TED Fellows

Fellows Friday with Monika Bulaj

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Monika Bulaj’s stunning, painting-like photographs blur religious and cultural divisions, exploding stereotypes.

In your photography and writing, one of your main themes is to explore the “borders of monotheism.” What does that mean?

I often focus on Judaism, Christianity (mainly Eastern Christianity) and Islam, to explore areas where the sacred crosses borders. I show the similarities between different religions and dogmas. This exploration naturally transfers into mysticism, where the borders are less definite. I like to show, for example, the common threads between Sufism (a Muslim sect) and Hasidism (a Jewish sect). They have the same concentration of energy, the same passion to explore meditation and prayer.

Inside the sanctuary of a Sufi saint (© Monika Bulaj).

I also like to show the places where people of different religions — for example Egypt — frequent the same holy places. We are much more accustomed to seeing the conflicts, the violence, the extremism — and we don’t see the common ground that exists. For me, it’s important to explore these places and to show them to the world.

But my interest is really in the human beings themselves, in exploring human relationships, and in covering underreported topics. I also work a lot on nomadism, or rather the end of nomadism, and the problems nomads face. I work with the Gypsies in Europe, publishing a lot about the problems they are having in Eastern Europe and Italy. I also cover nomads in Afghanistan and Tibet.

Monika in Tibet (© Monika Bulaj).

I’m interested in social questions, and how all of these topics are interconnected. I report on the people living in the shadows of the world.

An Afghani woman (© Monika Bulaj).

Tell us about your current project based in Central Asia.

I’m in the final stages of this project in Central Asia, which focuses mainly on the Afghani diaspora. Next month I’ll work in Pakistan, photographing people living in the Northwest part of the country, focusing especially on the symbolism light has in mysticism. I’m preparing two books: one about Afghanistan specifically, and one about the borders of monotheism, entitled Auras.

An Afghani man and his child (© Monika Bulaj).

I just came back from Tibet, for a new project I will continue to work on over the next three years or so. This work will have the same kind of sensibility and the same interests as my other work — the relationship of people to sacred geography and spaces. It also looks at pre-Buddhist traditions and also some Tantric traditions, which are very sensitive and sensual. Instead of refusing the body, they exalt the body, and they exalt the space, materials, and ground around them.

Mountains in Tibet (© Monika Bulaj).

You often photograph and interview people in conflict zones. Why do you choose to do your work in these places?

I use conflict zones not because of the conflict itself — I’m not interested in the wars. I hate war. I go because I want to learn about the people behind the scenes of war we see in the media. I want to share their life and to see with their eyes what is happening around them. I try to narrate it in my report and in books. I also go because we in the rest of the world are really victims of the stereotypes, of the propaganda we see in the news.

An Afghani woman (© Monika Bulaj).

It’s very important to show the hope and the hopelessness of these people. After 10 years, there is a big prospect the Taliban will come back to Afghanistan. What will happen to women in this country? These women are very strong, but they are not free. It is very difficult for them.

I’m going to Pakistan for similar reasons. We forget about this country completely. We see them in the news sometimes during an emergency for a short period, but afterwards they disappear. For example, in Pakistan, during the 10 years of the Afghani war, 30,000 people died because of the violence. Yet this is a completely forgotten war. There are other countries like this, but I’m not able to cover them all in one lifetime.

When you travel in these countries, alone, as a woman, are you afraid?

I don’t know … sometimes, yes. But people fill me with hope, and they tend to be very helpful. Because I travel alone, and people see my fragility and my sincerity, they want to help.  The guest is sacred in Islam. When I arrive in an Islamic country, it is a strange situation, because I am both a stranger and a woman. I also am a married woman, and I have children.  So this situation generates a very great respect for me. It provides a protection. I live under this kind of sacred respect reserved for the guest. It’s the greatest in the world, I think.

Sometimes I meet people who believe that women should not travel alone. But I put these experiences out of my mind — it’s a very marginal experience.

Especially in Afghanistan, I’m humbled by the people’s generosity. Theirs is far greater than mine. For example, I once had an appointment there with someone I did not know very well. This person arrived to our appointment and brought his whole family — his own children — to protect me. I didn’t know what to do. I cried, I refused to accept it, but they obligated me to accept this kind of protection. This type of thing is sometimes too much for me. They are very fantastic people, so beautiful, so full of humor, full of vitality, and love for life. This country is so marred by war, yet there’s a sense of  life and generosity from the people that’s unparalleled.

What are your favorite ways to share the stories of people you meet?

I use what is a kind of photography and literary report. I have the privilege to narrate in two modes: both with photography and with writing. They help each other a lot. Because publishers are used to separating these two modes, it’s very difficult to publish a book with this kind of narration. But I love to mix them, and I think it is very important to do so. It can be very helpful to understand the reality of the situation.

A woman in Tajikistan (© Monika Bulaj).

During my photographic exhibitions, I also use a lot of text. An exhibition of mine is like a big book, exposed on the walls of the gallery. People come and see and also read.

From “Another Europe” collection (© Monika Bulaj).

I also collect a lot of audio recordings when I’m traveling. I have recorded many voices, music, songs, prayers, the sounds of the street, of insects, of children, of the night. I include the audio recordings in my exhibitions as well.

What first inspired you on this path of researching and reporting on underreported people?

Growing up in Poland, my family was Catholic, part of the majority religion. I learned at a young age that my country had held the worst genocide in history. When I was very young, 12 years old at most, I started to collect all kinds of information about it. I asked my grandmother, “Grandmother, what happened here? Who are the Jews?” She didn’t answer.  So I studied books and Jewish culture. I was a little obsessed with it. I wanted to learn as much as possible, but I shuddered to understand what had happened.

My work started this way, and after that I studied it at university. I started to explore the minority scene in Eastern Europe. I studied both ethnic and religious minorities — Jews, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and others. I wanted to cover stories of minorities that suffered not only during, but after World War II. Many were deported after the war in order to make them disappear. Their culture was completely destroyed by the Communist government.

I later moved to Italy. In the Polish literary tradition, it is very common for writers and poets to go out of the country to write about us. Though I moved to Italy for personal reasons, leaving Poland permitted me to see my country from a distance, and permitted me to write about my country, which might not have been so easy to do from my homeland.

From “Another Europe” collection (© Monika Bulaj).

For a time, you were an avid participant in a unique kind of street theater.

Yes, I love theater. I developed an experimental street performance, a mix of acrobatics and Oriental martial arts, where we danced on stilts. We performed in theaters, and festivals, and on the street. It was choreographed, but also improvisation, with dialogue and music to narrate a story.

It was theater but in big open spaces, using the very beautiful and very rich scenography of the cities: old houses, natural light, fountains, rivers …. It was wandering theater. We moved from one place to another, and the whole group of people followed us. Sometimes my three sons performed with us. I loved it so much, but I found I didn’t have time to do both theater and my other work.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What one piece of advice would you give them, based on your own experience and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

Follow your passion with discipline, and without too much compromise. Study all the possible techniques to develop and grow. I was very fortunate to have the opportunities I did — maybe other people don’t have the same chances I had.

But I tell my children: the most important thing is to follow the small illuminations that we have sometimes in our lives, that give us a kind of security that we are sure what we really want to do. We sometimes forget about it, or we are afraid to realize it. But I think all human beings have a certain predisposition or special talent for certain things.

What was the TED Fellowship experience like for you?

It was a very interesting, amazing experience. It was completely new for me — I am much more used to living in the pastures in Central Asia than in the context TED provides. It was the first time I used the English language not with a Kabul taxi driver: I had only used English as a kind of international language before.

TED was excellent stimulation for the professional part of my work. I received valuable professional advice, particularly on how to develop outside of Italy. But for me the most important thing about the TED Fellowship was meeting with the Fellows and other people and hearing the talks. I loved it so much. It’s really a great global platform.