Photo

Life in Romanian Prisons Before the Country Joined the EU

Circumstances in Romanian prisons were pretty dire before the country joined the EU. Photographer Cosmin Bumbut documented the change.

by Răzvan Băltărețu, photos by Cosmin Bumbut
20 October 2016, 2:00pm

The cover image for Bumbata

The cover image for Bumbata

This article originally appeared on VICE Romania

Some time after photographer Cosmin Bumbut started visiting a Romanian prison and documenting life there, the prisoners tried to put him at ease. "You can leave your camera anywhere – we're murderers, not thieves," he was told.

Bumbut is one of the few photographers who managed to work in a Romanian prison before the country joined the EU in 2007 – when circumstances in prisons were a lot different than they are now. Since Romania became a member, the European Court of Human Rights has fined the country for the inhumane conditions prisoners were living in.

Cosmin Bumbuț (left) and Iulian Lopazan (a teacher) in the cell of an inmate called Pricu. Bumbuț finished his project right after Pricu was released. Pricu took this photo; all other photos in this article are by Cosmin Bumbuț.

Between 2005 and 2008, Bumbut visited Aiud prison, photographed the conditions there and the inmates' daily life. He ended the project after one of the inmates he had been following was released and has since turned the pictures into a book called Bumbata.

I talked to Cosmin Bumbut about the period in his life when he decided to leave the world of fashion photography behind and make the move into photojournalism.

VICE: When you started this project, in 2005, you were one of the most famous fashion photographers in Romania – what made you decide to do a series on a prison?
Cosmin Bumbuț: At the time the spokesperson of the Romanian organisation for penitentiaries came across Tranzit – a photo book I had done earlier about Romanian trains. She called me out of the blue, said she liked the book very much and that she could offer me access to any Romanian prison if I wanted to photograph there. I thought that was a very interesting offer, and I soon decided I didn't want to visit all prisons in the country, but document life in one of them.

So why did you decide on Aiud prison, in central Transylvania?
I visited three or four prisons and Aiud had a very vintage look, which I liked enormously. In the second week I stayed there I slowly got to know the inmates – little by little I got closer to them and they were more neutral towards me, like when they were working or reading in the library, or visiting the prison's chapel.

The chapel in Aiud prison

How different was the situation in Romanian prisons before Romania joined the European Union?
When I was first in Aiud in 2005 inmates were still wearing khaki uniforms – except those who were serving life sentences; they wore orange uniforms. After Romania joined the EU they got rid of the uniforms and inmates were allowed to wear their own clothes.

Another thing is that, before they joined, the concept of conjugal visits didn't exist in Romania. So there was no space where inmates could be intimate with their spouses. That changed. And I took some photos with inmates wearing handcuffs in 2005 and 2006. When I came back in 2008, I wasn't allowed to take photos with handcuffs – new rules.

What struck you most when you got to know the different types of inmates a little better?
One thing I thought was really interesting was that between 2005 and 2006 I noticed that most of the inmates that borrowed books from the library were the ones in the maximum security ward of the prison. When I asked the guards why that was, they told me that the inmates who were locked up there had committed more intelligent and premeditated crimes and had received harsher sentences for that.

They were generally more interested in reading and they were there for a longer time – so more invested in educating themselves in prison. In the book, I have one photo of an inmate who just reminded me so much of an engineering student. I asked him what he had done, and he told me he was found guilty of armed robbery. A guy who's in for a bit for stealing a few wallets is not necessarily interested in books in the same way.

A poem written by an inmate

Flowers...behind the walls

Whoever you are, reader, please understand that I didn't write this just to pass time.

If you don't have the patience to read between the lines, so you can understand the essence of my words, then you'd better not bother to read.

If you sincerely wish to analyse the good and the bad parts of my writing, then you're welcome to my anonymous text.

How did this kind of photography relate to your other work?
I'd been working in fashion photography and, at first, I mostly saw the inmates as models, in a way. But when I came back in 2008, when I was so much more familiar with the subject and the inmates, I realised they seemed more like the celebrities I used to photograph. They were much more sincere and I felt more at ease around them. The atmosphere was completely different than in fashion photography.

How has this experience stayed with you?
The interactions I had with the inmates made a lasting impression on me. They were completely different people than who I was used to working with. It opened up another side of society for me. In 2005 and 2006 I was working on these extremes – fashion photography and this project. It helped me to fully transition to the kind of work I'm doing now.

The showers in Aiud prison

Poetry by an inmate

What is the meaning?

Let me tell you a poem about me
Police came into my house
And took me by surprise
Just as I was having dinner
With my family

I was with my children
Who always made me happy
But they broke into my house disrespectfully
And scared the life out of my little boy

They pushed me into a van, ruthlessly
And told me they were taking me to Sibiu

There they stressed me out and locked me up
In a place where the sun doesn't set
And I am so alone.

Cosmin Bumbuț's work will be exhibited at the European Month of Photography in Berlin, until the 31st of October.

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