Some time ago, the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was giving what is probably my favorite TEDx talk ever. In it, she was talking about the dangers of a single story and she was showing how many stereotypes and misunderstandings lay behind looking at the world through a single lens.
I recently discovered Tamas Dezso’s photos of Romania (see below). I found them remarkably beautiful, they have a certain winter feel and a quietness breathing from them. They have been recently published in both TIME and Wired Magazine. And this is where they started telling a single story about the Romanian countryside, framed by articles full of simplifications and lacking nuances. That precise kind of single story that reenforces all stereotypes.
One problem with the way these photos are framed by the articles is that none of the texts give an ample idea of the dimension of these isolated villages. In what regions can you find such villages? About how many are there? Are there other kind of villages as well? Not mentioning any of these makes it understood that the entire rural Romania is living this way, relying on communist scraps and pieces, losing traditions and vanishing fast. Which is not true.
Both articles connect only the dots between the ‘exotic’ dictatorship and these images of villagers and decaying buildings and factories. They make the 25 years since the revolution seem compact, without nuance, a period of struggle from which the result is what you see in the photos. The articles connect the dots which serve their particular narrative, their aim is not nuance and understanding but to tell you precisely what you want to hear when looking at those photos, so you can experience them properly. The coordinates of these stories are – communism, poverty, untouched, fast disappearing in front of modernity (!), ingenuity and innocence of people, this is Romania and I am (are you?) explaining why. Now, as a Westerner, what else would you like to hear about a country in Eastern Europe?
This unavoidably reminds me of Leslie Dodson’s Tedx talk about the way the media misrepresents Africa, because Africa is expected to be poor and hungry, not smiling and dancing.
A true context would have meant to situate, not Romania, but at least those particular kind of villages in context. A real one, not a fantasy one, not the classic narrative about Eastern Europe, the one which sells the article. The real one is about a country of contrasts, of beautiful nature, but also of areas with no investments, with young people moving from the countryside to the cities or abroad to work. A context in which the people living from those decaying buildings are seen as a portrayal of poverty not of an ‘untouched’ world. A context given by a country that has its problems, but also has beautiful cities, rich villages, traditions, with people having farms and businesses. A country with a particular real-life flavor.
Except for a real contextualization, the most important story to tell about these photos is actually the story of the man who took them. What Tamas Dezso does is that he goes to places, picks the remote ones he finds, looks for the things that fascinate him, such as poverty and decaying communist buildings, bonds with the locals and then takes the photos his aesthetic sense tells him represent best what he felt. This way, the only relevant story reflected in the photos is not a general one about the country, but the story of the photographer’s heart.
Last, there is the claim that ‘the cultures in the area are also disappearing — Ciprian the bear dancer in the first slide above, for example, or Costica the shepherd in the fourth slide, are living out traditions that stand to get swept away by the country’s march toward modernity’. This is good for the romanticism and the drama of the articles, but essentially it is not true. For example, the pagan New Year’s traditions which Ciprian (the boy in the bear skin) is ‘living out’, are all standing and alive throughout the country, both in villages and cities. In fact I wrote about a visual portrayal of the Bear Dance here.