Returns // Returns 1–Welcome to Chl’aba

Returns is a collaborative personal project of Gabriela Bulisova and Mark Isaac.

As an immigrant to the United States, Gabriela Bulisova has a complicated relationship with her native Czechoslovakia, returning at least once a year to visit her family in her mother’s hometown, a small village of 800 people in southern Slovakia called Chl’aba. Along the way, she began a very personal project documenting her family’s life – and the village around them – in what is by far the most personal of her documentary projects.

After the project was underway, she met and married Mark Isaac, also a photographer, and they began to collaborate on the project. The result is a complex portrait of Chl’aba that comprehensively documents family members and village life, including: the penetrating beauty of the vineyards, wheat fields, and the nearby Danube River; the lingering simplicity and longstanding traditions; the complex relationships among family members; and the tragic loss in recent years of several loved ones, including Gabriela’s father. In this chapter, Bulisova and Isaac focus on the ethereal ambience and mood of Chl’aba as an introduction to a place that has great meaning for them both of them.

Returns is about me, my family, my home, my loved ones, the village of Chl’aba, and the changing relationships I have with each and all of them. The project, perhaps never truly innocent, ultimately turned into an identity search; a search not only for myself but for my parents and closest relatives, and for people who are not there anymore. And it became not just a search for the past but a search for the present moment by people who are separated on two different continents.

            — Gabriela Bulisova

To a great extent, my expanding freedom to photograph alongside Gabriela marked my acceptance into her family. As I met each of them, I was linked to a fascinating past that included encounters with World War II, with Communism, and a post-Communist reality that is not entirely rosy. Chl’aba has become a second home, one in which I still communicate better with images than words. (But I’m working on it.)

             — Mark Isaac