Mihaela Aroyo

(b. 1993 in Varna, Bulgaria) is a freelance documentary photographer. In her work she explores themes such as cultural identity, history, folklore, environment and personal stories. Aroyo holds a Bachelor’s degree in Photography from New Bulgarian University and is currently enrolled in a Master’s program in History. She is a scholarship recipient for the VII Masterclass in Arles 2022/2023. Has her work published in The New Yorker, National Geographic and Die Zeit.

Dreaming in Bulgarian

2019 – ongoing

What shapes the identity of Bessarabia – a historical area that changed its nationality eight times over the last two centuries? Bounded by the Prut River on the west, the Dniester River on the east, and the Danube delta on the south, Bessarabia is the homeland for a handful of ethnic minorities. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the area has been divided between Moldova and Ukraine. Before that, Bessarabia was used as a bargaining chip in the peace treaties that followed the wars of the 19th and 20th centuries in Europe. 

I explore the identity of Bessarabian Bulgarians who found shelter in this obscure land. While Bulgaria was under Ottoman rule, tens of thousands of Bulgarians migrated to the flat Bessarabian steppe, which was then part of the Russian Empire. They have since put down roots and absorbed the cultures of other peoples, but to this day they have preserved their native language and traditions in their stepmother countries.

Today Bessarabia is home to 300,000 Bulgarians. The population however is melting at a rapid pace. The post-Soviet shock is still being felt in this economically neglected region, and people are again migrating in search of a livelihood in larger cities or abroad. Those who remain take pride in their ability to preserve the traditions of their ancestors and feel a special connection to their homeland.