This article was originally published by VICE Romania.
For his latest project, titled The Intimate Room, photographer Cosmin Bumbut spent the past four years visiting 35 penitentiaries across Romania—including juvenile detention centers and prison hospitals—photographing the rooms built for conjugal visits. I got in touch with Cosmin to find out more about how that process works in Romania, and what his inspiration was.
VICE: How did you come up with the idea for The Intimate Room?
Cosmin Bumbut: Back in 2008, I visited a correctional facility in the city of Aiud, where I took some pictures of the inmates—before and after their conjugal visits had taken place. The problem with that was that once I looked at the photos, it was the people who caught my eye. I felt the focus was shifted from the concept of the conjugal visit, and what I wanted was for the lack of intimacy in those spaces to be the center of attention. So I stopped photographing people.
How do you go about asking to use the room if you're an inmate?
In Romania, there are two types of visits: There's the one that lasts two hours and is allowed every three months and needs to involve your spouse or proven partner. Then, if you get married while in jail, you've got the right to use the room for 48 hours as a type of honeymoon. After that, you're entitled to your two hours every month for a year.
How do you prove a partnership?
You can claim they are your partner if they have been visiting you frequently for at least six months, and if you often call or write to each other. Inmates are allowed to call about ten numbers using the public phones in the prison hallways. If their number is included in that list, then they are a proven partner. And if you start the relationship while in prison but they frequently visit, then you're also entitled to use the room.
Have you thought about taking the photograph immediately after a room has been used?
I can't. The first time I went for a photo, I had asked the authorities if the guards could leave the bed untouched. But when I got there, everything was in place and the bed had been made. I suspect that the guards had done it so that it would look good when I got there. But both parties take care of these rooms—especially the inmates—because otherwise they stop getting access to it.
What did you feel when you first saw the rooms?
The first time I visited one of these rooms, I sat on the bed and filmed from the subjective angle of the inmate. I was alone in there, and there were noises coming from the hallway, but I didn't feel much; I didn't ask myself how many people had used the bed. It's strange having an intimate room in such a non-intimate space.
I find the title of your project strange; these rooms are only intimate for a few hours and there are so many people using them.
There was a funny moment at the Vaslui penitentiary. I was supposed to go in at 9 AM one day, but when I called in to confirm they asked me to wait as it had been booked for a 48-hour visit which was supposed to end at 1 PM. I got there at 10 AM, because I was already on my way, parked the car, and called to see if there was anything I could do until the afternoon.
An officer told me that the room was free, because the woman had gotten bored and left. I found it strange; she only got 48 hours with her partner and didn't take advantage of the last few hours with him, because she got bored? To be fair, the room was very small—there was a hallway and the bed was tucked between two walls. And just above the bed, there was a tiny TV. But still.
Have you seen any other strange rooms apart from the one in Vaslui?
Yes, I thought the one in the city of Satu Mare was interesting: Most of the rooms are in the administrative area—separated from the area in which the inmates are held—but in Satu Mare they didn't have enough space. It must be a very strange experience for a female visitor, because she has to walk through the hallway alongside the inmates' cellblocks. I imagine everyone can hear what's happening in there when it's being used, and the kind of cheering and shouting that goes on between the other inmates.
Were there any details that caught your eye in these rooms?
What is interesting is that in each room you are given a set of rules—they warn you to use condoms (there are some available in the room) and tell you what to do in case of a pregnancy.
There's also a list of all the objects in the room. The inmate has to sign a paper that states that he takes full responsibility for everything in there and if he destroys anything or anything is lost after his visit, he can't use the room anymore. There's also a panic button, but it's never been used.
Are there any differences in the way these rooms are decorated that might allude to the region or how the facility is run?
Some were opulently decorated, while other rooms had scarcely any furniture in them but I think that depends on the prison's budget and the money they were willing to invest. It also depends on the frequency of the conjugal visits. Some facilities allow visits once or three times a week, while the Gherla Penitentiary for example, is booked almost nonstop. They actually have two rooms there. On the other hand, the intimate room in Târguşor Prison—which is an all-female prison—is hardly ever used.
Unfortunately, I think it seems to be that men rarely visit women in prison. Once they get locked up, their boyfriend or husband stops visiting. I can't figure out why this happens. Maybe a sociologist can come up with an explanation for that.