Here is my big excuse for neglecting you and Passepartout for so long. It’s all happening now, not even a hurricane can stay in its way. The Spotlight:Romania exhibition I curated will be on from the 3rd of October until the 8th of November in Gemak, in The Hague. It is the biggest exhibition of Romanian photography The Netherlands has ever seen, and a selection of 8 photographers and 8 photo series that tell Romanian stories. They all have a bit of everything I know, love and miss from the country, and that I think the world should see. And yes, important: the exhibition is part of Spotlight:Romania. A Film and Photography Festival me and Corina Burlacu have been baking for a while now.
When it comes to Romania, every single folk can recall a stereotype they read or heard about somewhere. There are all sorts of labels out there. Romania is poor, archaic, backwards, it has street dogs and homeless kids. There are gypsies living there and some of them are coming over here. Many Romanians come in the West to work, but most remembered are the ones who come to steal.
To counterbalance these extremely simplifying ideas – often expressed quite openly – Romanians go to the other extreme. They portray the country through all the sweetness and idyllic things it has to offer. They sugar coat things as if putting the stereotypes under the carpet, and taking out the candy, will make everything fine in the end. But it doesn’t. Because the negative perceptions are rooted in simply not knowing much about the place and the real context. Eventually Romania is not a black hole and it’s also not a piece of Paradise. It is a country. And these extremes kill all the curiousness, the particular and the interestingness that comes out of it and should be seen.
The only way to balance negative stereotyping is to own those stereotypes. To place them in context. To stop apologizing for them and to start showing where they come from, their historical, social, real life roots.
If you think Romania is archaic and backwards and at the same time love its nature, perhaps you don’t realize the two are two sides of the same coin. In fact many other things are two sides of the same coin. It all depends whether you pick the judgement or the broader context as your lens. Are the bear dances photographed by Alecsandra Raluca Dragoi a sign of backwardness or beautiful traditions that survived since per-christian times and still exist in contemporary Romania? Are Andrei Baciu‘s photos of his great-grandma’s house images of poverty and underdevelopment, or of an idyllic place we all secretly would want to live in?
Another of the series that will be part of Spotlight: Romania is Ioana Carlig and Marin Raica’s Post-Industrial Stories. In terms of aesthetic quality, these photos are truly gorgeous. But that’s not the only reason I selected them. What matters to me is the layers of meaning they convey. They press on a stereotype – the communist past of Romania which attracts a certain kind of Western voyeurism – and they put it in the present day life. They make it real and simple. They tell about the problems in the shrinking forgotten communities that were lively during communist times because they were built around specific industries. Once the regime fell, these not-so-profitable industrial centers fell apart. And more than 25 years later this is what’s left. These photos don’t feed that cliche kind of voyeurism I am oh so familiar with. They tell something real. These traces of communist past have their own logic, history and aesthetics. And their daily life is not black and white. Life sure is hard there, but these photos tell about that while also giving these communities and the people living there a certain dignity, free of judgement or victimization.
And then there’s Hajdu Tamas‘ collection of photos that capture something of the small town Romania I know. And love. His photos are not about seeing context and the bigger picture, quite the opposite. I find in his photos the kind of details I always enjoyed observing since I was small, growing up in a town called Piatra Neamt. You must pay attention and must have a sense of humor to observe the kind of things he sees. And there are animals too. It can’t get better.
And there’s more. There is the historical background that makes something or someone you see be there. If the Tsarist persecution of old believers wouldn’t have existed, Cristian Munteanu’s series wouldn’t exist. The old believers fled the Tsar’s oppression and a good part of them moved in places that are now part of Romania. They preserve the old orthodox rituals, they speak Russian and Ukrainian and they have beautiful songs they sing, coming from the far away past.
There are also the series looking into contemporary issues. Petrut Calinescu‘s photos tell about rural communities where the young work abroad, make money and build humongous villas that hijack the village’s traditional look and lifestyle. It is a story about migration but with so many layers, it tells about past and present, different generations, competition in small communities and the ambition to overcome financial problems. Calinescu’s take on this story is raw and direct.
A contemporary issue is also – perhaps less obviously – approached by Vasile Dorolti in his series People and Crosses. His photos are portrayals of a changing tradition in the context of globalization. And the series has something absurd and something curious at the same time, and stands proof of his eye for a detail that many could have ignored. The detail is that in Maramures, a county located in Transilvania, people have representations of Jesus on the cross at the gate. It’s a local tradition, and it used to be a showcase of local art, because those Jesuses were crafted locally. But now things are changing, and the new plastic Jesus became available via China. And that’s changing many things in the communities there.
Alltogether, I am so happy this exhibition is becoming real and starting the 3rd of October will be open to the public until the 8th of November. This whole festival project started with an idea – like all projects – and a certain degree of unconsciousness. But that kind of unconsciousness is good when you have a big plan, no money and no people (initially). This unconsciousness makes you so bold and forward that you just might be able to pull everything through. And I think we did, me and Corina. She is my friend, together we started Eastwards and Eastwards designed and made (in collaboration with Gemak and De Nieuwe Regentes) the Spotlight: Romania. A Film and Photography Festival reality. Corina is the programmer of the film section in the festival. Some good stuff there, new and old Romanian movies you should see.