found [something] so important, so beautiful.” It is always “the people [who] teach me this,” she explained.

“When you say that something is beautiful,” continued Bulaj, “it’s not beautiful—this thing [itself]; it is your eyes that are beautiful [...] This is your attitude for reality.” The beauty is not in the things themselves but in the one who perceives them—the one who reflects that light so others may see in their own being that same incandescent human element. And as the photography of Monika Bulaj testifies, though we may be unable to change our circumstance, we can always change our perceptions.

 
 
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