Romania is a fascinating and stunning country, perfectly suited to travel photography. Each weathered face tells a story and each crease in the Carpathian Mountains offer the possibility of dramatic light as it plays with the morning sun. The moment I started researching Romania and writing myself a brief (a vital aspect of travel photography that I believe everyone should perform before every trip), I saw this trip as an introduction to the country. It would be a search for characters and stories that I could take my time photographing. To me, while it is possible to take beautiful and interesting photos during a brief encounter, building up a rapport over time (be that one hour, one week or one year) offers a more in depth perspective.
I spent 10 long days exploring Romania. I do not say long because the days dragged. I say it because every day started with a 4am alarm call in order to reach my sunrise location by day break, and ended at midnight, prying myself away from my laptop after excitedly looking through the day’s photos.
As with almost all trips to Romania, the capital Bucharest is the launch pad for exploring the country. Little do I know at this point that the stunning painted ceiling of Stavropoleos Monastery and majestic old buildings in the historic centre are just a taster for what Romania has to offer.
My visit takes place in three areas of Romania. The first stop is Maramures, which borders Ukraine in the North. This is the most traditional region where the focus is on meeting the local people. I am based in Breb. Here, tasks are still completed in the most simply fashion. Machinery is a luxury. Farmers still cut acres of fields by scythe and while away the day spinning wool by hand. The favorite post-work past time is simply sitting in groups outside houses under their intricately carved wooden gates, talking until the sun disappears or rain stops play.
Next I visit the Bukovina Region, which neighbours Maramures to the East. The UNESCO World Heritage Listed painted churches, such as the one at Sucevița are captivating. The level of detail and richness of color still preserved in these 500 year old churches is remarkable. Their location among the Carpathian Mountains makes them only more impressive.
As with most of Romania, tradition in the Bukovina Region still runs deep. The continued production of hand thrown black pottery at Marginea and the practice of painting eggs are two such examples that it is possible to stumble across.
The final region on my visit is legendary Transylvania. It serves up similar Carpathian Mountain landscapes alongside the cherry on top that is the UNESCO listed ‘Villages with Fortified Churches in Transylvania’. My personal favorite is at Biertan. A short, but invigorating climb up one of the surrounding hills at dawn offers a beautiful viewpoint, revealing the position of the church atop a hill in the centre of the old Saxon town.
For all its fame, there is little to no evidence that Bran Castle (aka Dracula’s Castle) had anything to do the infamous book ‘Dracula’ written in 1897 by Bram Stoker. Despite this, there is no denying its incredible location and I would still argue that no trip to Transylvania is complete without a visit to both the Castle itself and the beautiful mountain scenery further up the valley at the village of Pestera.
The one other spot on my itinerary that feel I should give the acknowledgement it deserves is the UNESCO listed Historic Centre of Sighisoara. I often find myself slightly biased towards destinations that photograph well. Regardless of the fact that this fortified medieval town is a photographic gem, my evening exploring its cobbled streets and admiring its gothic architecture is still one of my favorite experiences during my time in Romania.
The landscapes in the Carpathian Mountains are stunning, but to me, Romania’s true charm comes in meeting its people. Their openness and willingness to converse about very personal aspects of their lives was refreshing. I often felt initial skepticism of how friendly people would be as we approached some very stern and serious looking faces. Invariably I was left feeling red-faced for passing such a judgment, as enthusiastically people shared their life stories.
The first experience that springs to mind happened by complete accident one afternoon while driving through the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania. I mentioned earlier that I was looking for interesting characters with fascinating stories, and not far from Bran, I met a shepherd who perfectly fits this description! He spends 11 months of the year living and walking in the hills with his sheep. At night, he curls up in his sheepskin jacket and sleeps in a wooden hut no larger than a dog kennel in order to protect his flock from bears and wolves. Not knowing anything else, this man expresses no wish to have a different job. The vacant expression on his face, to me, suggests otherwise. Perhaps this is just me imposing my own thoughts on the situation, as I cannot begin to imagine a life of solitude with only sheep for company. In return for an insight into his life and letting me photograph and walk with him for a while, I left him with some food, saving him a walk of many miles to the nearest town.
It is times like this, photographing and meeting local people, which are the reason I prefer to travel with a guide and translator. One of the most important aspects of portrait photography is first to remember to treat your subject as a person. It pains me to see the way some people walk up to people and shove a camera in their face. If you want to create truly relaxed and intimate portraits, spend some time getting to know your subject first.
I met another interesting farmer named Onisim while trespassing on English Royal Property in the village of Breb in the Maramures Region. To those of you wondering whether that was a typo, it wasn’t. Prince Charles has a fascination with Romanian culture and has bought a number of small, traditional wooden houses. While he has done a lot of great work in a nearby village of Viscri to preserve traditional rural crafts and techniques, his small plot of land in Breb lies derelict.
After informing us that he knew the names of every one of his sheep, Onisim eagerly took us on a very thorough tour of his farm. He showed us his traditional hay stack, cow shed, barn, every room in his house (toilet included) and explained through a series of 30 year old photos, how his old sunflower oil press used to work. It was fascinating. The climax of this impromptu presentation into his world was his pride and joy; his palinka distillery where he brewed the plum infused 55% spirit. Offering a whole cup full, containing enough alcohol to kill even the most experienced of Romanian Palinka drinkers, I politely had a few sips before Onisim suggested maybe I would prefer the weak, 40% alcohol, ‘ladies version’. His passion and animation were infectious and so typical of the joy we witnessed all over Romania.
While I have continually raved here about the wonderful Romanian people, the third experience I would like to talk about is walking in the rolling hills in the Bukovina Region at sunrise. The hill above Paltinu is a photographer’s playground, but the locals’ office. The hillside is a patchwork of farms. Traditional, iconic Romanian Haystacks and boundary fences are the perfect photographic foreground, acting as leading lines to the Carpathian Mountains beyond. Although I enjoyed the morning for the feeling of peace that it offered, the incredible red glow as the sun broke the horizon, and the opportunity to continue my 6 minute exposure project certainly enhanced the experience.