One late evening about a month ago, I was standing by a projector, holding a glass of whiskey, in Amanda Lucier's garage in Norfolk, Virginia, wrapping up the latest Hop the Fence Photo Night, when the question hit me.
For those of you who don't know, Hop the Fence is a home made event usually hosted by Amanda or next door neighbour Matt Eich, where every two months or so, a bunch of photographers get together in a garage, present work, then share questions, feedback, food, cigarettes and of course some type of intoxicating liquids.
We were almost done when, after I had showed some pictures towards the end of the evening, Matt and Amanda both shot a couple of questions that made me break out in a cold sweat. They basically asked the same thing. "What is your work focused on?" That happens to be a question that I have been asking myself for quite some time and have yet to come with a coherent answer. My work so far - whatever that may represent - has no focus.
A quick look at my website will undoubtedly reveal to any visually trained eye a mild case of photographic schizophrenia. There is a little bit of everything, but no clear underlying theme within this collection of images that I sometimes pompously call my documentary portfolio. That may well be a consequence of several years of working for a news agency, where you are supposed to be a jack of all trades. But this could simply be another excuse, since there are examples of wire photographers who manage to fit the job description perfectly and find their own voice at the same time.
For about a year or so, since I have started to really dig into this issue rigorously, I have been feeling like a lens with a really slow autofocus, trying to find a point of reference in the dark. Which is probably why my reply to the garage audience was a little rant centered on what I did not like to photograph, rather than what I did, and why I didn't really feel comfortable working in Romania. You know, the typical grass-is-always-greener-elsewhere tirade that lazy people come up with.
Back in Bucharest, the question did not fade away. Quite on the contrary, it ruined several good nights' sleep and pushed my anxiety to very insightful edges. However, repeatedly going back to that night in Norfolk, some sort of answer began to take shape. A few weeks ago I was reading an article in a Romanian newspaper, about a family of four women who have left Moldova for Romania, when it suddenly dawned on me. Over the last five years, I have never completely felt at home, no matter where I happened to be. Professionally, the US will always be my home. Socially, it could be anywhere in the Balkans. There is no perfect mix. Probably one way to deal with this constant conundrum it is to document the lives of people who are somehow adapting to a new home. This concept of home, or, more precisely, home away from home, is of course a broad and generous one. It taps into so many issues, such as migration, family, homelessness, sense of belonging, national identity and so on. For now, it is a starting point. A framework. It is the first topic personal enough to be worth exploring at length, when shooting for myself.
The day I read the article about the women from Moldova, something clicked. The authors of the article, writer Ionela Savescu and photographer Vlad Stanescu of Evenimentul Zilei, were so kind as to connect me with the women. Diamantina Cojocaru has left The Republic of Moldova and arrived in Bucharest on January 14th 2011, along with her daughters Ana and Victoria, 16 and 14 years old, and her mother Valentina Braduteanu, a retired neurologist from Chisinau. They moved to a two room apartment in Bucharest, where they live mostly on welfare. It is a tough life, but they say it is nothing compared to what they ran from. Below are some pictures from my first few visits with them. They cannot afford a washing machine, so they do laundry in a social laundromat, to which they get by subway. The laundry bag weighs about 10 kilos on the way there. On the way back, the clothes are wet, which builds up weight on Diamantina's shoulder. Later in the week, she took Ana and Victoria for the first time to the Natural Sciences Museum. Back home another day, the girls did homework, where the photographer couldn't help bending some ethics and helped translate a few paragraphs for the English assignment.
I am grateful for their trust and cooperation and hope that their story will make some of the people living in Bucharest appreciate what they take for granted and perhaps lend a hand to Diamantina and her family, in whatever form possible. They certainly need it.