Romania is a country that just never seems to get good press. The historical depiction of post-Ceausescu Romania in the international media has evolved from the images of bastard street children roaming its urban centres while sniffing glue, to the impending migration bomb, to a stable yet dysfunctional member of the European Union, where hundreds of webcam girls live. For whatever reason, Romania is a source of anxiety for Western Europeans. The very name of the country denotes all Western sexual, economic, and sanitary traumatic fantasies. It is these very beautiful, yet dark and twisted fantasies that Mihai Barabancea‘s work embodies.
The Bucharest-based photographer has published two highly controversial books – Overriding Sequence (2014) and Sarutul/ The Kiss(2017) – which capture a grotesque and overwhelming sense of emotion. Barabancea’s photos showcase drug users, prostitutes, and homeless subjects largely in moments of shock. His guerilla-style photography does not focus on beautifying the circumstances but captures the essence of the moment instead. Despite the surreal nature of the photography, his work has a factual quality, with its use of film and coarse framing. It is simultaneously both sickening and liberating.
Perhaps due to its visceral quality, Barabancea work could be accused by some of sustaining the negative image of Romania. However, I believe his work operates more similarly to a Rorschach test, which reveals others’ presumptions of Romanian culture. Speaking to Barabancea, you slowly realize that he is not fetishizing the poverty and depravity that his work captures. He is not simply observing his protagonists’ environment, but as an ex-drug user himself, he understands how it is to be desperate and what it means to hurt. Reading back on his other interviews and speaking to him, he shows himself to be earnest, kind and charming. With this, I cannot help but believe his work has a much greater degree of empathy and love than I initially believed. Barabancea offers far more than just another depiction of squalor- it is way more complex than I am ready to presume.
With your first book in particular, your depiction of Romania is rather visceral and perhaps a shock to many from outside the country. Clearly, anyone who has been to Romania knows this only represents one face of society. Did you feel that individuals responded to your book differently in Romania compared to those outside the country?
Of course, the images are a particularly extreme type of reality. Remember in Predator 2, where there is a scene in the slaughter house where some stealth soldiers are trying to hunt the predator but he can’t see them? He flips through different light filters (X-Ray, thermal view, infrared), and he finally spots them through changing his vision.
My style is a cocktail of genres. For me, encapsulating reality or altering it by being present in the moment is the same. I call this process “Hyper-Reality-Hacking.” Editing both the books I rejected a lot of the initial images, so they organically select themselves and create this almost musical sequencing. The rhythm is visceral! I think everyone could feel the musical rhythm inside and could experience the same deep emotions.
Of course, Romanians could relate to them better, like a moment of deja vu – but emotions have no borders. Emotions are eternal. They suspend animation and create mental micro-universes.
Your first book, Overriding Sequence, was a major success with a lot of Western press. Your second is far more conceptual and has a much stronger theory to it. Yet, it did not gather the same amount of attention. Do you ever feel that Western audiences and publishers simply want you to stick to the same post-apocalyptic vision of post-communist Romania than expand beyond that scope? Just tell the same old story about a trashy Eastern Europe?
I imagine the audience could not comprehend information other than the one propagated in media. It’s like they are used to just one type of food. If you’re a vegetarian, you don’t eat meat, so instinctively you reject it. So let us stick to whatever we know about Romania: Casa Poporului, Hagi , Nadia Comaneci, Dracula, and Brancusi.
At the end of the day, the imagery of Overriding Sequence is more straightforward. It is more in your face, like a power journey through life & death and harsh hyper-realities of Romania. In the corners of hell, you can still save yourself through love, so there is always hope! Yes, the book is about the limits of society!
In my second book Sarutul/ The Kiss, I targeted the limits of visual arts. I collaborated with graphic designer Cristiana Costin in a more post-photography type of product. The book is also accessible for the visually impaired through Braille and tactile transparent varnishing on top of the photos. Sarutul/ The Kiss focuses on how “love is blind” and how feelings could reverse polarity by transforming into hate. The environment is the same but the imagery is more poetic and enigmatic.
So, perhaps publishers and the general audience could relate better to more simple, straightforward visual information in general and they are more attracted to exotic worlds. I have the same reactions when I see books about Africa. People need this gap to reevaluate their own existence.
You have stated in an interview that you dealt with your own drug issues. I imagine throughout your drug use, the scenes that you photographed were something you may have seen regularly. In this sense, you are not simply a voyeur of darkness but someone with some understanding of living on the margins. What was your relationship with the individuals you photographed like?
I used to put a lot of chemicals in my system. I was a vagabond lone wolf, wasted-as-fuck, walking through the holographic cityscape with his point & shoot camera while engaging in all these experimental performances with random strangers.
I was on the edge, so if I had continued I would have ended up dead.
I mentally programmed myself to stop and focus on healthy things. Most importantly, on photography. The Overriding Sequence book title represents the extremely tragic situations all of us could overcome and it’s inspired by my own story.
I keep my faith in my photography. Those that I shot live on forever in my work. The way things randomise and harmonise, I can feel the presence of God in all those I met. I’m fully dedicated to this obsession of mine. If you fuck with my art, then I’ll fuck you up also. It’s life and death for me.
Many of the reviews of your work speak about how it documents “the underbelly” of Romanian life. However, poverty continues throughout Romania, forcing many to live on the margins. Do you believe that your work represents an underbelly? Or, just a part of society that people prefer to forget?
Statistically, poverty will always be there because it is generated by intense globalisation.
When I started, I didn’t understand the implications of my work and how people would react to images outside their comfort zone.
It is a big world out there. You can find whatever adventure you’re looking for. I’m not focusing on poverty but on the unusual anomalies in multiple systems. If you look inside yourself, you’ll find the limits of your own imagination. Don’t think that I’m just photographing some poor people.
Like a matryoshka, I’m in beast mode inside the guts of a monster, but the monster is those who think they understand the world. But things are always shifting shapes and energy is unstable travel. I just ride those energy waves in order to photograph and feel the energy!
The subjects that I photograph transcend physical planes, they symbolize typical emotions and different archetypes and old age situations. People ask me about how dangerous it was to take these photos or ask stupid questions about how I found these people. The real danger is later, when people judge your stuff not having the big picture or experience; just seeing some residual track in the form of an image or not differentiating a person from their art.
For some time, Romania has experienced tremendous political turmoil as a consequence of widespread corruption. Meanwhile, the hopes of the European Union and neoliberalism alleviating Romania’s problems have proven unfulfilled. Many of your subjects are those who are the most oppressed and forgotten in society. Do you believe your work takes on a political dimension in depicting them?
Mother Russia is cutting Europe like a knife through butter. We’re living in dangerous times. On a larger scale, we are all forgotten. The gap between different people is increasing in size. I don’t want to focus on the political aspects but I’m sure there is a political dimension to my work. It’s how you interpret images and perhaps some could use it as a bad press towards Romania’s young democracy. It’s like a machete in that you can use it to inflict pain or for surviving in the jungle. I personally encountered a bad situation when Romanian authorities censured my photographs because they were scared of this kind of exposure outside the borders, but I will not say more.