“Today I’ll be entering Afghanistan” writes, at a certain point, about her book, Monika Bulaj. By now we know pretty well what the verb “enter” means from her lips. When we get to such words, we have already gone through a part of Tajikistan with her. We have been in the landscape, among the people, in their narratives, within their faith, their destiny.
A Polish reporter, writer and photographer, Monika Bulaj – who has been living in Italy for years – in her second mother country is considered a young lady somehow endowed with the masterly touch. A master of the gaze, of the way we observe the world. And even of truth, since before getting to know with one’s own eyes, one needs to do that with one’s legs. Monika Bulaj walks over the land she wants to get to know as a first-hand experience. With her hands, with the soles of her feet. She hurts herself. Rather than speak, she listens. She asks no questions. She waits for someone to say something about themeselves. That is why the knowledge, not forced, garnered from her encounters, is necessary, and flows from experience, not compelled by the situation. Mature enough to be narrated.
When Monika Bulaj is close, she inspires courage, uncomprimisingly, in several countries at the same time. With her narration she grasps both the place and dimension where an encounter occurs. Space and time similar to that spot in Michelangelo’s Creation of Adamin the Sistine Chapelwhere between the Maker’s finger and Adam’s index a sparkle of life flows both ways at the very moment of divinity’s and humanity’s birth. Nur is utterly a prayer book. Someone would say on life in Afghanistan. And absolutely the same thing when the extreme concentration of man and God is released upon the observer’s concentration.
Nur is a book on a status that we have lost and on places that we do not know. Beautiful, poetical and thruthful at the same time, narrational- and larger than reality itself. A book that enables us to understand another civilization through the nostalgia that is inside us. In a world of intense emigrations there is no greater aspiration to be reached through an image and a word. In Monika Bulaj that aspiration is fulfilled.
Monika Bulaj travelled through places like Herat, Mazar-e-Sharif, Bamiyan, Jalalabad, Faisalabad, Balkha and Kunduz in 2009 and 2010, capturing the Hazara’s daily life. She photographed them against the stark and sometimes terrifying beauty that surrounds them: mountains and forests; bleak landscapes and trash-filled cities. There are women praying in Shia mosques; Hazara men with their beloved birds; the ancient Shia rituals performed during holy days. There is Hazara family life and the sorrow of the refugee camps; the blank, closed faces of the opium-addicted Hazara men near Herat; the ancient ceremonies of the dead. She follows the children at school; the families in shared taxis; the Hazara quarters of Kabul.
Her work reminds me of the late Eve Arnold, the first woman to join Magnum Photos in 1957, who also travelled alone into challenging territories. Arnold spent years tracing China, then a closed country, in the 1960s, going deep into remote areas by train and bus, solo except for her cameras. Bulaj’s granular depiction of the Hazara is as important as Arnold’s images of the forgotten people in Mongolia.
Bulaj chronicles the Hazara ancestors, their heroes, but also gets to the heart of their dilemma: they are still frequently targeted by those who wish to destroy the building of democracy in Afghanistan. On 22 April 2018, an Islamic State terrorist blew up a voting registration centre in a western Kabul neighbourhood predominantly occupied by Hazara. About fifty-seven people, including children, were killed and more than a hundred were injured.
The Hazara are trying to become important forces in local elections and produce new leaders who can develop the practices of democracy and overcome the traditions of ethnic and tribal competition. Through Bulaj’s work, we see the Hazara – ancient, battered, but strong – emerging.
Janine di Giovanni, «Granta Magazine»
Monika is an extraordinary explorer of borders, the real borders that still part the so-called globalized world, whose frontiers have been transferred from the outer edge into its heart. Monika is not born out of photography but of the word, and her philology, theatre, writing, pictures show it. Most probably only Monika – a woman, a woman of word and words – could wander across such a picturesque country (yes, a country obliged to be such just as war has become picturesque). Only she could listen to its different and subdued languages, always with an emotional map of the countries she has wandered across from insurmountable and invisible borders, slaughtered by brutal and vicious wars. These wars are waged by people against people, men against women, grownups against children, believers against unfaithful, and believers against believers…The Caravaggios and Vermeers appearing here and there are not upsetting at all: they are the pictorial antidote to picturesque, to the fake realism of Wpp photographs. It is Monika’s paradoxical grimace to “style”, a kind of warning to those people who see only brush-strokes of light in her photographs. Most probably the work Monika shows us here – just as the extraordinary work she previously made about the East of Europe – is the most “political” work on contemporary times I have happened to admire since long.
Michele Smargiassi, «La Repubblica»
Awarded for the first time to a woman. The prize was given for her work as a photographer, reporter and documentary-maker which sheds lights on humanity living in the most hidden yet most evident boundaries on earth, for showing war through its consequences, for investigating mankind’s soul, our eagerness for religiosity, tenderness and dignity. Monika Bulaj makes the invisible visible by exploring people’s soul, by uniting humanity in an image.
National Non Violence Award 2014
If ‘courage’ means chasing after horrors and atrocities while huddled in the belly of armoured vehicles dressed in camouflage suits and bulletproof vests, and perhaps also placing other people in harm’s way (interpreters, drivers, stringers, interviewees) in order to ‘get the story’, then these images have little to do with courage.
But if ‘courage’ instead means entering areas which even heavily armed soldiers avoid, if it means traveling on one’s own, far from the ‘embedded’ troupes, and assuming risks for oneself alone, if it means sharing the customs, food and means of transport of the local population, then MB has courage to burn. A courage which enables her to repudiate the stereotypes so dear to media editing rooms, in order to provide a vision of reality that does not merely reconfirm the eternal conflict between ‘us and them’, and which thus disorients, and forces us to look at things anew. A courage which prefers to seek out the ‘very least of men’ and the bottom rung of humanity, in order to record their words, which otherwise would go unheard.
I personally have traveled with MB on the frontiers of Eastern Europe and in the streets of the Holy Land, and thus know her way of working firsthand. I also know her work in equatorial and Saharan Africa, Egypt and the Horn of Africa, her reportages on the Christians and Muslims of Ethiopia, on the Caucasus, Iran and the Balkans, and her most recent excursions into the sketchiest areas of Haiti, in order to witness the voudou rites. However, in my view, it is her work in Afghanistan – a country which she knows extremely well, and where she has traveled in all seasons and regions, from the plains to the most impervious mountain peaks – which best reveals her ability to capture and present a given reality. A body of work which is doubly admirable, as it does not merely illustrate someone else’s article, but is the visual counterpart to her own texts and narration. And for which she thus assumes full responsibility.
This freelance mother of three, armed only with a Leica concealed under a burqa, has clocked countless miles on foot, or on horseback and yak, traveling roads where no woman is ever seen. Her method consists in carefully mixing and calibrating an assumed persona with respect, empathy with audacity. A method which has proved remarkably effective, and has enabled her to pass through Taleban checkpoints in order to penetrate tribal territories (such as the Valley of the Five Rivers) where not even the Red Army or NATO forces dared enter on the ground.
MB has never felt the need to certify her own courage, but these images of an unknown Afghanistan, by turns cruel or incredibly moving and tender, confirm her ability to enter on tiptoes into the most intimate reaches of areas prohibited to outsiders, and especially to women.
MB’s gaze is free of any voyeurism. She fixes her lens with respect and compassion upon human beings in a state of suffering, exalting their nobility and beauty even in places where horror predominates. She does not violate these places, but becomes a part of them, which perhaps explains why she so often succeeds in reaching people and places inaccessible or unknown to the professional hunter of ‘scoops’. Her uncanny talent for finding acceptance can perhaps best be seen in the an appeal to protect her which a sheikh from Kabul issued after meeting her, against whoever wished to do her harm.
Paolo Rumiz, «La Repubblica»
One of the most respected photographers and documentary makers in the world, Monika Bulaj, polyglot and tireless traveller, has been criss-crossing the roads of Western Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East for years. She journeys in search of faces, people, landscapes, stories and meanings.
She travels, constantly unearthing, discovering, where others would not dare. As Monika Bulaj approaches the wonderful world of Afghanistan there emerges a detachment between the attentive observer and the involvement of anyone sharing the common human condition. Her photos are anything but impartial; they belong to a world that her magic, for a few hours, makes our own.
Enzo Bianchi, «La Stampa»
In this world of asymmetric conflicts, the only hard borders are those which pull apart visible and invisible. For sure Monika Bulaj’s decision to call “The Other Afghanistan” the result (on display at Palazzo Ducale in Venice until October 1st) of her two years spent behind her Leica lens in that country – the most carefully observed and the least seen in geopolitics – is challenging. There is only one country called Afghanistan, of course, but it is not the one told us by war reports.
In Monika Bulaj’s photographs the war is invisible, and yet is all over the place. It is encysted and endemic in each private and public accomplishment, in each activity of this population who has made of war its mood, something that belongs to that place, a regulating standard of its practices.
Monika Bulaj – Polish by birth, living in Trieste, philologist, in love with theatre even before being in love with photography (and it’s very clear) – has travelled in different ways all across Afghanistan, from the Iranian to the Chinese borders, visiting the smallest villages, by bus, by taxi, on foot, and even on yak back, as half clandestine, sometimes wearing a burqa, after refusing to be embedded in the armies of the West. She has run the risk of walking in mined fields, and has thus taken advantage of being a woman among other women (accepted where men cannot get in), and guest among men (someone to be taken care of).
Visitors are welcome to enjoy looking for some references to classical painting – from Caravaggio to Rembrandt to Vermeer – in the pictures by Monica Bulaj. Those who are familiar with her habit of exploring things, and especially with her research along the borders of Eastern Europe, already know that classical shapes are a code to her. Thanks to this code, she is able to overcome the problem of shapes and to get to the core of her research: to discover and to tell the uncountable precarious underworlds, the micro-universes made of cultures, feelings, languages, and religions that will survive until it will be possible amongst the ravines unreached yet by globalization.
In Afghanistan, as elsewhere, Monika Bulaj has been looking for what a wise man once called “the winners’ unspeakable”, in order to show it to “the losers’ doubt”.
“Afghanistan viewed by Monika Bulaj. Shots from a daily war”, Michele Smargiassi, «La Repubblica»
«Monika Bulaj’s journey in the spiritual lands of yiddishkeit and in the residual and re-born territories of Chassidism, accomplished over and over again in these times of ours, of atrocious dictatorship, of money and global coarseness, is almost a miracle. Her narrative unravels with marvelous and overwhelming human accents, just beyond the borders of the conformist skin of ours, lost and arrogant Westerns. After eighty years we find in the pages of “People of God” the “journalistic” pace and the literary passion of the great Joseph Roth of “Juden auf Wandershaft”, the mythical reportage that spoke about the Ostjudentum, living and throbbing in the frame of a heartbreaking and melancholic twilight, just on the border of its extinction. … As a rhabdomancer, Monika can catch in an image, in a word, the spiritual relentless energy that comes out from the “rest”, from the vital density of the few who survived the hurbn, the annihilation of all Jews perpetrated by the Nazis and cowardly accepted by Europe. The ecstatic, laic, and unrelenting fibrillation that one guesses in Bulaj’s performances, both shots and words, stems from a powerful energy, the dybbuk of Polish Hebraism made into ashes, which still possesses her.»
Moni Ovadia, excerpts from the introduction to the book “Genti di Dio”
«If you suspect that the ancient faith does not lie in the choked squares, the marble cathedrals or the great metropolis, but rather in the periphery, in the forgotten villages on the farthest borders of the empire, then you should visit the work of Monika Bulaj”.»
Paolo Rumiz, «La Repubblica», Rome
«In “People of God” the importance of the photographic and narrative re-visitation of Central and Eastern Europe in search of minor religions is first of all in the skill to communicate with fresh immediacy the tragic aspects of that history… and in the strength of the sensitive photographer and curious writer who finds in small details the true substance of any situation.»
Lorenzo Cremonesi, «Il Corriere della Sera», Milan
«Les photos de Monika Bulaj ont l’odeur de la terre humide, de l’encens sacré, elles transmettent la lueur des cierges, reflètent la clarté du ciel de la Pannonie. Et aujourdhui Monika s’affirme dans le monde de la photo artistique.»..
Gauillame Prebois, «Le Soir», Bruxelles
«These faces remind us of Andrej Tarkovskij’s movies or Caravaggio’s paintings. Young and old men of these regions wear a blanket of light. In their eyes a sparkle of nostalgic desire still glitters, despite the hardness of their lives. These men are looking for something, and they probably acknowledged the photographer as one of them. They are men of desire and knowledge, they keep secrets, they sing effusively the joys of life, and in their quest to go beyond the religious borders they look a bit as “God’s folly”. Monika Bulaj not only went looking for them, but has also shown them to us. Whoever watches her photographs, will wonder for sure how long this rooted and deep devotion is going to last, and how long these small people of God will live.»
Annette Krauss, «Donaukurier», Munich
«Monika Bulaj is a “light hunter”. Rather than being interested in the boundaries among different cultures, she is focused on the spaces where what was impossible to blend has actually blended. Hers are simply provocations to those who believe in solid and established truths. She thinks that respect means to work without flash, because she is looking for the light, even when there is only shadow, and the details and outlines are blurred. This is how she creates her images that suggest action and motion.»
Christiane Schlotzer, «Suddeutsche Zeitung», Munich
«Monika Bulaj’s thirteen travel reports are reflections of the same light… Yet, what strikes us the most, are the expressions and gestures of everyday life, the universality of extraordinary and very unusual traditions at first sight, the richness of humanity shining through landscapes, persons, and tales. What’s more, the reflections of that light keep shining all the time, in spite of the abyss of evil: a photogram, a single word can accomplish the Bible commandment of memory, can re-present what has never passed away because it belongs to the future of the human kind itself.»
Father Enzo Bianchi, «La Stampa», Turin
«The book “People of God” is an atlas of differences, woven with different tales. The photographic gallery is a story in the story, made of faces, expressions, flashes, landscapes, interiors, that speak of the technical eclecticism of photography and of its research, which aims at offering the visual perception of richness and astonishment that are part of each diversity, especially today, when so many people take into account the ethnic origin along with the cultural and religious differences, and show growing suspects, if not clear hostility.»
Pietro Spirito, «Il Piccolo», Trieste
«Patience and impatience, a meditative persistence, and sometimes a very paced rhythm. In some of her photographs a sort of indetermination prevails and underlies passion and restlessness, for instance when the latter are chosen as reasons to dance and to play. There is nothing still here, nothing nostalgic. Everything is always on the go. Isn’t disappearance a kind of motion as well?»
Carl-Wilhelm Macke, «Zur Debatte», Munich
«Her work si an important opportunity to understand that we are not the only Europeans, there are also cultural and religious minorities that for decades the wall that divided east from west until 1989 prevented us from knowing.».
Vittorio Bonanni, «Liberazione», Rome
«The light, all interior, explodes in a sequence of midnight blue, red or golden yellow. The faces – aged nuns chanting litanies, young women carrying food to the funeral procession, brides showing a sacred icon in order to be accepted into the community – express amazement or diffidence. Bulaj’s lens rediscovers the apocalyptic fervour that contaminated north-eastern Poland in the early decades of the last century and transposes it in the wheaten colours and the light that accelerates the race of the ecstatic barefoot women through the ripened grain»..
Geraldina Colotti, «Alias/Il Manifesto», Rome
«You, who are so lucky to enjoy and admire these photos let yourselves be carried away by these journeys between darkness and light».
Lanfranco Colombo, Galleria Diaframma, Milan
«If justice belonged to this world, “People of God” would be a textbook in every school of the world. Thanks to a moving and elegant writing style, and to dozens and dozens of photographs, this book confirms how people of different ethnic origin, nationality, and religion can and do live together. … The faces worn by time, endless and without a beginning, caught behind windows that look as if they have never been opened, behind dusty glass panels which, if broken, are never replaced; …. the villages lost in remote and distant regions, almost crystallized by ice and snow…»»
Alessandro Marrongiu, «Liberal», Turin
«Bulaj combines photography and writings; she blends them in a new form of communication even in her new language, Italian. Strong prose, imaginative, with a fantastic realism. She fills mountains of notebooks with microscopic observations. Inside yet another image».
Paolo Rumiz, «La Repubblica»