Yambol, in southeastern Bulgaria, has been a hub for various folk traditions for many centuries. Nowadays, alongside Pernik in western Bulgaria, it is thought of as one of Bulgaria's capitals of Kukeri, or mummers. An annual folk festival takes place in downtown Yambol, usually at the end of February or beginning of March, with mummers not only from the surrounding villages but also from all parts of Bulgaria that retain the tradition arriving by busloads to participate in a three-day folk extravaganza of loud music and even louder clanking of mummers' bells. Since 2006, a photography exhibition has been a part of the festival with Vagabond, Bulgaria's English Magazine, awarding a special prize for an outstanding photographer who is interested in folk traditions in general and mummers in particular.
In 2019, the Vagabond Prize went to Russian Elena Golovanova. Elena Golovanova studied film criticism at the famous Moscow Film Institute but now works as an automotive journalist, who spends her spare time photographing various folk events in Russia. These include local Russian fests like Maslenitsa (autumn solstice), Yarilo (meeting the "young" sun), Perun Day (celebrating warriors) and of course the Russian Christmas.
Bulgarians usually consider mummers to be a purely Bulgarian invention and may be surprised to hear that mummers exist in many different cultures, from Ireland through Italy, Romania and all the way to Japan. With her pictures Elena Golovanova shows her vision of mummers in Russia, who are similar yet very different from their Balkan counterparts.
Folk traditions aside, what strikes about Elena Golovanova's photography is her exquisite skill in capturing the "unreal" reality of men and women dressed up as mythical and often scary creatures. Touching on the archetypal in Eurasian cultures, Golovanova creates images that both provoke and fascinate. Hers is a fairy-tale world of unusual narratives that tickle the imagination and encourage viewers to explore.
Elena Golovanova sometimes dresses up as a mummer herself. You can see her on the photo above.