“Kukeri is an ancient pagan ritual practiced annually across the Balkan mountain regions where local men wear carved wooden masks of beasts’ faces and hang heavy bells around their waists as they perform arcane dances,” says London-based photographer Aron Klein. The Kukeri Project is Aron’s magical and dreamlike series that consists of hypnotic images of large men in carnivalesque costumes, posing menacingly in the wintry Bulgarian mountains. These figures are intended to dispel evil spirits and protect their community from ill fortune. The project came about after Aron started working as a photographer for Meadows in the Mountains music festival in the Rhodope Mountain range between Bulgaria and Greece. “I’ve fallen madly in love with this forgotten corner of Europe with its tiny villages, steeped in ancient folklore and mysterious traditions,” he tells It’s Nice That.
In one photograph, two figures wear washed out earthy hues paired with tall, white cone-like hats, mirroring the desolate landscape around them. Another picture portrays a white furry creatures camouflaged in the surrounding snow. The decorated costumes worn by some of the locals blur the distinction between animals and humans, which highlights the deep connection that this culture maintains with its natural habitat. “Our society no longer contains ceremony and ritual as part of our cultural practices, so I was really drawn to document a community that continues to value folklore and tradition,” Aron explains. Spectacle and theatre permeate Aron’s work, with every photograph telling a different story: “Each of these images depicts the subtleties of the character’s local folk tales.” The range of myths is evident in the variety of haunting costumes; some are beastly, others have antlers, others still are decorated with multicoloured embroidery. The images invite us to join the surreal worlds of the demon chasers.
But capturing the extraordinary shots was not without its challenges: “I had underestimated the Bulgarian winter and I definitely wasn’t equipped for minus 10°C; my Air Maxes didn’t cut it. But other than nearly losing a toe everything went swimmingly.”