Photographing Bucharest's Tiny Identical Studio Flats and Their Diverse Inhabitants

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Photographing Bucharest's Tiny Identical Studio Flats and Their Diverse Inhabitants

4.3.15

The photographer in his studio flat

This article was originally published by VICE Romania

Eastern Europe is paved with dystopian council estates – all divided into tiny studio apartments built to house the thousands of workers who were moved from their villages to industrial centres in the time of communism. As you can probably imagine, most of these apartments are much smaller and in worse shape than anything similar in the West. So much worse in fact that they grabbed the attention of Romanian photographer Bogdan Girboveanu. Fascinated by the anthropology and the geometry of these spaces, Bogdan set out to photograph all the studio flats in his building.

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Since my neighbours only welcome me in their homes when they want to show me the leaks caused on their ceiling by my flat's old pipes, I called Bogdan to talk about the difficulties he encountered while working on this project.

VICE: How did you come up with the idea for this project?
Bogdan Girboveanu: Just by thinking about my personal space, the place in which I live, meditate, work and make love. I had started taking pictures in the studio and had become obsessed with that space – I found it looked completely different depending on the angle I'd take the photo from, because the perspective over that space was changing. I think I was passionate about that cube because I'm also obsessed with mathematics and precision.

And how did you end up visiting your neighbours?
Well, I thought that practice makes perfect so I decided to copy this cell all the way down. The problem was that I didn't know if all the studio flats in my building were the same. I live on the 10th floor and was lucky that the lady downstairs, the one living on the ninth floor, asked me to help her with a door from inside her flat that had a hinge problem. I was shocked when I got inside, because it was something else completely. I mean, the space was identical but the décor was completely different.

Romanians are quite difficult when it comes to being photographed. How did you manage to convince people to let you inside their homes?
Again, I started out from mathematics and took advantage of all the connections between the building's residents. From the neighbour that lives on the ninth floor, I ended up in the room on the eighth floor. Eight is familiar with both floor nine and seven, and so on. It was like a game. I had a few issues with the younger neighbours, who didn't understand why I wanted to do this and were complaining that their girlfriends weren't home. I'd leave and return later until I pulled it off. Also, I only took photos of them on Sundays, when people tend to be more relaxed.

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Mrs Biţa has been living in her studio flat on the ninth floor since 1967

I like that there's a character in each photo.
It doesn't work without one. A friend used to say that a photograph without a character is like a postcard. A lot of people asked me why they needed to be sat, but I told them that was my only request. I wasn't interested in neither the space's cleanliness, nor that they'd sit in a certain spot. I sat in all possible manners in my own room and found the one that made for the best composition.

I didn't want them to stand up, because that would look like I'm drawing a line through that space. And they take up a lot of volume anyway, even when they're sitting down; I've always liked the idea of a compositional portrait which also captures the atmosphere, not just the person's face.

I find the decorations in old people's houses fascinating and so completely different to those in the younger apartments.
There were age patterns; The young ones had a minimal, airy style, while the older ones took the opposite approach. I'm convinced that our generation is also going to grow old and become hoarders, although maybe we'll be blessed with bigger spaces. It's not easy to get rid of all the things you pile up in a lifetime, even if others don't find them pretty.

What are the strangest things you've seen inside a house?
I was more interested in why those things were there, rather than asking what's this or that. For example, on the ninth floor, on top of the wardrobe that's visible in the background, there are some books placed in an impressive way and I asked her why they're placed like this and she simply said: "So that they don't fall." The books placed on top of each other were intertwined with the ones standing up in a pretty symmetrical way; that was the decoration she had come up with.

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It's fascinating how different from one another your characters are, through the environments that they've created.
Yes, some have said that I was trying to show a mix of social classes, but I simply photographed the apartments of my neighbours. The lady whose face you can't see is a journalist with academic credentials. There was a lady on the first floor who used to be an illustrator for the National Bank of Romania; another lady was a house painter, and a gentleman – who told me his nickname was Don Lukas – made his money working abroad. They all have a story.

I think the most interesting image is the lady with the canopy bed. What's the deal with that?
The building is in close proximity to the market and that lady sometimes accommodates people who work there. They sleep in that canopy bed. That's why she's put a curtain on the side. She sleeps in the small bed right next to it.

How did the apartment block administrator react to the project?
He opened the door of an uninhabited studio for me. He let me in and happily talked to me and, because it was empty, I asked him to pose in the flat for me so I could have a character in that space too.

How did your subjects react when they saw the pictures?
Most asked me "Why are we so small?", because I had told them I was taking portrait photos, but they didn't know what technique I was using to capture their room for a portrait. And so they asked if I could take their pictures in a more restricted way, and I did. That seemed to satisfy them.

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