My book at the table of KASK next to great publications of my KASK-colleagues!
8 Pages of 'Obruni' in the Belgian newspaper De Morgen of this weekend!
Those Who Eat Fish From The Cyanide Lake Improve Their Sex Life
‘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.
Full interview with images you can find here.
I am happy to share the audio-recording of the launch and the presentation of my self-published book 'Those who eat fish from the cyanide lake improve their sex life', where following people talked about my work:
- Gabriel Marian (Galeria Nano)
- Laszlo Bencze (Lector Universitatea de Artă și Design din Cluj-Napoca)
- Dorel Găină (Profesor Universitatea de Artă și Design din Cluj-Napoca)
I am happy to share with you the text Gabriel Marian from Nano Gallery wrote about my series and book 'Those who eat fish from the cyanide improve their sex life' for the book launch in Bookstory, Cluj in March.
If I were to give a more concise title to Tomas Bachot`s photo report project, I would use a paraphrase (or even a parody) to one of Andrei Pleșu`s books and I would call it `Picturesque and mythology` because the young Belgian photographer`s (and photojournalist`s) project tries to deconstruct a series of clichés and preconceived ideas about today`s Romania.
Concerning the various myths that were invented and transmitted during the last decades about Romania, by Romanians and other Europeans alike, Tomas Bachot takes a delicate and rather uncomfortable position, on a neutral ground between the nationalist and protochronist triumphalism of internal propaganda (which still persists nowadays, transplanted on the Internet of pseudoscience) and the naturalism of the Western perspective, focused for 20 years almost entirely on dysfunctional aspects: orphans, homeless children, pollution, poor infrastructure.
Thus, what is new to Tomas Bachot`s vision is the interest for a new folklore, a new form of popular and spontaneous culture which slightly bears away from the so-called `ancestral traditions` which are kept in museums, already mummified and lacking substance or life (such as the Romanian popular costumes which are worn two times a year, the architectural woodcarving abandoned even in the province of Maramures, festivals or celebrations turned into kitsch, etc.). Bachot presents the actual vitality of the popular creativity, the new inventory of forms and themes that will probably be displayed in museums only in the next century.
Concerning the relationship between the photojournalist and his subject, Tomas Bachot embraces a more personal style (also given by the specific conditions of his project in Romania, where he was sheltered in people`s houses), an aspect that involves an affective closeness to his subjects: he abandons the claimed objective detachment and the moralizing vision over the faults and drawbacks of the explored area and focuses more on a certain local picturesque. It is undeniable that (for the Western public) today`s realities in Romania have become, rather unwillingly, a distinctive category of exoticism, a dystopic one, based on cultural and technological disparities that started to induce a kind of dark fascination in the representatives of the dominant cultures from Europe. This depressing exoticism has had a role in the recent appreciation of the realistic vision from the new Romanian cinema, for example, but it also represents the point in which Tomas Bachot`s photo reports move away from the mythologies that we mentioned above. This is because in this series of photos we find a brighter exoticism concerning Romania today, more colorful and more attractive.
The Belgian photojournalist thus suggests a fresh view about the way a certain part of Romania has changed over the last 27 years, regions which have come out from the `third world` status and have moved to another stage of transition from totalitarianism to normality.
Gabriel Marian, visual artist and curator, Nano Gallery, Cluj
Translated by Toma Bembea
Dacă ar fi să dau un titlu mai concis proiectului de fotoreportaj al lui Tomas Bachot, aş folosi o parafrază (sau chiar o parodie) la titlul uneia din cărţile lui Pleşu, şi i-aş spune “Pitoresc şi mitologie”, deoarece proiectul tânărului fotograf (şi fotoreporter) belgian încearcă să deconstruiască o serie de clişee şi idei preconcepute despre România actuală.
In raport cu diversele mituri inventate şi difuzate în ultimele decenii despre România, atât de români cât şi de ceilalţi europeni, Tomas Bachot îşi asumă o poziţie delicată şi incomodă, pe un teren neutru între triumfalismul naţionalist şi protocronist al propagandei interne (care mai persistă şi azi, transplantat pe internetul pseudoştiinţei) şi naturalismul perspectivei occidentale, focalizate, timp de 20 de ani, aproape exclusiv pe aspectele disfuncţionale: orfani, copii ai străzii, poluare, sărăcia infrastructurii.
Astfel, ceea ce e nou la viziunea lui Tomas Bachot e interesul pentru un nou folclor, o nouă formă de cultură populară şi spontană care se îndepărtează sensibil de aşa-numitele « tradiţii seculare » păstrate în muzee, deja mumificate şi lipsite de substanţă, de viaţă (cum sunt costumele populare purtate de 2 ori pe an, arhitectura în lemn abandonată până şi în Maramureş, sărbătorile transformate în spectacol kitsch, etc.) Bachot prezintă vitalitatea actuală a creativităţii populare, noul inventar de forme şi teme care nu vor ajunge probabil în muzee decât în secolul următor.
In ce priveşte relaţia foto-reporterului cu subiectul său, Tomas Bachot adoptă un ton mai personal (indus şi de condiţiile specifice ale desfăşurării proiectului său în România, unde a fost găzduit în casele locuitorilor din zonă), ceea ce implică o apropiere afectivă de subiecţii săi, abandoneaza detaşarea pretins obiectivă şi viziunea moralizatoare asupra neajunsurilor zonei explorate şi se concentrează mai mult pe un anume pitoresc local. Este incontestabil că realităţile actuale ale României au constituit vrând-nevrând o categorie aparte de exotism (pentru publicul occidental) mai degrabă distopic, bazat pe decalajeculturale şi tehnologice care au ajuns să devină fascinante (nu neapărat într-un sens feeric) pentru reprezentanţii culturilor dominante din Europa. Acest exotism deprimant a avut şi el un rol în aprecierea recentă a viziunii realiste din noul cinema românesc de exemplu, dar constituie şi punctul în care foto-reportajele lui Tomas Bachot se îndepărtează de mitologiile de care vorbeam mai sus. Pentru că în această serie de fotografii descoperim în legătură cu România actuală un exotism mai luminos, mai colorat, mai atrăgător.
Fotoreporterul belgian propune astfel o vedere proaspătă despre cum s-a transformat o anumită parte din România în ultimii 27 de ani, regiuni ieşite din statutul de « lumea a treia » şi trecute într-o nouă etapă a tranziţiei de la totalitarism la normalitate.
Gabriel Marian, artist vizual şi curator, Galeria Nano, Cluj