‘Those who eat fish from the cyanide lake improve their sex life’ explores my power of representing others as an image-maker, in this case, the people who live in the gold mining area of Apuseni Mountains in Romania. By experimenting with my photographic style and asking for feedback on my images from locals, I try to mix different realities about the same place while I dig into the subjectivity of documentary photography. The title of the series and the self-published book is a quote given by the mayor of one of the gold towns to the Romanian press. Through it, he tries to proof that cyanide, a chemical compound used in mining to dissolve gold from the ores, has a positive effect on our health. I used the superficiality of extreme quotes from the press and politicians in the same way that they do it to attract viewers, to look at my work.
During the summer months, I used to work as a student in a chocolate factory in Malle, near my hometown. There I met Matei in 2013. While piling up choco spread pots, he told me about the social debate related to the gold mines’ reopening in his homeland Romania. At his apartment, Matei showed me pictures of the street protests against the foreign mining companies which came to Romania and pictures from Geamăna, a village flooded by the toxic waste of a mine. With his story in my mind, I decided to take a bus in January 2015 to the Golden Quadrilateral in the Apuseni Mountains of Transylvania, shaped by the gold industry over the years.
I like to work on documentary topics that I discover through personal encounters. By listening to the ones close to me and taking their thoughts and concerns into account it feels natural to derive at certain subjects, such as the meeting with Matei which led me to the Romanian gold towns. It started as a photo-documentary in which I questioned how these places were shaped by the gold mining industry and how their future could look like. I tried to stay most of the time with locals with whom I connected through Couchsurfing website. In Deva, a city located in the south of the gold mining area, I was invited to stay at Irina’s house. One day after dinner with her family I showed my pictures from the first trip at the big flat screen in their living room. “These pictures have no value for me”, her mother said furiously. “They are a simple negative impression: remote, filthy, run-down…” It was difficult to hear that because I was their guest, and I felt it was true. From that point, I realized I came with having a preconceived image of this Romanian region and I was only looking for confirmation.
This confrontation was the turning point in the project. I realized that the way I photographed was mainly based on preconceptions about Romania that I got by being exposed to the western media coverage and photo stories. From that moment my focus shifted to an exploration of various ways I could represent the life of the people from the Apuseni Mountains.
My meetings with the people who hosted me, as well as the people I met on the street were as important as the photography process itself. For example, in the village of Certeju de Sus I always looked forward to play soccer with the kids on the sandy courtyard between the communist blocks and for the dinner with Macovei family who welcomed me each time in their home to eat together. These small things made me feel connected with the local community. I never photographed my hosts because I wanted to be there for them, first of all as a human being, not as a photographer. Often I feel that by photographing I take something from people. Getting closer to photograph as a human is one of my major concerns.
On each trip, I stayed for one month in the region and visited the same towns using a different technical approach and sometimes a different content focus. In other words, with each visit I tried to be another photographer.
Coming back home was essential: to go through my images, to make edits, to talk with my mentors Jan Kempenaers and Anna Luyten (my project was made during the master program at School of Arts/KASK in Ghent), to try out different ways of exhibiting the work. By digesting the trips, I could distinguish which visual set-up could be an intriguing one for the next trip.
Following this pattern I went back and forth seven times, each trip visiting the same towns. In the beginning, my photographic experiments were limited, changing my framework and using direct flash. Later trips were wilder: I wondered around looking for an attractive background to make portraits. I made a composition and hung a cardboard around my tripod saying ‘portrete gratis’, inviting people to get a free portrait. I also worked with a Bushnell-infrared camera which reacts on movement and heat, mainly used for photographing wild animals. I set the camera on trees or just in the city to capture images without anybody notifying of my presence. By letting the camera choose the exposure and the moment I gave away a part of my power as an image-maker.
The last trip I organized interviews with locals showing them a selection of my pictures and asked how they felt about being represented. The interviews refer to my first confrontation with the mother in Deva. They are an important element for the series and the book adding an extra layer to the images. Together with the graphic designer Maria Mitcheva, we decided to place the interview after the image it refers to. Like that, the reader gets the chance to have a personal take on the photograph, which will be confronted with the opinion of a person from the area.
Excerpt from the book: An interview with a social worker from Alba Iulia:
Social Worker: I don’t want to say more now, because the conversation will get a bit tougher, and I don’t want to go there.
Tomas: But I want an honest opinion.
SW: From my point of view, I really don’t think this picture is representative of my country. What’s more representative is the fact that my mom welcomed you in her house without knowing who you are; the fact that I am employed and I work really hard, as my mother in law has done for 40 years. That’s what represents me.
That I have problems? For sure. But problems are everywhere in this world. It’s our fault that we accept you, whoever you are, Tomas to come and ask me if I allow you to publish this photo. No, I don’t allow you to publish. This is not my image of Romania.
Tomas: So maybe this is representing myself more than Romania?
SW: Yes! We have gypsies, we have homeless kids, alcoholics, violence, whatever you want. I work every day with these problems, but I don’t think that we are not taking action, that we aren’t doing enough. Although the problems start from somewhere else: with the legislation and the level at which we are kept by the European Union.
Tomas: And do you think this is how Romania is seen mostly in other countries?
SW: Yes, and we were helped also by people like you to be seen this way.
Every trip, I forced myself to have a new perspective over things. For instance, during one month in the summer, I tried to create a positive feeling focussing on prosperity, photographing things like blue skies and children playing. This also meant that when I saw something interesting but with a more negative connotation, let’s say a dog in a waste dumb, I wouldn’t capture it.
In a way, I wanted to prove that I can see what I want to see. Funny enough, this strategy didn’t always have the aimed result. Sometimes the composition and the moment I captured turned normal situations into absurd ones. I guess ironic and absurd scenes attract me.
Healthy or not, I like to jump into a story completely. By taking my own emotions into the project, I feel honest with the story I tell. I like to mix personal and observational aspects to the narrative and end up with a mixture that includes a wide range of feelings, contrasts and mysteries.
Only with the experience of my last project, I started to consider myself more as an ‘artist’. I see myself as a photographer, visual storyteller and bookmaker. I like to be free and led myself by the waves of a specific project.
At this moment I am building a new life in Romania, in the cultural city of Cluj-Napoca, to be closer to my girlfriend. Starting from zero, learning the language, missing friends and family, getting familiar with the environment … it asks a lot of me and I often feel lost. Because of that, my working days are quite unstructured. Being an immigrant certainly feels like an interesting position for my next project(s). My perfect day would be to work on e-mails, interviews and grant proposals before noon, photograph in the afternoon and have some free time in the evening.
Every part of the creation process has its own particular challenge but staying motivated throughout the process is certainly a major one. Waking up every day and keep on believing in what I want to tell would already be a great start dealing with this challenge. I struggle the most with converting my ideas into specific images. This search for concretization touches a variety of components, technical, as well as content-wise.
I am mostly influenced by daily life and personal encounters. Taking a walk can mean a lot in that sense. Next to that I also enjoy the work of others. I got the chance to follow a master class with artist Renzo Martens which offered me a critical view on the contemporary art scene. I was also thrilled to look at the ‘natural complexity’ of Mikhael Subotzky’s work, the use of different techniques by Richard Mosse and the softness of Vivianne Sassen.
It’s a pleasure to experience authentic work. In the first stage, I can be attracted by humour, mystery, tragedy or purely aesthetics. However, in order to stay in my mind, a work should show a certain degree of sincerity and playfulness with the borders of the medium and question our society.