Professor Kiril Kirkov: ‘Education is in my blood’
Kiril Kirkov, who will start teaching Visual Communication and Digital Photojournalism at AUBG in a couple of weeks, recently obtained his M.A. from the Northern Arizona University in the U.S. The new faculty member, who describes himself as “an art lover” who follows an “extreme version of cultural relativism,” is a photographer, a creator of short-films and an experienced choreographer and Bulgarian folklore dancer. Read our interview with professor Kirkov to learn more about his education, teaching and research interests, the activities he enjoys doing in his free time and what led him to AUBG.
What are the three most interesting things the AUBG community should know about you?
Well, the first one would be that I love to build bridges between humans instead of walls. I strongly believe in collaboration in all aspects of the term. This is what I do pretty much all my life. I am also an art lover. Doing art is a huge part of who I am. I would say that I do communicate visually with other people since my age of four. I was a Bulgarian folklore dancer and later choreographer for a long time and then I naturally transferred into other visual arts such as photography and later film. I also follow a kind of extreme version of cultural relativism. As we all know, cultural relativism means to look at any culture from its own perspective. Well, I try to look at every single human being from their own perspective.
If you have to describe your personality with one word, what will it be?
When did you first become interested in filmmaking and photography?
The filmmaking came later but let me begin with my dancing career. Dancing was a huge part of my life. I started as a little child. I had the opportunity to become a solo dancer in the Shopski ensemble run by the legendary choreographer Radi Radev. Thanks to this career, I had the opportunity to travel a lot, to present Bulgarian culture and traditions all over the country, but also elsewhere, pretty much everywhere from Northern Europe to Southeast Asia.
It's been an amazing experience but then the time came for me to retire because of age. When you reach a certain age, it becomes more challenging if you want to be on top of this art simply because it`s physically challenging. So, I switched to photography, naturally. That happened in the early 2000s. The filmmaking came to my life when I started with my academic journey in the United States.
What was your first job? How has your career progressed since then?
I began working as a dance teacher in a high school in Etropole, one of the schools that have already had a really well-developed art program. They gave me the chance to share my experiences and skills with everybody; I had students from all levels, from first to ten graders. That was my job for almost eleven years. As a parallel development, I managed to establish my own small grocery store in Sofia. I have to mention that I have spent almost 30 years living in the capital. Then I migrated to the United States and went into its corporate world. I was a part of Delaware North Companies, being a supervisor and a photography vendor in the Grand Canyon Village. For a little more than four years I had the unique opportunity to live on the edge of the Grand Canyon. After that I went to school and I am at school ever since.
What is your academic background and your experience obtaining an M.A. from the Northern Arizona University in USA?
I started and finished my academic journey in Flagstaff, Arizona. At the beginning I went to the local Coconino Community College (CCC). I joined the Fine Arts Department simply because of my artistic skills and passion to develop more photography skills. But then during my first semester I took a class of socio-cultural anthropology, one of the free electives, and my professor screened for us a documentary about the discipline of visual anthropology. That was a life changing moment for me because I literally saw myself in the movie. And I was like, okay, I really want to do this. I want to get cameras and go out to work with people. It was the first moment when I realized that the social aspect of visual arts is really interesting to me. I changed my major to anthropology right after this class, and then the rest is history. I graduated with my associate degree, summa cum laude from CCC and I was the speaker of my class. I repeated that with my bachelor’s degree a couple of years later at Northern Arizona University (NAU). The next step was to work on my masters in the Department of Communication. So, I went to a different department and thanks to this choice now I am here teaching JMC at AUBG.
What are your teaching and research interests?
There are two main aspects of my research interests and they are in synchrony with my teaching ideas. The first one is working with indigenous peoples of the American Southwest. More specifically, working with children and artists. I had the opportunity to be a part of the NASA Space Grant Program. During one full academic season I developed a media literacy program for third to seventh grade students from STAR school and a Little Singer primary school up in the Navajo Reservation. I am happy to say that the program has been quite successful. All my students are still taking classes of photography and film disciplines in their further high school careers and hopefully that will continue at a university level.
The second research field that is actually related to my decision to come and be part of AUBG is working with forced migrants. I think this is the correct contemporary term when we talk about refugees and migrants simply because when you migrate (you can take me as an example) from point A to point B, there is a reason behind. Nobody would migrate with no reason. I am interested in working together with forced migrants, developing and exhibiting experimental multimedia projects. These exhibitions generate opportunities of self-representation and active social agency for the participants. The research takes place in Vienna, Austria, where I have been working since December 2015.
Please tell us more about your collaborative documentary films which have been screened in the U.S., France, Germany and Austria.
The first collaborative film I worked on was a school project and it's called "Our Water." It's about the meaning of water from indigenous perspective. There is a huge issue in the American Southwest regarding the use of water. I had the opportunity to work with community leaders of the Navajo, Hopi, and Havasupai Nations, and we put together something quite interesting. The film was screened in the Colorado Environmental Film Festival. It was also screened in France, in the World Rivers International Festival and, of course, locally in Flagstaff. In 2016 I started working on a long-term collaborative project with an indigenous art collective called Art of the People. In the film the artists share their ways of teaching communal values through live-painting demonstrations. The work was screened internationally.
My latest experimental film – a portrait of my mother, I finished in the winter of 2019 in Vienna. I am happy to share that it will be screened at the Ethnografilm festival in Paris, France in April 2021.
To summarize, my collaborative method means establishing trust, respect, and deep understanding before even touching the camera. It's a long process but at the end of it we have a product that is meaningful for the people/community that participate. This is indeed my main motivation.
Please tell us a bit more about the personal exhibitions you held in 2007, 2008 and 2010.
Those were my first exhibitions as a photographer here in Bulgaria. Back in 2005, I had the chance to enroll a one-year online photography program in Redmond, Washington. I had the unique opportunity my mentor to be William Neill, who used to work with the legendary Ansel Adams. My other teachers were Scott Kelby, Lewis Kemper, and Jim Zuckerman.
During this training I needed subjects to work with. What I did is I communicated with the Sofia University Botanical Gardens in Balchik, on the Black Sea Coast, asking for potential internship there. The good news for me was they needed a photographer to make a catalog of their plants. I spent two fantastic summers in the Botanical Gardens photographing every single plant. I think they were over eight thousand. At the end of this process I had some pretty strong portraits of plants, and this selection represented my first exhibitions.
Why did you decide to become a professor and what led you to AUBG?
Education is in my blood. Both my parents were teachers. All my school projects and research endeavors are connected with education. I love to help students to achieve their dreams and goals, and I do continue working with them after they graduate. For instance, I just finished teaching summer class at NAU and three of my students have already applied to graduate programs. Those are the things that motivate me, that give me purpose to be in the classroom. I do love the global vision here at AUBG. The JMC department follows the principles of critical thinking and creative freedom that are foundational for studying liberal arts. I really look forward to doing my best for our students.
As I already mentioned, the position at the JMC department will also help me to keep working on my research in Vienna. We work in collaboration with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and I hope that there will be opportunities for summer classes and internships there. I will be talking about this program in more details during the first week of orientation.
What do you expect from the AUBG students to whom you will start teaching in a couple of weeks?
I believe education is always a two-way street. I do not teach from the position of being a fancy professor separated somehow from the rest of the people in the classroom. It's always "we." It's always an intellectual exchange that is going on in my classes. I can’t wait to learn more about my students' ambitions, passions, dreams and to help them to get there. I would definitely expect critical thinking and dedication. My field of teaching is creative, and I would love to witness the creative spirit of the students in our classroom.
If photography, filmmaking and teaching in those fields was not your profession, what would it have been?
I would have been a choreographer. I would absolutely be doing Bulgarian dance teaching in one form or another.
What are the activities you enjoy doing in your free time?
I love snooker. I also love Arsenal, this is my favorite football team. What I also like is to travel. I like Vienna a lot. I absolutely love Southern France, the region around Montpellier in particular. I love to ride bicycle border-to-border in the Netherlands. Of course, I love Bulgaria, our mountains and rivers. I am an active cyclocross biker. Soon you would see me on the bike seven days a week.