Elena Geroska is a young photographer from Skopje, Macedonia, who for the past four years has been living and studying in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. For her latest project, Traces, Elena went around the city knocking on strangers' doors and asking them to let her photograph them in their houses. I met her at a presentation of her project at the Ethnographic Film Festival to find out where she fathomed up her balls and her gall from.
VICE: How did you come up with Traces?
Elena Geroska: I got the idea as I was riding the Tube one day. I’ve always found it interesting that people who accidentally touch each other on the public transport pull away and blush, as if they're afraid to get close to another human being. Now, when you are sitting that close to me, I feel like going like that [pushes away from me and laughs].
I’m only joking, but realistically, it is exactly like that. I’m fascinated by this whole "personal-space" deal, so I started digging into it. There are loads of definitions of personal space; it’s even been estimated in inches how close people are allowed to get to those around them. I thought, I might as well do an investigation of my own. I wanted to see how complete strangers would react if I tried to get in their personal space, chat to them, find out something about them and, on top of everything, take a picture of them.
I wanted everything to be entirely firsthand, spontaneous, and very sincere, so I decided to knock on the doors of complete strangers, presuming that their home would be their most-sacred personal space. I did it every day for two months, but only one family let me in, so I got disheartened. I got loads of people shouting at me too. Then I started hanging around parks and found it was easier to chat to people this way. Gradually, I started getting invitations to their places.
Did that mean that people would tidy up and prepare their home before you visited?
They don't always prepare for the shoot. There were apartments where the filth was unbelievable. On one of the pictures you can actually see a moldy lemon. The woman in the picture didn’t put effort into looking better, which I thought was really cool. She told me, “You can chill here for as long as you like.” I stayed there for about two or three days.
You actually stayed there?
No, no, I just visited. I went there every Friday for a couple of weeks and stayed there for about four or five hours. People do their thing, and I just document what’s happening. The women are the funniest; especially the grannies. They dig up everything valuable and put it on show—most of the time these things are just tacky little vases. People just love tacky vases, useless souvenirs, and family portraits. Apparently, they are their most valuable belongings. They put loads of makeup on and dress up. You can sense that they’ve been thinking about where they should sit or how they want to be photographed. This started to piss me off a lot because you can always tell when someone is putting on a mask, getting in a certain role, just for the sake of seeming cooler.
At one point I lost faith, but after observing the situation, I realized that, in fact, the way all those women dolled themselves up and chose a different tablecloth for me, says a lot about them. The way in which a person falsifies their image in front of society reveals more than it hides.
Who's your favorite person you’ve photographed?
I can tell you about the most eccentric one: Kitsa, the Judaism Queen. You might have heard of her. Every night she calls random radio stations, to promote her religion. She lives next door to one of my friends, so one day we just went upstairs to see her. I knock on the door and she just goes, “Oh, this is a sign from God, you are my apostle. You are going to pass my message to the world.” She’s got a very clear idea of who she is and how she wants to be presented. She says, “I want to dye my hair black, to do this and that, wear special clothes.” At first I thought this was a bit off topic, but then I realized she actually lives with that vision of herself. She believes she is Jesus’s sister, the link between three different religions, and that one day she will rule the world. Shit like that. One of her rooms is a sort of shrine full of moldy bread in which she thought she had seen the face of Jesus.
You’ve been going into people’s homes and seeing how they live and what they eat, surely there must have been something that really freaked you out?
Yes. There was this guy whose apartment was full of flies. It stunk like ass in there. I always want to go around the whole house; I don’t like it when people sneakily hide stuff from me. Of course, I don’t rummage through their drawers, but I want to get the general feel. The guy told me, “You can’t go in the kitchen,” and I thought that was odd.
Wasn’t he even a little embarrassed of his shithole?
He didn’t give a shit. He was also living next door to a mate, and we accidentally met on the stairs and he said, “It’s cool, come on in!” Now every time he sees me he goes, “What’s up, I want you to take some naked pictures of me.” I’ll probably do it, if it means he'll be relaxed.
Don’t you get scared sometimes? I would think someone had died, seeing all those flies.
Well, no, not really, because I always meet people I photograph in advance. At least I’ve seen them at some point so I can—at least I think I can—assess whether they are completely mad. In the beginning, I was shitting myself. I started taking a guy friend with me, but later on, I felt that he was getting in the way. We were one too many for someone to let in their house, so I started going around on my own. I often went home crying because someone would have shut their door in my face or had a go at me.
In the block of flats I live in now is this mentally disabled woman. She always wakes up at stupid o’clock in the morning and starts shrieking at everybody’s doors. Somehow, I managed to ask her if I can go in her flat, the interior of her place was also brilliant. We sometimes have coffee together now.
Do you focus your photos more on the interior or the person?
I can’t know in advance. You just go there and see what’s going on. There are people who aren’t that charismatic and are afraid, and you can feel that they are a bit moody but everything around them is very thought provoking.
Thanks a lot for this interview.
Hang on, please, put this down too! Another very strange person was one of my tutors. She is like an attraction at our school because she only wears purple and carries things that are purple. I wanted to see if everything at her house was purple, so I ended up in the suburbs, where I’ve never been before and didn’t know how to find her. I walked and walked for ages until I saw a purple door. I went in, and everything was purple. Absolutely everything. She gave me some purple socks to keep. It was really sweet of her. The pictures are completely purple.