The remote village of Ribnovo in the Rhodope mountains of southwestern Bulgaria has kept its traditional winter marriage ceremony alive despite decades of Communist persecution and subsequent economic hardship. Ribnovo's inhabitants, who are Muslim, used to make a living from tobacco and agriculture but low incomes in the poorest EU country has forced men to start seeking jobs in Bulgarian cities and abroad. At 12%, the country's Pomaks, as Bulgarian Muslims are locally known, are the largest Muslim minority in the EU despite decades of communist attempts to integrate them into the majority Christian Orthodox population. According to some experts, Ribnovo's annual wedding ceremonies are the Pomak answer to the persecutions of the past. Today, Ribnovo is one of only two villages in Bulgaria where the wedding ceremonies continue to be performed. Young men return from urban centres to the crisp winter snows specifically for the weddings, some of which have most likely been arranged since birth. The two-day ceremony draws crowds of people from neighbouring villages and the the second day provides the highlight - the painting of the bride's face. In a private rite open only to female relatives, the bride's face is covered in thick, white paint and decorated with colourful sequins and jewels. A long red veil covers her hair and her head is framed with tinsel and gold leaf. The bride is then presented to the waiting crowd. Unique to Ribnovo's wedding tradition, however, is the custom that the bride is not permitted to open her eyes until an Imam blesses the couple. She must marry with her eyes closed.
"This project is an attempt to understand the tradition of marriage within a small Muslim community on the fringes of Europe. But its also an opportunity to get lost in a place. This work is as much about a sense of place as it is a documentation of a forgotten people. But it is also a project that allowed me to immersive myself into people's lives on a daily basis – to be accepted, to bond and to build up personal relationships with my subjects, something that I was aware I was not doing while I continued to work on complex issues about power and nationalism and political upheaval across the border in Turkey. The Pomak people of Ribnovo allowed me into their lives and their homes for countless visits over a two year period. The traditional weddings were my way into Pomak culture.
As time passed and my relationship grew stronger to that mountain village, I found it increasingly hard to leave. I was welcomed into special, personal and intimate moments. Access to families and, in particular, to the women of the village grew - a rarity in my experience of photographing the Muslim world in the Middle East and North Africa. Spending time with young couples in the smoke filled cafĂ©s and hang-outs of the village, listening to small talk between couples trying to sneak a kiss before heading home to their respective families was a privilege and a revelation to me. This story has very little to do with any of the world's more pressing issues at the moment. It's a love letter to a people and a village that helped me dispel aspersions and clichĂ©. It made me believe in the kindness of strangers and allowed me time to enjoy and embrace the simple act of photographing without fear or burden."
Guy Martin, 2017