This Photographer Tracked Down Orphans 23 Years After She First Took Their Pictures
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This Photographer Tracked Down Orphans 23 Years After She First Took Their Pictures

Ceaușescu Decree no. 770 banned women from having abortions in Romania. That resulted in the birth of about 2 million children, who have since been known as "Generation Decree."
June 22, 2016, 3:35pm

In 1995—when Daniel Hostic was 12—he was sent to the hospital, where one of his kidneys was surgically removed. No one at the orphanage had agreed to the procedure—he had fallen victim to organ smugglers. Hostic now rents a home in the village of Popricani, where he worked at the orphanage for years. It has since become a center for adults with disabilities. He lost his job in 2014. All photos courtesy of Elisabeth Blanchet

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.

Nicolae Ceaușescu was the first and last president of the Socialist Republic of Romania. Although there are some stories about Ceaușescu being a sweetheart—giving the people houses they toiled for their entire lives and teaching them the virtue of patience through the art of waiting in line—it's safe to call him a dictator.

Several of the ideas Ceaușescu put into practice for his country wrecked several generations beyond his Communist regime. One of those ideas was Decree no. 770, issued in 1966 and enforced until 1989. Because the government wanted Romania's birthrate to soar, this decree banned women from having abortions. Following its enforcement, approximately 10,000 women (an unofficial number) are said to have died because of illegal abortions. It also resulted in the birth of about 2 million children, who have since been known as "Generation Decree." Some of those kids ended up in orphanages.

In 1993, photographer Elisabeth Blanchet visited one of those orphanages. She formed a bond with the staff and the children there, and so she kept going back to Romania regularly. In 2006, she decided to work on a project that would involve all the children she's met through the years. She searched for the people she had photographed when they were little and retook their photos. I spoke to Blanchet about what came to be Ceaușescu's Orphans, 20 Years Later.

VICE: How did the idea for your latest project come about?
Elisabeth Blanchet: A friend and I started a nonprofit in the 1990s called Action Orphelins. We would always go to the same orphanage in Popricani, close to Iași. We traveled there three or four times a year from 1993 to 1998, to try to make the orphans' living conditions a little better. Clean their bedrooms, fix hot water, and the showers—that sort of thing. And we paid people to try to find the kids' relatives in similar institutions. I shot many portraits of the children during those years, mostly because I'd come to care about them. Most of those photos were in black-and-white and shot on film.

Then in 2006, I was working for Time Out, and the editors and I wanted to do a positive piece on Romania, which was preparing to join the European Union. We planned on following someone who would come to look for work in the United Kingdom. I got in touch with my friend Dan, an orphan himself, who worked as a caretaker for the Popricani orphanage and asked him to help me find characters.

A. and B. are twins who were 13 in 1997. In 2006, B. fell victim to some pimps and was forced to work as a prostitute in Italy. She was arrested in a police raid and subsequently deported to Romania, where her sister, A., still lived. In 2009, they both went to Sweden to work as nannies. They're both currently living in Switzerland and are married to Swiss nationals.

What was seeing Dan again like?
Emotional. It was in December 2006, seven or eight years after we had last met. He showed me a dictionary I'd brought him years before, which he still had. That meeting got me wondering what happened to the rest of the children I had met. These kids had been an important part of my life for a while. That's how I decided to track them down and photograph them now, as adults.

How did you find them?
Well, I have Dan to thank for that. We relied on searching from one connection to the next and spreading the word. Most of them had stayed in touch with one another throughout the years, so that helped.

What was your experience of the orphanage like?
I came from such a privileged country, and I was shocked by the lack of affection these kids had to endure. They slept in huge, filthy dorms that smelled of urine. Sometimes three of them were forced to share the same bed. Some smaller children were bullied by the older kids in the orphanage. It was tough.

Carmen Bobocel was ten in 1995. A year ago, she was sent to Iași hospital for a pulmonary infection, and she died several weeks later. The picture on the right shows Dan Hostic, the orphanage caretaker, by her grave.

What was dealing with Romanian institutions such as orphanages like at the time?
It was all pretty complicated, and it was very hard to realize any plans. People from different organizations didn't see eye to eye but wouldn't get involved in other people's business either. There was a lot of competition between the orphanages, because some received more money than others. It was difficult to set things in motion because everything was also highly politicized.

Gheorghe "Dodo" Stîngaciu, the boy in the middle, was five years old in 1995. His picture was taken again in 2011, at age 20, in a bar in Popricani. Dodo is a construction worker. For a while, he worked with his father in a village outside Iași, but they didn't get along too well, so they stopped working together.

What kind of reactions did your project generate?
People were touched by the stories. I think this work could really mean something to younger generations, who might not know much about Ceaușescu's regime and how many lives it destroyed. It draws attention to Ceaușescu's mania about raising the birth ate, and can help both foreigners and Romanians understand this very dark past.

The first photograph was taken in 1995 in the orphanage in Popricani, when Adriana Lica was 12. The second photo was taken in 2008 in Iași, in a home she shared with other orphans from Popricani. She now lives in a small apartment with her three children. She doesn't work and lives on social aid.​

In 1997, Corina Darabană was 11. In October 2011, she's photographed in her own home, located about 25 miles outside of Iași. She's married with three children.​

The first photo was taken in 1997 and shows Daniela with Daniel—her twin brother. Daniela now rents a place in Iași and works in a clothing factory. She and her brother recently found out they come from a family of nine more children, whom they've also met since.

Dragoș was eight in 1993. In 2011, when the second photo was taken, he was living at the Sihla Monastery in Bucovina. Even as a young boy, Dragoș was very religious, and he decided to become a monk at 19. He's been living at Sihla since 2005, where he mostly tends the kitchen. "I'm happy here," he told Elisabeth when they met again. "I've found the place I belong."

Ioana (the second from the right) was 12 in 1993. The second photo was taken in Popricani in 2011, with her husband Mirel and three out of their four children. They live in the house of Mirel's family. He works on a construction site in France and comes home two or three times a year.

Liliana Condrea was 16 in 1997 (she's the one on the left). These days, she lives with her partner and three kids in her in-laws' home in Popricani.

M. was 12 in 1997. She moved to Switzerland in 2009, where she works as an au pair. She comes back to Popricani for her summer holidays.

Marian Juverdeanu was 16 in 1997 (he's the one in the upper bunk bed). The second photo was taken in a bar in Popricani, where he'd met with friends from the orphanage. Juverdeanu works as a cleaner at the Iași mall and lives in an apartment he rents with people from work.

Radu Esanu was 15 in 1993 (he's the one on the left). The second photo was taken in 2007 in Scotland—he worked on a British farm for three months every summer until 2013. He married Andreea in 2008, and they live in Botoșani with their daughter. Esanu studied agronomy in college, but was unable to find employment in that field.

Ramona Stănică was 12 in 1997. The second photo was taken in 2009, outside the orphanage. She had come back to visit Dan Hostic and some of her friends. She works in a bakery in a town outside Iași.