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Remote Rural Romania by George Pearson DPAGB, ARPS

Many of us photographers when faced with a difficult situation have to make moral decisions. These are not just personal to us but could impact on the lives of others. I had not expected when in a European country to be faced with quite so many ethical dilemmas as in Romania. (More later).
In October 2018, on a photo tour organized by Jacob James from Intrepid Exposures, I met with Richard and Martin and our Romanian photographer, chauffeur and guide Mihnea to examine and record cultural change in rural Romania. We spent 3 days in each of the locations, the Apuseni Mountains, Maramures and the South Carpathian Mountains staying in basic accommodation mostly guesthouses. The experience was stimulating, troubling and in parts hugely rewarding.
Our guide had for many years made personal visits to these areas observing the consequences of the 10% emigration in the last 4 years from Romania into Western Europe. He has built up a deep knowledge and sensitivity to the plight of those left behind. Even whilst we were there we saw youngsters with loaded cases leaving on coaches to begin new lives.


Each day followed a similar pattern, rising before dawn to get into the mountains and take advantage of the Autumnal misty starts for several hours before returning to breakfast hugely. Then we would simply explore, mostly on foot, and engage with whoever we met and those exchanges were almost always positive and life affirming. Mihnea had taken some photographs a year earlier and trying to locate and deliver these gave us a way in as we stopped people in the street asking for their help. This could develop into long discussions and invites inside houses to share drinks, eat cheese and fruits and take away some images. Each evening we would select 5/10 of our better images and jointly discuss in a friendly but critical manner. So whilst I was reasonably confident about my landscape photography I was able to pick up tips on how to express photographically my ideas about environmental portraits.
It was immediately obvious that there had been two dominant forces operating and influencing lives, both reduced somewhat but reflected in the beliefs and attitudes of the elderly. Religion remains a potent force possibly in the same way that Irish Catholicism held sway 40 years ago. The infrastructure built by Ceausescu’s Communist Party now looks old and badly maintained. I would have loved to don my urbex hat and get into those derelict power stations.


We could not have been luckier with the mists in the mountains and every day bought fresh images. We worked very independently often quite far apart from each other using very different lens/camera combinations and I rediscovered just how good my 70-200 f2.8 Canon L lens is after languishing in the cupboard for years. The colours of autumn were just gorgeous.


Taking this was a difficult decision. Clearly this old lady, almost blind, was living in the kind of poverty found more usually in third world countries. I debated whether it was fine to expose this situation to a broader audience or whether it was exploiting it just to get a powerful image. She did not seem sad or complain and had the fatalism found in Hardy’s novels. A nearby family took care of her and made certain that we were considerate and did not abuse the situation. Then they invited us to join them and it was a rare opportunity to meet a family with young children. Many of the mothers we met were at the point of moving to the cities to get their children educated and we drank palinka with farmers seeing out the last winter season on their land.


One glorious day began when we stumbled on an elderly lady washing her carpets in one of the many wooden tubs in the streams for public washing. Then a bell ringer at a nearby wooden lavishly decorated church stressed to us just how important religion is to everyone in the village. One of the parishioners walked us to a rustic palinka distillation hut and we talked and drank our way through the absurdly Heath Robinson process. One of the villagers, slightly worse for wear, showed us how he made wooden roof tiles and then we spotted a woman carding wool outside her back door. All the above and much more revealed the openness and hospitality of the locals who gave freely and expected nothing in return.


Richard and Martin were keen to get formal portraits, all with natural lighting as well as more environmental ones. We were hoping to capture gestures when people were relaxed or unaware and I began to experiment with ‘echoes’.
The areas we visited offered little in the way of employment and the hilly landscape makes it difficult for larger scale farming. So it was a qualified vet who provided his services as an off road driver to get us down rutted forest tracks to a remote community. Here whilst horse and cart transported compost etc huge piles of hay were carried on the backs of women up vertiginous slopes.


We attended the festival of Saint Parascheeva but I decided not to intrude into what were clearly deeply held religious beliefs and did not take any detailed images
I would like to finish on a more positive note. We spoke near the end of the trip to a young farmer who is determined to try to get an income from traditional farming of the land. He was hoping to persuade other youngsters to settle there and stop the drift away to the cities and into an ever more polarized Europe. Prince Charles who has an interest in these historic farming methods had popularized, possibly romantised the village of Brun before recently selling up.  
I am sure there are many areas of Romania still left to explore with sensitivity which would be rewarding to photographers but Mihnea asked us to be discreet with exposure on social internet sites to protect the individuals.
 

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