Mon, 27 Mar 2023

A Romanian who quit his corporate career has found his calling photographing life in his country's most isolated villages.

Mihnea Turcu was a successful Bucharest banker who, in 2009, had every reason to expect a long and profitable corporate career. Then one day that year, everything changed after he stooped to enter an old man's hut in Romania's Maramures County.

The villager who invited Mihnea Turcu into his Maramures home in 2009.

Inside that home, the pixie-like villager opened up to Turcu about life and spirituality and the pair spoke for hours. Days later, back in his office in Bucharest, Turcu recalled "my eyes were staring into the computer, but my heart was far away, inside [the old man's] little room."

Mihnea Turcu

The photographer, who recently accrued a highly engaged audience of 50,000 followers on Instagram, explained to RFE/RL how he then walked away from a banking career and into the uncertainty of full-time photography.

Young men play in the snow outside Moldovita Monastery in Romania's Suceava County.

Despite a steadily rising paycheck in a corporate job he enjoyed, Turcu says he "was starting to long for something else, it was freedom, being out there."

"I felt like with just 20 days of holidays from the corporation each year, I was losing something in life, something that will pass by and I'll never get back," he recalls.

A Christian woman photographed at an unidentified location in Romania in 2019.

Turcu then set about scaling down his expenses, paying off his debts, and calculating how much money he needed to survive each year. In late 2013, Turcu quit the bank and began a full-time career as a photographer. "After I handed in my resignation I went into the bathroom and cried," he says. "I stepped into photography with a lot of fear."

A village farm caught in morning light in the Apuseni Mountains in 2021.

The fledgling photographer initially relied on contacts in the corporate world for commercial jobs that would pay the bills. But whenever he could, he drove into the countryside for days-long trips to pursue his true passion, photographing rural Romanian life, which in some places looks the same today as it did a century ago.

A villager in Maramures County takes a drink while preparing his fields for spring in 2010.

Turcu is unusual in that he is willing to focus on both the aesthetic beauty of rural life and the often bleak reality faced by Romania's poorest villagers in areas that have been largely abandoned by younger generations.

A girl plays alone in a village playground in the southern Tulcea County in 2010.

After years of obscurity on Instagram, where he posted only his more technically perfect and polished photos, Turcu says that he changed his approach in the fall of 2021 and began to treat social media as a kind of "journal."

A woman scoops seeds out of pumpkins in a village in Maramures County in 2008.

"I thought, 'F*** it, I'm going to post everything I have that means something to me, no matter the quality,'" the photographer says.

Turcu's young son looking at a cross carved into the attic of an old house in Maramures County in 2022. The boy said 'Look Dad, there's God here,' when he saw the cutout.

As people started to share Turcu's images, especially among diaspora communities who had been forced to leave rural Romania for economic reasons, the photographer realized "this is not about me, it's about my subjects, it occurred to me: 'What am I doing keeping these images from people?'"

Young ethnic Ukrainian villagers kiss in a local cemetery in the north of Romania in 2022.

Along with his intimate portraits of rural people, Turcu writes often detailed descriptions of the moments before and after the photos were taken.

A dance in Botiza, Maramures County, in 2019. 'You have seen the people from the villages working. You have seen them getting through life and at peace with themselves,' Turcu says. 'But there was not only work, there was also dancing and flirting and fun and love.'

The extended captions are a result in part of his frustration with what he says are the limits of straight photojournalism, a discipline he studied closely before embarking on his photography career.

A sheep being weighed at a market in Maramures County in 2009. 'Back then a village would have a certain day, every couple of weeks, when people would meet early in the morning and everybody would bring up for sale whatever they had in excess.'

"I don't think a picture can cover the whole story. I have feelings, I'm present there, the people use a certain rural vocabulary; all of that affects me,' Turcu says. "Sometimes I want to cry. I'm trying to preserve as much as I can the feelings from the encounters and put these into words without exaggerating."

A villager in Apuseni in the autumn of 2022. After Turcu made this photo, the impoverished farmer asked him, 'Would you be able to take me to Bucharest with you? I want to go to the parliament; I want to tell those guys up there how we live...'

In January 2023, the pixie-like Maramures man whose simple and devout life so inspired the photographer, died. Turcu says he plans to create a book about him from photographs he took and conversations they shared.

Festive bread ready for baking in the week before Easter in Maramures County in 2022.

When asked for a memory of the villager who changed his life, Turcu told a story that hints at the urgency with which the photographer is documenting what remains of Romania's fading rural culture.

"One day in June we were sitting in the grass and he said, 'Listen, that's the cuckoo singing now. In a few days he will stop singing and it means summer days will start to shorten again.'' Turcu recalls. 'He had a lot of knowledge about the nature around us. All that is two meters underground now; we've lost it."

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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