Kiril Mladenov

Exploring Nature in the Concrete Jungle: Kiril Mladenov’s Urban Eden Project

In this interview, I talk with the talented photographer Kiril Mladenov to discuss his inspiring project, ‘Urban Eden.’ Join us as we delve into the beauty of urban gardens and discover the stories behind Kiril’s background, influences, creative process, and captivating photographs.

Introduction and Background:

Me: Can you tell us a little about yourself and your journey as a photographer?

Kiril Mladenov: My name is Kiril Mladenov, and I have an addiction. No, not to substances. I’m addicted to photography. Doesn’t it sound like a diagnosis? Since I took up photography, I regularly use cameras and lenses. The act of taking photos and the moments I capture keep me alive. My professional occupation, however, is history. I teach ancient history, specializing in the history of the ancient Near East, especially the civilizations and cultures of ancient Mesopotamia – that is, present-day Iraq. This is the place where writing appeared more than 5000 years ago. It’s exhilarating to read texts from 4000-3000 years ago in their original form. I hope that in the near future, my colleagues and I will be able to develop a School of Assyriology in Bulgaria.

Me: What initially drew you to photography as a medium of expression?

Kiril Mladenov: I don’t have many photos of me when I was little: my father, who was a photography enthusiast back then, took them on a 35mm film. Some of the images, perhaps because they aren’t many, have etched themselves into my mind. My encounter with visual arts initially came through painting and sculpture. As a child, I loved watching documentary films about art and examining albums with reproductions of paintings and statues from antiquity to modernism. My interest in the latter period appeared much later.

About 15 years ago, I developed a more active interest in photography. In the beginning, I used to capture everything without putting much thought into it – just point and shoot. Over time, however, the aesthetics of the image became increasingly fascinating to me. I started reading books, looking at photo albums, and watching films about famous photographers. A significant moment for me was my meeting with Alexander Mogilo, with whom I had engaging discussions about street photography. His philosophy of “sharing the knowledge” opened my eyes to many photographic secrets, for which I am very grateful to him. I developed a keen interest in photography as a medium, as a way to express myself. I began to study composition and the nature of light. I also took pictures on film and experimented. I continue to do so now. If one loves to take photos, he should do it regularly. As Bresson says, “The first 10,000 photos are your worst.” Well, not that the 10,001st will be excellent, but one must firstly learn to see through the little viewfinder and to make sense of the things that appear there.

Me: How would you describe your style and approach to photography?

Kiril Mladenov: In street photography it is crucial to know yourself. It is a mirror of who we are. And just as you change over the years, your photography changes as well. Right now I enjoy taking shots from a close distance, whereas in the past my photos often had a sense of distance, with the main focus being on composition. In the beginning you ask yourself questions. How far is it okay to intrude into the personal space of strangers? How ethical is it to photograph this or that? And many other similar questions. However, a simpler question should rather guide you – Why am I doing this? Why do I photograph what I photograph? If we look at the philosophies of various photographers, we will find various opinions. Gary Winogrand simply says, ‘I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.’ The great Hungarian photographer André Kertész goes further: ‘Seeing is not enough; you have to feel what you photograph.’ Trent Parke, whose style is distinctly recognizable, goes beyond the tangible, saying, ‘I am forever chasing light. Light turns the ordinary into the magical.’ As for me, photography helps me to be in harmony with myself. That’s why I shoot in both black and white and in color. Arranging the mise-en-scène on the street helps me organize my inner world. I meditate. I meet interesting people. I capture moments. And with the social documentary projects I’ve been focusing on lately, I also want to tell stories that could make the world a better place, at least a little.

Project Inspiration:

Me: Could you share the inspiration or the story behind the “Urban Eden” photography project?

Kiril Mladenov: The pursuit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment” is an adventure in itself, but I think that telling stories through photographs is an even greater one. Over the past few years, documentary photography has fascinated me greatly, so I decided to start looking for interesting stories. I learn various storytelling techniques from sources like the Life magazine online archive. Although photo essays share some common principles, the authors have significant freedom to creatively employ different expressive means. As Dorothea Lange says, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” I believe this to be true.

I find the story of urban gardening interesting because of its multifaceted nature. It encompasses many elements – nature, climate, sociology, political philosophy, volunteering, and science. I still discover more and more layers within it with time. What inspires me the most are the encounters with different people and the new acquaintances I make along the process.

Me: Were there any significant life events or experiences that influenced your decision to embark on this project?

Kiril Mladenov: It’s normal for a person sometimes to feel like something is missing. It could be an object, a person, or a feeling. A life-changer for me was the insight that the meaning of life doesn’t necessarily have to revolve around us – no man is an island. Someone once said that the first breath of air is given to us. However, the fact that our life is a gift doesn’t make it a given. We must learn to share – knowledge, experience, resources. So I want to share stories and help them reach more people. I do that in the university as a teacher and I do that as a photographer. 

Me: What emotions or messages do you hope to convey through this project?

Kiril Mladenov: Ancient Greeks said that humans are social creatures. Let’s talk a bit about empathy. In today’s world the ability of people to empathize with the emotions and feelings of others is increasingly lacking. We have become desensitized even to the environment we live in. We fill our homes with unnecessary expensive junk while unnecessarily dumping waste into nature. This also applies to our relationships with each other.

Marcus Aurelius famously wrote in his Meditations, “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” In a documentary photography project, truth devoid of empathy becomes a distortion of reality, a lie. To quote Roland Barthes, “Photography never lies: or rather it can lie as to the meaning of the thing, never to its existence.” How truly can a documentary photographer capture the truth and not just express their opinion? Is it possible to do so?

We must not forget that photography is a two-way process, involving both the photographer and the viewer. Thus, the truth remains an interpretation. However, it becomes more profound when empathy is woven into the story – both in its creation and its reception. When the image is written and read through it.

The project

Technical Details:

Me: What equipment and techniques do you use to create the images in this project?

Kiril Mladenov: For the ongoing project I am using a Sony a6000 camera and a Sigma 18-55mm f/2.8 lens.

Me: Can you discuss your post-processing and editing workflow?

Kiril Mladenov: I use Lightroom for post-processing. My editing of the photos is basic, retouching the light and contrast. I am not a fan of excessive alterations.

Subject Matter and Composition:

Me: How did you choose the subjects or themes for this project?

Kiril Mladenov: I knew about urban gardening projects being done in Sofia. One of the gardens is close to my place in Druzhba, but I had never visited it to see what it was all about, so I decided to go and check. I had some pleasant talks with Nikola, the person behind the idea of urban gardening in Sofia, and he explained the concept behind it and showed me many of its benefits – not only for the climate but also for the gardeners. He told me about the various aims of the different gardens – from practicing a hobby in the city to providing food for people in disadvantaged positions.The photos published here represent a current selection to which text should be added. Text is crucial in documentary work as it provides context that is missing when photos are published on their own.

Me: What elements or principles of composition did you focus on to create these images?

Kiril Mladenov: Composition is one of my favorite topics. I love dynamic compositions with multiple layers. Since the project is in color, the combination of the colors is also crucial. On the other hand, the sense of composition becomes somewhat automatic over time. A photo can have a superb composition but lack a compelling story. In my opinion, the story is what really matters. There’s a beautiful thought by Edward Weston: “Consulting the rules of composition before taking a photograph is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk.”

Me: Are there any recurring motifs or symbols in your work that viewers should pay attention to?

Kiril Mladenov: Well, I’ve already mentioned that for a photograph to exist and “speak,” both a photographer and a viewer are needed. It’s in the interaction between them that the photograph’s meaning is born. Someone might notice one detail, while another could see something different. And that’s perfectly fine and unique. What’s important is to notice the people. They are the heart of the project. And the green color. We must protect nature because it is life. Everything else is vanity.

Creative Process:

Me: Can you walk us through your creative process, from conceptualization to the final shot? Do you plan your shots meticulously or embrace spontaneity in your photography?

Kiril Mladenov: For me, it’s important to immerse myself in what I do. I used to enjoy being unnoticed. Now, I value the interaction with people. I want to feel like a part of them, a part of what they are doing. I like leaving the camera behind and helping out when needed. I explore the location and choose good spots for the story. As I am taking the photos, I talk with the people, so new aspects of the story unfold. I capture and make a selection of the photographs. I don’t include all the ones I like, only those that tell the story. I create a storyboard with a selection of images, choosing the first and the last one. Then, I try to narrate the story.

Me: Are there any specific rituals or routines that help you get into a creative mindset?

Kiril Mladenov: When I feel a bit stuck, I take a few random shots. It acts as a warm-up and gets me back into the rhythm.

Challenges and Triumphs:

Me: Are there any moments or images in this project that stand out as personal triumphs or breakthroughs?

Kiril Mladenov: Yes, but they are not included in the selection. They are personal. These are a few portraits I gifted to people from the garden in Levski who came for lunch. Seeing their happy smiles is a success for me.

Me: Did you receive any unexpected reactions or feedback from viewers that surprised you?

Kiril Mladenov: I hope in the future I’ll have the opportunity to discuss the project with other photographers. As I’ve already mentioned, it’s still a work in progress. 

Influences and Inspirations:

Me: Name a few photographers or artists who have influenced your work or inspired this project.

Kiril Mladenov: There are dozens of them. But let’s say:

  • For composition and storytelling – Henri Cartier-Bresson.
  • For dynamics and color – Alex Webb.
  • For lighting and processing – Ansel Adams and his Zone System.

Me: Are there non-photographic sources of inspiration, such as literature, music, or other art forms, that played a role in shaping this project?

Kiril Mladenov: On the road, I listen to classic rock and metal that inspire me. Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, The Rolling Stones, and many others. I enjoy reading classic horror literature from the late 19th- to the early 20th-century, authors like Lovecraft, Smith, Merritt, Stoker, and James. They have a significant influence on my imagination.

Impact and Audience:

Me: What do you hope viewers take away from your photography project?

Kiril Mladenov: A bit more empathy towards people and love for nature and the city…

Me: Who is your intended audience, and what kind of response are you aiming to evoke in them?

Kiril Mladenov: Just as in some games from the past, the photos are of people ranging from 1 to 99 years old. It’s simple – it’s about the relationship between us, and the world around us, and how we perceive it. The elderly people I’ve met carry the greenness in the gardens: Kina’s or Anton’s youthful spirit. They bring individuality and color to an increasingly built-up, ghostly city.

Future Projects and Growth:

Me: Can you share any hints about your future photography projects or the direction your work is taking?

Kiril Mladenov: I’m engaged in socially conscious projects. I have ideas, but they’re not yet completed and ready to be shared.

Me: How do you see your photography evolving or growing in the coming years?

Kiril Mladenov: I’m becoming increasingly focused on documentary photography.

Me: Are there new techniques or ideas you’d like to explore in your future projects?

Kiril Mladenov: I want to work on projects in collaboration with other photographers. Earlier, we talked about objectivity and subjectivity in photography. Working as a team adds new layers of meaning to a project.

Kiril’s Advice for Aspiring Photographers:

Me: What advice would you give to aspiring photographers looking to develop their own unique style and projects?

Kiril Mladenov: Don’t stop practicing. A style isn’t developed in just a year or two. Learn from the great photographers, but don’t strive to copy them. If photography stops giving you a sense of fulfillment, it means there’s a problem – sort it and continue. Remember, photography is passion and love.

Me: How important is it for photographers to find their own voice and artistic vision?

Kiril Mladenov: We talked about how each of our photographs is somewhat a reflection of ourselves. That’s why it’s important for a photographer to find the right tone with which to tell their stories. And as a final note, once again, the most important thing – don’t stop taking photos!

Connect with Kiril Mladenov

We hope you enjoyed this insightful journey through ‘Urban Eden’ with Kiril Mladenov. To continue following his work, be sure to visit his Facebook page and stay updated on his latest photographic endeavors. For inquiries, collaborations, or simply to share your thoughts, don’t hesitate to reach out to Kiril via email.

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Thank you for joining us in celebrating the beauty of urban gardens and the captivating stories they tell. Stay inspired, and keep exploring the world through the lens of Kiril Mladenov.

Bonus images from his project

Todor Stoyanov

Passionate about creative expression, I constantly seek new opportunities to enhance my skills and collaborate on exceptional projects.