How this Bulgarian photographer is sharing light through new series depicting Christ

Eva Koleva Timothy sees her life now in stark contrast to what she experienced growing up — like the difference between black and white and full technicolor. 

"A Gift of Light" by Eva Koleva Timothy
“A Gift of Light” by Eva Koleva Timothy Credit: Eva Koleva Timothy

“I grew up in a very dark country. Things were gray and black and they were under communism, so it was just a very difficult upbringing,” she said. “But my dad, he was the artist in the family. He would always point out things like a beautiful sunset or tiny grass coming out of the asphalt, and he would say, ‘Look at that. See, you’re like that. You can’t give up, don’t let the asphalt overtake you.’”

Today, Timothy is the artist in the family — a renowned photographer with collections in some of the world’s best known and most reputable galleries — and her latest project, the one she says is closest to her heart, is a reflection of the light that changed her life.

Finding light

Born and raised behind the Iron Curtain in Sofia, Bulgaria, life wasn’t exactly rosy, Timothy said. But when the wall fell, Bulgaria was flooded by churches and missionaries. 

At the time, she was a young teen trying to figure out her place in the world. With a dream of one day moving to America, Timothy taught herself English and began searching for God. 

When she turned 15, Timothy began sincerely searching for a church she felt good about committing to. Although she attended several, she always felt something was missing. It wasn’t until she ran into missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on the streets of Sofia that she finally felt what she had been looking for.

Eva Koleva as a young missionary in New York City.
Eva Koleva as a young missionary in New York City. Credit: Courtesy Eva Koleva Timothy

“I went all by myself to Church, and we met on top of a soccer stadium,” Timothy said of her first Sunday with the missionaries. “There was hardly anyone besides the missionaries and a couple other members, but it was powerful. We had the most amazing meeting in that little room above the soccer stadium. They had taped up pictures of the Savior on the wall, and during that sacrament meeting, I felt something that I had never felt anywhere else. … That was the beginning of my faith.”

Both Timothy and her parents were baptized in 1992. Timothy later moved to Utah to attend university and study photography. In 1998, she took a break from her studies to serve a mission in New York City before returning to graduate from the University of Utah. After graduating, Timothy joined her husband, Adam, while he studied at the University of Oxford in England. She too continued her studies, first through the Oxford School of Photography certificate program and then by obtaining a licentiateship certification from the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain. 

Throughout her career as a photographer, Timothy has shot mostly in black and white. In her newest projects, however, she has begun to explore the power of digital color. 

Sharing light

Earlier this year, Timothy decided to finally take on a project she has felt compelled to do for years. 

“My number one priority in life is to be close to [the Savior],” she said. “I want to ‘Hear Him,’ and this whole project is about that.”

Titled “The Lord is My Light,” Timothy’s newest photo series depicts various scriptural scenes with the Savior. 

“It’s very much a one-on-one, intimate look at the Savior’s life, and we are right there with Him,” she said, explaining why many of the photos include depictions of people interacting with the Savior. “The whole idea for the series is that God is there, and everything that He did, He did for each of us individually.”

"Now I See" by Eva Koleva Timothy.
“Now I See” by Eva Koleva Timothy. Credit: Eva Koleva Timothy

Shooting the series has been a bit of a learning curve though, Timothy said. For one thing, she isn’t accustomed to shooting in color, and to achieve the vibrant colors and soft lines of the pre-raphaelite look she envisioned for the photos, she has had to learn an entirely new set of photo editing skills. 

Timothy admits she isn’t a technical person. And the process of digitally layering several photos together to get the right visual effect is something she didn’t know how to do going into the project.

“I’ve never felt so inspired and guided in the creation of a series,” she said. “I feel with my whole heart that I am an instrument in His hands. I’m learning as I go, and I can feel the Savior guiding me.”

The project has also led to unexpected missionary opportunities, she said.

“I’ve made so many great connections with people, and it’s so much fun because it’s like I’m being a little missionary again,” she said, describing how she drove from her home in Newbury, Massachusetts to New Hampshire to meet with a lamb breeder to use two small lambs for two of the photos. She also made friends with a local guy who owns a wholesale fish shop, she said.

"The Good Shepherd" by Eva Koleva Timothy.
“The Good Shepherd” by Eva Koleva Timothy. Credit: Eva Koleva Timothy

In almost every case where she has had to reach out for help, Timothy said people have responded with everything she needs as soon as she explains her project is focused on Christ. And rather than asking for payment for their help, each person has simply requested the completed photo of Christ. 

“It’s like a door is opened every time,” she said, “and they just want their pictures of Jesus.”

Even though the project isn’t finished yet, Timothy said it has been rewarding for her to hear how much the photos mean to people who have seen them or been involved in creating them. For her, that’s the most rewarding part; especially when those involved are members of her family.

Although she lost her mom to cancer a little over a year ago, Timothy said she can feel her mother through the work she is doing, and her father, who lives with her now, frequently contributes to the work. “He is part of it in his own special way,” she said. 

Timothy’s husband and three children are also heavily involved in the project, often acting as the models for the photographs.

“It’s become a family project,” Timothy said, noting that since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they have all been together at home more often to work on it. 

For each photo there is a process. First, the family gathers to read the scripture they want to portray. Then they discuss as a family what the most important aspects are. During the shooting, her husband portrays Jesus, her two sons pose as the apostles or other men, and her daughter usually portrays the women. 

“It’s cool because they get to see themselves with the Savior,” said Timothy, adding that it is part of the purpose of the project. 

“That’s why I decided not to show faces,” she said. “I want people to feel that they are right there with the Savior. … That they are the one washing His feet.”

The Timothy family. From left: Ian, Adam, Eva, London and Skye.
The Timothy family. From left: Ian, Adam, Eva, London and Skye. Credit: Courtesy Eva Koleva Timothy

Creating light

During times of uncertainty, more than ever, “we need the scriptures and the Savior,” Timothy said. “In uncertain times, it is certain the Savior is there for us and the scriptures are a strength.”

Recognizing the importance of the scriptures during the COVID-19 pandemic, Timothy applied for and won a grant from the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts, which allowed her to create an exciting sub-project to further highlight the importance of the scriptures. 

"Talitha Cumi" by Eva Koleva Timothy
“Talitha Cumi” by Eva Koleva Timothy Credit: Eva Koleva Timothy

After starting “The Lord is My Light” series, Timothy said she wanted to take the project a step further by creating a “Book of Hours” with the photos. With the help of the grant, Timothy is taking a handful of the photos from her project and reworking them to appear as highlighted manuscripts where the words of the scripture they depict are placed around the photos on a page similar to the decorated and detailed scriptures monks often created in the Middle Ages. 

“It’s kind of a project within a project because it’s just another way to display the photos,” Timothy said. “But the illuminated manuscripts are kind of a cool idea. I don’t think it’s ever been done, and it’s a new way to bring the scriptures to life.”

Through a labor intensive process that includes photographing old manuscript paper and individual old English letters, Timothy said she is going about constructing each photo manuscript for the photos and scriptures she has chosen to convert to an illuminated manuscript form. 

For Timothy, the whole process has helped her feel closer to Christ. “It’s been a very transformative time,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been able to study the scriptures on a deeper level because I’m portraying these stories, getting the background and figuring out how to do it. It’s a process of studying and pondering.” And it’s been a process she needed. 

“I think the first photo I did — ‘Come unto me,’ — I needed that photo for me,” she said. “But my ultimate goal is to bring people closer to Christ through this work, and I’ve never felt so guided and inspired in my work as I do with this.”

"Come Unto Me" by Eva Koleva Timothy.
“Come Unto Me” by Eva Koleva Timothy. Credit: Eva Koleva Timothy

Being able to create is important for an artist, Timothy said. “There is joy in creating, and I feel like the Lord wants us to do that, and I am just so grateful that I can have this opportunity. I have felt immense joy while creating this.”

Timothy’s series “The Lord is My Light” is available to view on her website, Illumea.com, and will be on display throughout the summer through the Center for Latter-day Saint Arts’ “Art for Uncertain Times” series online.

Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library will also host an exhibition of Timothy’s work this fall semester in the Library Auditorium Gallery. The exhibition, titled “Awake My Soul,” will contain selections from Timothy’s “The Lord is My Light” series as well as her series “Awake.” Updates on the library display are available on the library’s homepage at lib.byu.edu.