How far would you go for the perfect shot? How about paying an unauthorised tour guide to take you up a mountain in a snowstorm to a large, empty communist hall in rural Bulgaria? That’s what Hamburg-based photographer Chris Zielecki did to snap this intriguing image of the Buzludzha Monument, high up in the Balkan Mountains. We chatted to Zielecki about his love of abandoned buildings and his unusual trek to this ghostly reminder of a communist regime.
Hello, Chris. First things first: tell us about yourself. Hey there! I'm a full-time photographer located in Hamburg, Germany. I'm in love with moody weather and untouched nature.
What exactly is the Buzludzha Monument? The monument was built by the former Bulgarian Communist Party as a place for their party congresses, special events, and also as a symbol of power. It opened in 1981 but was abandoned only eight years later with the fall of communism.
Why were you so keen to photograph it? I stumbled on the monument during my research for interesting places in Bulgaria, but it’s been on my bucket list for a while. I love to explore abandoned places, especially the architectural style of formerly communist countries. It’s often a bit surreal.
How did you get to the monument? We read that it was closed to the public, but found a local guide who promised to get us in anyway. He said there is always a way to get in, and that every time the government closes a hole in the fence, another one opens.
It was spring when we arrived. The fruit trees in the valleys had already started to bloom, but since the monument is located on the top of a mountain range, temperatures were quite different up there. We drove up a mountain, but at a specific altitude the road became snowy, and it was not passable with our car anymore. We left the car behind and walked the last kilometres up to the mountaintop through thick snow and stormy wind.
After we reached the top of the ridge by foot, the monument suddenly appeared in the midst of the snowstorm in front of us. We walked around the building and stopped in front of a hole in the ground – our entrance. Our guide explained that we would get inside by climbing four metres down a rope into a cellar, and then walk through the cellar up to the great hall.
What was it like inside the building? God, I've never seen anything like it. We were alone, and although the wind was heavy outside, we were standing there in complete silence. Light and a few snowflakes were breaking through the damaged ceiling, and we just stood there and gazed for minutes. The hall, with its circular shape, was built with the goal to talk and hear everyone without the use of a microphone. The acoustics added a lot to the atmosphere. It really looked like a crashed UFO. It was absolutely breathtaking.
Tell us about taking the photo – what did it involve? I thanked God I brought my wide-angle lens with me. Being there and experiencing the place is breathtaking, but as a photographer, I wanted to catch the vibe that I felt. I was running around a lot to find good spots, especially a good level, that would help me to capture the massive structure of the building. I went on the ground, put the camera up over my head, and took like a hundred shots because I knew this might be my only chance to capture this wonderful, surreal place. For this particular photo, I decided to focus on the massive, broken ceiling with the old communist symbols of a hammer and sickle. I especially wanted to catch the shimmering light that came through the holes. Overall I guess we spent about an hour in that hall.
Can you tell me anything else you remember about the day? It has been one of my most remarkable trips, and every part of it turned out to be an adventure – especially getting up the four-metre rope again to get out of the building, untrained as we were. And it clearly pushed our boundaries when it came to adventure.
What do you like about this photo? Whenever I look at this image it still feels like I'm standing in a lost starship that crashed into a remote mountain range, and I'm the first one visiting it for centuries. I love the symmetry of the ceiling, the light, and snow that breaks through the roof, and the symbols that indicate a long-passed era.
This nifty interview was created in collaboration with Stocksy as part of our four-part series on the stories behind incredible photos. You’ll find even more of Chris Zielecki’s work at Stocksy’s highly curated library of stock photography and video footage.