FANTAST IN FOCUS: DARMON RICHTER
In 2011, Darmon Richter stumbled upon some of Bulgaria’s fading national treasures. Amazed and intrigued at the Communist-era buildings and colossi across the country, Darmon set out to scour the land and describe the history behind the architecture in his photographs and essays. Now, in 2015, Darmon is just putting the finishing touches on his book, which covers a number of subjects related to his urban exploring site, The Bohemian Blog. As if finishing a book weren’t enough, Darmon has also recently decided to pursue a PhD in Dark Tourism. I caught up with Darmon in London, just before he shot off to yet another adventure.
The Custodian: What first brought you to Bulgaria?
Darmon: I was ready for a change. I’m from Oxford originally. I finished up with my degree in psychology and after a long period in full-time education and work, I saw a part-time writing job in Bulgaria. At first it was a three-month contract but I liked it, liked the place… so I extended the contract to six months, which eventually became a year. After that I started working freelance, I built up connections, and I got comfortable. I’ve been mostly based in Varna for four years now – and it’s so easy to get anywhere. I can get to the Balkans by bus, I can take a direct train to Moscow, or I can be in Istanbul in just six hours.
And that’s when I started seeing these breathtaking communist-era monuments everywhere. As I found more of them, I started to realise that no matter how impressive these structures were individually, the truth is that they’re all just parts in one massive puzzle. They appear on mountains, in forests, in towns… and some of the more dramatic structures are utterly unique – large, bizarre objects without parallel anywhere in the world.
C: You know you’re treading in the footsteps of the ancient Thracians…
D: Yeah. And Varna’s been constantly inhabited for 5,000 years – I feel awestruck to be a part of that continuity.
C: How were these structures built?
D: The first time I wrote about these monuments, I claimed they were built by Communist ‘volunteers’… with an almost satirical emphasis on that word. With my Western upbringing, I guess it was hard to accept that words such as volunteer were accurate, when placed within the communist rhetoric. Over the last four years however, and in the course of writing a book on the subject, I’ve interviewed over a hundred Bulgarians – including one of the original architects, and several people involved in the building projects. I’ve now come to the realisation that these people really did volunteer their labour much of the time. They had their lives subsidised by the state, so they didn’t have to worry about going hungry. They’d do things just for pride… they knew they were building something special, attaching their names to projects that would be remembered… and here we are, 50 years later and 2000 miles away, discussing their work.
One of the builders I spoke to said he’d spent a month on the construction project during a summer break from university. These students weren’t paid, but they had free food, free accommodation, all they could drink, and so on. After the first month was up, they were offered a place on a construction project in Poland for a second month – a similar sort of deal, but with the added benefit of seeing a new country. Things were very different back then, and people were motivated by factors other than money.
C: What was your first urban exploring experience?
D: I only really came across the term “urban exploration” a few years ago… but I’ve been doing things that would fit that definition for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been fascinated by space, and particularly with the spaces I’m not meant to be in. For example, the first storm drain I explored was when I was around eight years old – I was camping in the woods with the Cub Scouts, found a large brick drain entrance, and I just wandered in on my own.
C: It was a young Indiana Jones moment! What relationship do you see with what your photojournalism and the Dark Tourism movement?
D: I think it’s all interlinked. Some of the most significant places I’ve visited, those with the richest narratives, are the sites that blend elements of urban exploration and dark tourism. Take Chernobyl, for instance. I don’t like to consider history as something that is dried up and finished – but rather a current that one is free to dive into. I gain the greatest intellectual reward from visiting places where I can choose my own path, explore at leisure, while immersing myself in the site’s narrative. In that way, what I do will often blend elements of urban exploration, dark tourism and photojournalism into one form of spatial interaction.
C: What’s the most dangerous place you’ve ever visited? You’ve been to North Korea haven’t you?
D: I’d say London. Just kidding. But North Korea has to be about the safest place I’ve ever been. The last thing they want for their tourism industry is international controversy. They need that tourism money, and so they lay on a safe and welcoming experience. It’s so… sanitised. The only danger I could see, is if a war broke out while you were there.
I was there in April 2013 during the so-called “2013 Korean Crisis“. The DPRK were testing missile launch systems, and for a little while things were very tense between Korea, Japan and the US. On the ground though, you would never have guessed these things were going on. Provided visitors respect the local rules, it’s one of the safest and most controlled tourism experiences you could imagine.
C: I read before that you’ve done tours or you’ve visited an abandoned US airbase in Oxfordshire, and you’ve even been to the river Effra beneath London. What do you think about the idea of bringing ‘lost’ aspects of local geography and culture to back to life? They aren’t like North Korea, they’re underneath our feet.
D: There are some things which are lost that have never been in the public domain – military bases, for instance. While there’s a lot of satisfaction in documenting these places, and, through my images allowing the public to take a look inside, I feel even more strongly about lost geography. The now-subterranean River Effra is a great example. It was a very important waterway for the Celts, and really, it belongs to all of us. Today it flows through Victorian-era tunnels beneath London, built at the expense of the British taxpayer, and it brings me a great satisfaction to explore and photograph something like that – reminding people of the living geography of this country, that spreads out like veins beneath our urban developments.
But I also get a great deal of satisfaction from reconnecting people with their own, personal past. Not so long ago I took pictures inside a derelict circus building in Moldova – a vast, Soviet-era brutalist construction. When I posted the photos, they were picked up by a Moldovan newspaper and I received so many messages explaining how the images had triggered memories, reminded people of their own personal experiences. I thrive on that—that sense of living memory.
C: You’ve done a lot of photography, a lot of writing, a lot exploring, and now you’re going back into academia. How did that happen?
D: It felt like the natural direction. I’m already studying this concept of dark tourism in quite some depth. In recent years I have spent such a lot of time reading up the subject, I’m exploring so many fascinating locations, that the idea of directing these efforts into a PhD suddenly made a lot of sense.
I’m very interested in the way different cultures behave around sites associated with a difficult heritage. I feel that these sorts of histories can often feel quite dry without the phenomenological aspect surrounding it. This more immersive experience serves not only to reinforce the message, but also, often to provide channels for grieving or reconciliation. I simply want to keep examining those interactions on a deeper level, and that interest has, quite naturally, led me back into academia.
C: You also have some good news coming out as well. Your book is going to be released very soon!
D: Yes – it’s nearly ready! The book will be called Eternal Glory, and it’s a record of more than a hundred communist-era monuments built across Bulgaria… told through images, and interviews with the people who built them or lived in their shadow.
I’m a perfectionist, though. The project keeps growing. Even last week I found ten more monuments that I’d never heard of, located off along back roads in the mountains.
The book will also include a few of my own experiences along the way – I’ve been attacked in the course of hunting for these places, I’ve slept in abandoned buildings, and I’ve been rescued by the emergency services – but while these little adventures help to bind the collection together, I really hope that the monuments will speak for themselves. I’m not adding my opinions, but rather just a narrative. The loudest voice here, I hope, will be the voice of the Bulgarian people: speaking out about their own history, through a medium that has been traditionally dominated by Western European voices.
For more on Darmon Richter’s exploration experiences and upcoming tours, take a look at The Bohemian Blog webpage.