Olli Thomson


To Pernik for Surva, the International Festival of Masquerade Games. The biggest festival of its kind in the Balkans, Surva brings together around 6000 performers from 100 different groups across Bulgaria, the Balkans and further afield. It also draws increasing numbers of visitors from Bulgaria and beyond, like me.

A quick explanation may be in order. Surva refers to ancient pre-Christian traditions common to the region, and beyond. Local communities would hold a mid-winter festival (or a spring festival) to chase away evil spirits and bring good fortune on the community. Performers dress in animal skins or costumes made from rags. They wear masks, often topped with horns,  or paint their faces. Then they dance, run, chase or jump, in many cases accompanied by the sound of hundreds of cowbells strapped to their bodies. The mid winter festival is Surva; the spring festival is Kukeri. Local festivals still take place in towns and villages across Bulgaria but the festival at Pernik brings many of these local groups together along with international representatives to parade and compete for prizes.

The Last Roll of 2018

I shot my way through eleven rolls of film in 2018, around one a month. I would like to try to at least double that this year. I’m on course for January with two rolls shot, developed and scanned so far in January. These shots are from my final film of 2018 taken around Sofia on a very chilly mid December day. These were shot on Ilford HP5 with my FM2n, the first six with the 24/2.8 AI-S Nikkor and the rest with the 35/2 AI-S Nikkor. 

Single Shot – Oops

In my enthusiasm to squeeze the maximum number of frames out of every roll of film I started shooting this roll one frame too early. Having seen the result, though, I think this is much more interesting than it would have been otherwise. Minolta XD and Lomo Color 100.

Talking Pictures – Running Boys

This is, I believe, the earliest picture on display in my main galleries. It was taken in Munich during the annual Corpus Christi procession on 22 May 2008, about six weeks after I arrived in the city with my first serious digital camera, the Sony A200. The procession is long, slow and solemn but enlivened by the international representation of Catholics from across the world who are living in Munich, many of them processing in national costume.

This shot, taken with the kit 18-70 lens supplied with the A200, was one of a sequence of three I took. The first was a picture of the nuns only. I liked the repetition of patterns in the columns of walking nuns and in their simple black and white garb. This featured shot was the second. I hadn’t intended to take it but I saw the boys coming running from my right and thought it might make a good picture if I could get them in the frame with the nuns.

Sofia on Film

Finally. I’ve had a few rolls of film sitting in a drawer waiting to be developed for a while now and I finally got round to dropping them off at one of the local photography stores for developing and scanning. While I have my own scanner it’s so cheap to get scans done here that it makes sense to get them and then re-scan any particular images that stand out.

The shots below were taken with the Minolta XD and the MD 35/2.8 lens. I used Ilford Delta 100, the second time I’ve used one of the Delta films and it is superb. Tone, contrast, grain – everything about these film is wonderful. It’s just a shame it happens to be one of the more expensive films – $7.49 or £7 compared to $5.69 or £5 for HP5 Plus. Still, I may have to invest in a lot more Delta.

Losing an Enemy

At a time when one of President Obama’s genuine achievements is under threat from the current occupant of the White House, Trita Parsi’s book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy tells the story of the long and complex process that led to the nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1.

There’s a lot in here I didn’t previously know, like the role of the Omanis in facilitating direct negotiations between the US and Iran where the real progress was made. While I knew that one of the greatest obstacles to the deal was Netanyahu (and his Congressional cheerleaders, both Democrat and Republican) I did not know that Netanyahu’s rhetoric of Iran as an existential threat to Israel has its origins not on the Israeli right but on the left, with Rabin and Peres. The role of John Kerry, while a more sceptical Clinton was Secretary of State, in getting the process established before becoming Secretary of State himself was also new to me.

Single Shot – Lagan Weir

Lagan Weir Bridge on a grey, overcast day in Belfast. A few minutes later the rain started falling. This is one of my favourite shots from a visit home in 2018. Shot on film with a Nikon FM2n and Lomo Colour 400.

On the Twelfth Day of Christmas…

My true love, and various other people, gave to me…

A TWELVE year old malt whisky. That’s a lie. It’s actually a 14 year old malt whisky but I didn’t have a fourteenth day available. To be specific, The Balvenie Caribbean Cask 14. I’ve never been a great fan of these experimental whiskies finished in all manner of casks but I once tried a 21 year old Glenfiddich finished in Cuban rum casks and it was excellent. Since then other whisky makers have joined the rum parade.

According to the Balvenie website they use traditional American oak casks and fill them with rum. This is different from the Glenfiddich approach where they bring in the casks directly from Caribbean rum producers. These days the Glenfiddich no longer identifies the specific origin of the casks. I wondered if the switch from the specifically Cuban provenance had anything to do with the American trade boycott, but one of the regional representatives for William Grant I met while in the Philippines told me the reason was that they were not able to guarantee supplies of a sufficient quality from Cuba alone so they had to look more widely. I haven’t opened this bottle yet but on the next cold wintry night I might have a taste.


Part travel book, part ancient history, part early Christian history, part biblical criticism, part historical theology – there’s a lot to this book by Tom Bissell, one time Peace Corps volunteer, now a journalist and travel writer. Bissell sets out to visit the alleged tombs of the twelve apostles, which leads him into his discussions of early Christianity.

His reading of the Bible reflects a fairly mainstream historical-critical approach with a tendency towards the slightly more sceptical Bart Ehrman line, and a fondness for Raymond Brown’s Johannine community. But he has read, and grasped, an impressive amount of material, not only on the New Testament, but also the early church. He’s also at pains to avoid the wilder shores of speculative reconstructions of early Christianity.

Bissell speaks favourably of his youthful Christianity as an altar boy in the Roman Catholic church, a faith that he later lost. Yet he retains an interest in Christianity, hence this book. Well worth reading.

Fixed It

My Konica Auto S3 had a little problem. The frame counter which should reset to ‘S’ when the back is opened would instead reset to ’18’. I say a little problem because the frame counter worked normally apart from this one issue. When it reached frame ’36’ I was still able to wind on and shoot to the end of the film even though the counter no longer counted. The one problem was that when I got into the second half of a loaded film I had no idea how many frames were left.

I couldn’t justify sending the camera away for such a minor problem since repairs on these old (around 1973) rangefinders are expensive. So I decided to try to do it myself. With some advice and guidance from a couple of classic camera repair groups and a few other sources I found online I took the top off the camera, worked out what the problem was and managed to fix it.


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