a family

meet ioan and violeta, both 37. they have been married for 11 years and have seven children, aged 7 through 21.

ioan, violeta and abel, 12. most of the other children did not want to be photographed.

we met them when i noticed their kids playing on the railroad tracks outside their house.

20160404_Romania_603 20160404_Romania_642 20160404_Romania_635 20160404_Romania_645

ioan and violeta are a mixed couple, in that she is a roma and he is not.  the family – all nine of them – live in a three-room, 30 m² shack by the rail line that leads into the old abandoned factory. the house, which originally had only one room, was owned by the railroad company before it went out of business.

20160405_Romania_001 20160405_Romania_003 20160405_Romania_033 20160405_Romania_057

ioan added the other two rooms and built a storage space on the roof. (he works in construction, and frequently decamps to england for a few weeks at at time to find work, as there is little work for him in romania.) the house has electricity, but lacks a refrigerator or running water, which was cut off two years ago. every day, the family takes a cart with empty jugs to a standpipe down the road and fills them with water. violeta cooks one meal in a large pot on a stove which sits next to one of the beds (and which serves as the house’s only heating source), and then the family eats the food throughout the day.

ioan and violeta had a lease with the railroad company, but, since the company went bankrupt, the city has been trying to evict them for years and move them to the factory housing where the other roma are. ioan and violeta have avoided eviction so far, but their options for better housing seem non-existant.

roma in romania





scenes from the courtyard of housing occupied by roma families in bucharest. these families have been squatting here for years, unofficially tolerated by the municipal government.

i can’t do a series on romania without discussing the roma. there is a sensitivity around photographing roma. first, the relationship is exploitative on both sides: we photograph them because they are “exotic,” and they know it; and they are going to ask us for money at some point, and we know it. second, according to our translator (who is roma himself) the legacy of roma slavery in the romanian territories from the 14th to the 19th century – yes, the roma were slaves throughout the balkans for centuries – is something that neither broader society nor the roma themselves have adequately addressed. this accounts for some of the exoticism, which in addition to bright clothing and distinctive cultural customs, is a reflection of the poverty that many of them face. this circles back to another issue of photographing the roma: when we photograph roma, it’s partly poverty tourism, which is uncomfortably voyeuristic, and many of the roma don’t want to participate in that, and also they know that our taking their photos to show our friends isn’t going to do much to change their situation. this isn’t to say that it can’t be done, or that it can’t be an opportunity for meaningful human interaction, but you have to be aware of the issues and address the situation the right way.

for example, we stopped at a roma community outside the village of iscroni (below) because we were driving by and it looked interesting. we split up, and i found a few people who spoke english. only one of them was willing to have his photo taken, but i didn’t shoot until after we’d talked a bit about who i was and why i was there. some of the other people in our party faced a little resistance, however, and at least one request for money.

that said, the people we met were friendly enough. between our translator, the few of them that spoke english, and the one who spoke greek, we were able to have a number of conversations; and once we all just started talking, we started taking snapshots of the pets, and then of the children (who were thrilled to pose and then look at the camera backs). after that, we could shoot freely.





roma community, iscroni.

however, let’s turn back to those issues … anti-roma attitudes seems to be casually held among some of the population. the jolly sheep shearer we met during our travels was the epitome of hospitality, but when we expressed our appreciation for inviting us in, he joked “i’d even invite in a roma!” it wasn’t said to be vicious; it’s just something the people say. our translator told us that many roma try to hide their heritage and even deny that they are roma, and that when one popular rapper, who had claimed to be latin american, “came out” as a roma, he lost endorsement deals. on the other hand, there are roma identity politics, so social attitudes between the roma and other romanians are multilayered.


children dancing with us during a community party in the housing courtyard. the puddles of green ooze are behind us (no joke).

the government’s attitude toward the roma, on the other hand, seems to be more pointed, at least at the local level. in bucharest situation depicted above, the neglect is benign, but the roma can’t expect any help, either. at the other end of the spectrum, in baia mare, the city had moved a group of roma into the housing units of an abandoned factory where there were no working toilets. the community used a corner of a field for their needs, and the waste had leached through the soil and into the center courtyard where the children played.

we walked into that complex during a community party, and had just begun to shoot using our tested methods when a team of security guards, who keep an eye on the abandoned factory grounds, came over and told us to stop shooting and leave. they said it was “out of respect for the residents,” but the roma began to argue with the guards, telling them (graphically) to go away and that they wanted us there. the guards’ concern was not for the residents’ well-being: it seemed to be a policy to keep “regular” people from seeing the conditions of the housing.

the next day, we went to the affiliated housing complex across the street. the complex had one nicely-painted façade facing the street, but the rest of the units were behind a wall. our translator told us that the city had built the wall ostensibly to keep the children from running into the street but really so that passers-by wouldn’t be able to (or have to) see the housing conditions. our translator is an activist so he might have been biased, and the wall might have been there already, but as the below (unretouched) photos show, the difference between the two sides of the wall is so stark, i thought i was looking at the “wizard of oz” scene when dorothy travels between kansas and oz:

20160405_Romania_077 20160405_Romania_156

we were there to meet one of the local activists, but to talk about matters totally unrelated to roma housing or social conditions. the light was good, so here are some interior shots. (this is the point in the blog at which my photos get self-consciously “arty.”)

20160405_Romania_138 20160405_Romania_092 20160405_Romania_104 20160405_Romania_123
20160405_Romania_090 20160405_Romania_132 20160405_Romania_152 20160405_Romania_151

next: a family

housing: havana, part 6

one of our projects involved a visit to an apartment building known as a solár. soláres are buildings that were owned by a single family before the revolution, that were then taken over by the state and split up into apartments. the state provides the soláres to the residents for free: free of rent and, apparently, largely free of maintenance except for what the residents do themselves.

the solár that we visited, on calle san ignácio, had been owned by a member of the aristocracy, the duque de pinar del rio. the duque’s slaves and servants moved in after the revolution, and their descendants still live there.

20151010_cuba_009 20151010_cuba_013 20151010_cuba_038 20151010_cuba_008
20151010_cuba_046 20151010_cuba_019 20151010_cuba_018 20151010_cuba_050

in addition to the soláres, there are regular apartment buildings, also owned by the state. while in the san ignácio building, i met a woman named zoraida who had recently moved out of her apartment because the ceiling had collapsed. she gave me a copy of an inspection notice from the city’s housing agency, dated december 2013, which recommended that the units on the second floor of the building be demolished because they were structurally unsound. the order was later extended to the entire building, but before any work commenced, her bathroom ceiling fell in while her grandchild was in the bath. the baby died, and the remaining 14 (!) members of the family relocated from their two-bedroom apartment to an empty industrial building that they found with their friends’ help.

20151010_cuba_065 20151010_cuba_068 20151010_cuba_084
kitchen area part of the sleeping area zoraida and two of her children
20151010_cuba_087 20151010_cuba_073 20151010_cuba_095 20151010_cuba_100
zoraida’s daughter shows a photo of the child who died in the roof collapse zoraida’s sewing machine. she works as a tailor zoraida shows an example of her work in a letter to the city asking for help that she wrote prior to the ceiling collapse, zoraida reminded the authorities that she was a revolutionary in obedience to Fidel and Raúl

subsequently, i visited her old building and was invited in by some residents who showed me their apartment and zoraida’s next door.  with my rusty spanish, i couldn’t understand all the details they shared, but i understood two things: they were at pains to say that the state did provide them help in many ways; nonetheless, as regarded their housing, they knew that their building was in bad shape.

20151015_Daily_064 20151015_Daily_086 20151015_Daily_071
20151015_Daily_088 20151015_Daily_079 20151015_Daily_089

next: cigars!