“Those who eat fish from the cyanide lake improve their sex life.” These comforting words, spoken by the mayor of a Romanian village to Tomas Bachot, sparked the project of the same name. What had started as a photo-documentary about the reopening of the Romanian gold mines turned into an investigation into the nature of documentary photography itself.
Tomas Bachot approaches his subjects and the people that he photographs with great integrity and personal involvement. He rejects the bias of so-called “objectivity”. His lens is focused “among the people” and he delves deeply into the goldmine of visuals that results. Bachot is not afraid to make personal relationships. For this series, he travelled in a bus from Belgium to Romania with the people he photographed, sleeping in their living rooms rather than in hotels. By allowing himself to be guided by their perspectives, he shifted the boundaries of his own perceptions.
His photography is a house of mirrors in which the photographer and the subjects question each other continually, thereby providing oxygen to the reality behind the image. He digs under the skin of his subject but also beneath the many layers of his role as a photographer. Bachot’s narratives testify to his power as a photographic storyteller. For the twists and turns and mysteries of life, and for the imagination of the viewer, he demonstrates a warranted respect.
Anna Luyten, .tiff 2016, FOMU
Between January 2015 and March 2016 the Belgian photographer Tomas Bachot made seven trips to the Golden Quadrilateral in the Apuseni Mountains of Transylvania in order to document the impact of gold mining on the region. During one of these trips an angry reaction to his photographs from the mother of his host had a profound impact on the direction of the project. It prompted Bachot to understand that he had come to Romania with a baggage of preconceived ideas about the country, which he was unintentionally reproducing in the photographs he was making.
On each subsequent trip Bachot employed a different methodology, from actively choosing to capture only positive images – blue skies or children playing – to offering people free portraits against a scenic backdrop and even using a Bushnell-infrared camera, which reacts to movement and heat, to capture covert images. “With each visit I tried to be a different kind of photographer”, he explained. “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.”
His self-published book Those Who Eat Fish From The Cyanide Lake Improve Their Sex Life, which resulted from his visits, depicts the region from a multitude of viewpoints and challenges conventional notions of photographic truth and authenticity. The title, a quote from the mayor of one of the towns Bachot visited, reflects how those in power manipulate the truth and present alternative versions of reality. Cyanide is used in the mining process to dissolve gold from the ores. The entry of this lethal chemical into the watercourse is an obvious concern for residents.
In the book, interviews with residents are published alongside Bachot's images, many of which reveal an anxiety about the way Romania is misrepresented by foreign photographers, adding a layer to the narrative which challenges the reality portrayed in Bachot’s images. What emerges, despite Bachot's attempt to be a different kind of photographer on each trip, is his subjective vision, his eye for the ironic or absurd detail, which less clichéd vision of the region.
Jessie Bond, Splash & Grab, Issue 4
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 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, Nano Gallery