The village Sarbi is located in the Casau Valley, in northern Romania, in the Maramures region - the last bastion of Occidental peasantry. I met most of these girls in 1999 when I lived in their village for a year of days. I made images of their parents and grandparents, knowing their life style would rapidly change. At that time, I didn’t spend a lot of time with the youth because I was very interested in the older generation and the stories they shared.
Sometime in 2012, I realized the youth of the village were beginning to socialize on Facebook. It was then when I began getting to know them, by ‘liking’ their selfies and places they ‘checked’ in to. Their lives are straddled between two worlds, one of the past and one of the present. Even though they are excited to embrace the new ways of modernity (cell phones, clothing, Facebook,…) they are quite keen on donning their folk costumes, at whatever expense or occasion. One may be surprised that a headscarf may cost over $300 or a skirt over $700.
The traditional blouse is typically made by a girl’s mother. The fabric is hand-woven cotton, then smocked and cut laced. This takes a woman months to make. If a girl’s mother is unable to make a traditional blouse because of lack of time, ability, or poor eyesight, the family will pay $3,000 to have another woman make it. Their traditional outfits have in a sense become their dowry because the woven tapestries, such as pillowcases and dishtowels, are out of fashion. And instead of the dowry being displayed in the home, it can now be displayed on Facebook.
Ileana and Valerica, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Valerica, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Alina, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Codruta, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Giorgiana, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Lidia, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Lidia, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Victorita, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Maria and Giorgiana, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Livia, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Alexandra, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Ionela, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
Arleziana, Sirbi, Maramures, 2013
This re-photographic project follows my 2011 book, The Color of Hay: The Peasants of Maramureș, which spans an eight-year period documenting farming culture and traditional peasant life in northern Romania. This area is home to some of Europe’s largest traditionally managed grasslands, which store the vitality of summer’s grass as food for the coming years. “Sezatoare,” (pronounced Sha-za-tua-re) is a time and place when women gather to work on weaving, embroidery, and other textile folk crafts while sharing stories. These images are one part of the “Sezatoare” project.
In 1999 I began to witness and visually document the traditions and cultural practices of the Maramureș rural peasantry. I have seen the impact of modern life on traditional farming practices, religious ceremonies, folk costumes, and local fashion. The peasant experience in Maramureș is similar to what agrarian peoples have experienced elsewhere around the globe, especially those communities that have come into direct contact with urbanized cultures. Like in many parts of the world, residents in developing areas often want to catch up and feel modern, and so no longer place value on things they associate as “primitive” or “backward.”
In 2012, I began to re-photograph some of the places I knew well in the village Sarbi, where I lived for a year in 1999. The color photographs are from 2012 and the black and white photographs are from 1999. Each photograph is printed, then hand-stitched together by me, with woolen thread that I unraveled from an old woman’s apron. These aprons (zadii) are worn daily by many of the older women.
Batrine, Sarbi, 1999 (color 2013)
Walking Home, Sarbi, 1999 (color 2013)
Cart, Sarbi, 1999 (color 2013)
Funeral, Sarbi, 1999 (color 2013)
Victorita's Kitchen, Sarbi, 2003 (color 2013)
Shepherd, Sarbi, 1999 (color 2013)
Vlad's Great Aunt, Sarbi, 1999 (color 2013)
Wedding Procession, Sarbi, 2000 (color 2013)
Sledding, Sarbi, 2000 (color 2013)
Ce sa faci?
"Ce sa faci?" can be heard throughout Romania. It translates into "what can you do?" Another version is "ce sa fac" which is "what can I do?" It can also be seen as a national anthem because everyone says it and for many reasons. It is often used in a compassionate and empathetic way and puts everyone at ease and somewhat at the same level.
Surviving the decades long dictatorship and the harsh realities of communism can perhaps be understood with this phrase. The helplessness, disappointment, or frustration are easily understood when one hears these words.
Even though Romania has joined the European Union, life is not much different for many. On Saturdays, some folks take what ever they can to market and display their items as prestigious as possible. Handmade clothes, warn books, art, mother boards, and milk are all for sale.
The Color of Hay
At the turn of the millennium, for a year of days beginning in the autumn of 1999, Kathleen and Henry lived in a remote village, in the Maramures region of northern Transylvania, Romania. This region is unique amongst the former Soviet Bloc for the way it has preserved its way of life. After World War II, for forty years of communist rule, a few valleys in Maramures escaped collectivized farming because of poor soil and hilly landscape. In the post cold-war period, preservation continued because of pervasive impoverishment which slows the advancement of modernity into the reaches of northern Transylvania.
But nothing will stand still forever. While the older generation still don winter footwear that pre-date the Romans, the younger generation flock to market to buy shoes bearing that ubiquitous swoosh of western manufacture.
Making a Haystack, Sîrbi
Vasile tosses the dried
hay up to Ileana, who tamps it down so that it can be combed to allow the rain
to run off. She must always stay within grabbing distance of the haystack’s
central pole, lest she fall. When they are done, he will lay a pole on the side
of the haystack, and she will slide down and into his arms.
Hay is a lifeblood for these farmers.
Their cows and horses have an appetite that must be satisfied three times a
Easter Sunday, Sîrbi
Fashion has changed as
women replace the homespun black in their skirts with factory printed fabric
and given up their leather and wool opinci -- the footwear of tradition
-- for vinyl pumps.
What remains constant is
Sunday afternoon, when one learns to flaunt one’s sense of style.
Boys in Trees, Sîrbi
After months indoors,
fearing the health dangers of drafts and cold breezes, a balmy day liberates
the young boys of the village to run wild.
Ion made sure we felt welcome in
his village. As we passed his home, he rushed inside and emerged with his arms
dripping with walnuts. He would not relent until we had stuffed our pockets
When he was a child,
walnuts were used as currency for all manner of goods. Even today they are used
in trade with the gypsies for pots.
Slănina finds a central
place in every picnic. Here in the autumn, supply is beginning to wear thin, as
the smoked, pork fatback was separated from its pig the previous winter. Yet,
even strangers will offer generous hunks to travelers from faraway lands.
The Miller’s Boy, Sîrbi
only five, Vasile helps out at his family’s mill. First, he adjusts the speed
at which corn falls into the millstone to set the cornmeal’s fineness. Then he
holds the bag to catch the ground corn.
Haystack Village, Sîrbi
Potato Pile, Sîrbi
Potatoes can be stored
through the winter in a hole outside under a pile of straw. During the course
of the year, they’ll be turned twice and scraped free of sprouts to keep them
The Field, Maramures
In the wide-open fields,
fences are used to keep animals out, not in. These stacks will stand in the
field through the grazing season. Haystacks outside the fence must be moved - or
become a snack for livestock.
Vasile and Palăguţa Borodi, Budeşti
Romanians from the cities sometimes complain that
in Maramureş the people have everything.
“They just go to the woods and get what they
Winter Festival, Sighet
coming to the pagan-inspired Winter Festival can choose to be demon “drac,” or
play actors in ritual dances.
Birth of Florica, Sîrbi
While the birthing mother
stands, the family pulls out the steaming calf with the help of towels twined
around its hooves. It will stay with its mother for a few hours, then be fed
the rest of its life by her owner as a way of insuring there is enough milk
left for the family’s needs.
Pig Head, Sîrbi
There is virtually no waste
when butchering a pig. Even the cranium is boiled for soup and soap.
The Harvest, Sîrbi
In August, oat fields paint the landscape with golden rectangles. A
family must cut their crop before it is fully ripe, or the seeds will be lost to
the earth. To prepare the stalks for being threshed, they first tie them in
Hat Maker and Storyteller, Sîrbi
Hats are sewn from
ribbons of woven straw. This traditional “clop” hat maker, Ion, trades with a
distant Saxon village for his materials. “They are the only ones who still use
old straw and know how to make the weave tight and soft.”
Three Bătrîne, Budeşti
Little girls and grandmothers wear the square hand-woven aprons called zadii.
Older folks of both sexes wear the wool wrappings around their shins, called obdeli,
which are tied in place by thongs on their pointed shoes, called opinci.
Though these shoes are now made from old inner tubes and car tires, they are
still recognizable as footwear that predated the Romans.
They dress in their
finest on Sundays and religious holidays. A Maramureşancă (Maramureş peasant
woman) knows that city folk do not dress or believe as she does. Even though
those people may command more respect, she is certain that her way is proper
for her and her family.
Demian’s Horse, Sîrbi
When a farmer takes his
horse out into the world, he fastens red tassels to his harness. Should harm
befall him, it would mean great hardship for his family. “If my horse breaks
its leg, I can’t even eat it.”
After years of idolizing all that is new, a sudden shift made old headscarves the “it” fashion item. And suddenly an older aunt’s forgotten linens are rediscovered family assets.
Wedding Couple, Bogdon Voda
Ten in the morning. The
wedded couple takes a break outside from the twenty-four hour wedding cycle
which has already included yesterday morning’ preparations, a town procession,
a religious ceremony, a banquet, and continual dancing, which still carries on
After the Funeral, Văleni
body is buried, mourners return to the deceased’s home for the feast. Because a
funeral service typically lasts four hours, appetites have peaked. No manner of
bad weather will discourage the crowd.
Easter Bread, Sîrbi
Easter marks the changing of everything. Spring demonstrates the
earth’s resurrection in imitation of their Lord’s. Greetings change from “Good
day, where are you going?” to the formal exchange: “Christ has risen!” followed
by the response: “Truly He has risen!”
For women, it is an annual opportunity to show their artistic flair as
they rival the gate carver with decorated bread.
Private Dirge for Anuţa, Breb
The first duty when finding a dead body is to light a candle to
frighten away the spirit of death. Three days of funeral preparations follow.
Villages have no undertakers. Families prefer to dress their departed themselves.
Anuţa’s cousin cries out a sing-song mourning dirge, her relatives prepare for
the priest and the village waits in her courtyard outside. She cries the words
of ‘mother’ as they do when mourning all women.
Sunday Worship, Sîrbi
Tradition runs deep in villages
with five-hundred-year-old log-cabin churches. Where a man stands for service
and where he puts his hat, are privileges passed down through inheritance.
Women in Back, Sîrbi
Maramures, Orthodox churches are divided in half. The front half is for men, while
the back and outside are for women.
First Plowing, Sîrbi
A good man
will plow more than an acre in a day. A good woman will be sure his fried bread
and soup arrive at lunchtime - still hot from home.
The nearest high school
to this village is an hour by bus. Two years ago, a majority of children
stopped their education at the eighth grade. Now, a majority spends the school
week with relatives in Sighet working toward a diploma.
soon begin helping his father wrangle horses in summer and carry water from the
frozen river in winter. As he grows, his hands will become large and callused
from hard work. Yet his mother will never let him go outside without covering
Spring Storm, Glod
gossipers know when to exaggerate, when to tell the truth, and when to pretend
they saw nothing.
Cleaning their Church, Rozavlea
Each village has an annual pilgrimage claimed as their special event.
Peasants from many surrounding villages will attend service at Rozavlea’s
church in honor of Saint Maria’s birthday.
women of Rozavlea know their friends in
other villages will have a critical eye toward
Sunday Stroll, Berbeşti
individual traditions. After Easter, the girls of Berbeşti spend a full afternoon
circulating on the village road to strut their stuff.
Ileana Doca, Sîrbi
“I’m only one person now, and I
have to do everything. Feed the pig, make the food, and clean the clothes. I
find a way to do everything, yet I can’t die.
Life will be better when I’m
The Weavers, Sîrbi
summer, the family loom lies jumbled in the barn like a heap of broken scythe
handles. But in winter, it is time for women to maintain the family’s supply of
woven wealth, and for a young woman to begin creating her dowry. The loom takes
shape in the family living space and its shuttle again flies for hours a day.
There are many girls who
grow up to adopt the old peasant look. But almost every woman goes through
teenage years of flash.
Petru and the Claie, Sîrbi
quality of a haystack can be told by its color. The quality of a man by the
time it takes him to bring one home.
Black cloth is the mark
of a widow. She will wear something black every day she remains on earth until
God decides she should join her husband.
One of the most misunderstood and discriminated ethnic people is the Romani (gypsies). What we know is that they migrated to Europe, from India, in the 14th century. During communism, Romania had the highest number of Romani, though today they, and other Romanians, can travel freely throughout Europe because of Romania's membership in the European Union.
The Romani way of life is different and because of this, they are resented and despised. There are concerted efforts by way of NGOs attempting to break stereotypes and getting the Romania assimilated and accepted in mainstream society. This is quite a complex issue which I will leave to the hands of the scholars.
When I arrived in Romania in 1999, I was easily moved by the exoticism of the Romani and was guilty of seeing them as moving cliches. It was easy for me to converse with them, in Romanian, and see them as a "Romanian." However, this was not appreciated by my host village, or for that matter, many local nationals. People warned me my camera gear would be stolen, of being killed, or worse, being seen with them. And yet, some of the same people who heeded me, bought pots and rugs from them, loved their music on the pop charts, and even invited them to sleep on their floor as they were traveling selling their wares.
As I traveled throughout Transylvania, I met a wide range of Romani. Here I share some of my encounters and memories.
Honghe Photo Festival
Xiang Sha Wan
In the spring of 2011, I received one of those dream e-mails asking me if I'd be interested in having my photographs exhibited in China and attend the event.
Laura Moya, Director of Photo Lucida, was asked by her colleague Yan Li, to curate and exhibition called the "2011 Invitational Exhibition in Xiang Sha Wan, Inner-Mongolia." I exhibited my black and white photographs from Maramures, Romania alongside Nancy Newberry's "Mum" series and Jane Alden Steven's "Seeking Perfection: Traditional Apple Growing in Japan." Our work was part of a larger exhibit in the desert dome about Folk Culture and Non-Material Heritage, as well as in conjunction with China Photo Magazines's 2nd Annual Photo Festival. Most of the attendees were Chinese professional male photojournalists, three Magnum photographers, and the Women's Chinese Photography Association.
I was curious about the women in the red vests and was more interested in photographing the photographers than the photo opportunities they provided for us. Most of the women began photography as a hobby after retirement, and a few were professional. Some of them knocked each other over to get a photo-opp.
A key difference between the few American photographers and the Chinese had to with Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment." The festival supplied camels running down a sand dune, kite flyers, models, and Mongolian folk dancers. The moments were already decided. As Eli Reed of Magnum said to me, "you know what a photo-opp is? Not."
An Important Man
There was a military general engaged in photographic enjoyment. He had a personal assistant who carried his equipment and water.
Chinese Women Photographers Association
I found the women in red vests curious and found out most of them were retired and took up photography as a hobby. They were exited to be there and at times aggressive in route to get the 'shot.'
The best way to get deep into the desert from the hotel was via this old ski lift, which was transported from somewhere else in China.
Daily Commute Part 2
Once off the ski-lift and sand leggings donned, we rode a tank festooned as an ancient ship.
Place of Respite
Areas of shade were graciously offered throughout the desert resort.
Mongolian Sand Sculpture
Throughout the desert resort, tourists were entertained and sand was created into art.
Tourism in the Desert
It took me a couple days to understand why anyone would want to take their vacation in the desert heat. I realized that there was no where in China, or elsewhere, like this place.
Walking Towards the Photo Op
A few hundred photographers descended the sandscape to get closer to their photo opportunity, which was supplied by the host.
What is Magnum Doing Here?
Three Magnum photographers were invited to participate in the photo festival, as well as compete with the three best Chinese photographers.
Mongolian Folk Dancers on Break
Just over the border is Mongolia. The resort hired this folk dance group to entertain tourists and guests.
Chasing After the Photo Op
Mongolian dancers were hired to folk dance and performed throughout the desert resort, providing entertainment and photo opportunities.
Another Photo Op
The wait time for dancers or animals to photograph became my time to photograph.
I Was A Photo Op
I was one of 6 westerns in the desert resort. We were all considered a photographic opportunity.
In between activities, kites were flown and decorated the sky.
Beautiful tall thin women in fashion dresses were supplied for photographic engagement.
And handsome Mongolian men were costumed and poised.
Desert Art Palace
Mongolian inspired music and dance was performed in the art dome, as well as Academy Awards styled award show for China's best photographers.
We partook of some tourist fun as well. This was our commute to the next activity. Behind us is the Desert Art Palace, which holds exhibitions and performances.
Camels in Route
The resort provided camel rides, horse rides, a zip line, sand sledding, electric kites, music, and dance.
A hundred camels or so were about to be ridden down a sand dune. This was going to be a terrific photographic moment.
My camera was not suited for this kind of photography. I was not suited for this kind of photography.
In My Back Yard
My most impressionable memories from childhood are playing outdoors for hours with kids from the neighborhood. I lived on an acre of land with my four siblings, which was adjacent to a suburban street with typical smaller plots of land. We had two wooded areas with paths, and a pond, which we fished in, and ice-skated on in winter. Playtime was the most significant past time. I was not a reader.
There is not huge yard for my kids, but they do have a shared parking lot and neighbors. My oldest son’s most sacred past time is playing with them, in this way, he is very much like me. Our ‘back yard’ is a safe-zone where the kids can explore through their imagination, problem solve, and play hard. I recognize that these will be some of their most precious memories from childhood.
There is not one image of me playing as a child in my neighborhood, yet I remember every path, nook, yard, and friend. It was where I felt the happiest. If I had a small album of photos of some of those moments, I would cherish it.
John and Woody
Preparing for Yard Sale
Dr. George, my son's pediatrician, is the Japanese American version of George McFly (Marty McFly's dad in Back to the Future).