Everyday Life in Communist Romania

Photographers always seem to raise their game when megalomaniac dictators are around.

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Oct 18 2011, 9:40am


1985. You could wait for the bus for up to an hour. That's why they were often so full they'd run with their doors open, with the back almost touching the ground because of the weight.

Andrei Pandele is the only Romanian photographer who had big enough balls to systematically depict the Ceaușescu era of the 1970s and 80s. This was a time when taking a snap showing hardships, such as people queueing for bread, was seen as a "denigration of the socialist reality" and could land you six years in prison. Pandele, who is 65, has amassed such a vast pictorial archive of life in communist Romania that, when we asked to see some of his unpublished images, he sent us a CD with 11,000 pictures! And each one was totally captivating and amazing-looking.

VICE: Why did you wait until 2005 to make your photos public?
Andrei Pandele:
People were offended by my work and saw it as an act of defamation of Romania, when, really, it's merely a critique of communism. To give you an example, in 1993 I showed my pictures to the current director of the National Museum of Contemporary Art in Bucharest, who was so appalled that he threw them away. People weren't ready to come to terms with their past. Many still aren't.

How did you come to take pictures portraying life during communism?
I'm not only a photographer but also an architect. When Ceaușescu began demolishing churches and whole neighbourhoods, I wanted to immortalise the Bucharest I loved that was disappearing in front of my eyes. It wasn't illegal, but it looked very suspicious. During the first year and a half I was interrogated about 30 times. Then I realised that what policemen, criminals and dogs all have in common is that they get aggressive when they smell fear. So I changed my approach and learnt how to talk to the police in a way that would make them leave me alone, and found out the names of high-up guys I knew they feared. I also had a press ID from working as a freelance photojournalist for the only two sport publications in the country, as well as an architect badge.

Were you ever scared?
Well, I knew that in order to do something special you must be willing to take a risk. People think I was hiding when taking pictures, but I'm over six foot tall – how could I have hidden? I have a picture of the demolition of a church, in which one of the policemen is looking straight at me to see if I'm shooting. I wasn't stupid enough to take the camera to eye-height, what I mainly
did was let the camera hang on my neck and lean my right hand on it, as if I was resting it, and do something with my left hand to divert attention. Of course I wouldn't always get good pictures when shooting that way, but some still came out great.

A lot of people claim you got away with taking pictures because you were an informer.
I've also heard that some people think I was Ceaușescu's photographer, which is weird, as I don't have any pictures of him. I just happened to work in the centre of Bucharest, in a tower-like building overlooking one of the main boulevards, which made it easy to take pictures whenever something was going down.

How did you get hold of a camera and film?
My dad was a famous gynaecologist and whenever he went on congresses outside Romania he'd bring back films for me. They were very expensive so I could only afford to buy ten films at a time with my salary. He bought me my first camera in Vienna. I did all the processing at my father's house, where I also kept my films. If the police would have searched my house, all they would have found would be a film that had "Romania vs Germany Handball Game" written on it, containing 34 pictures of the handball game.


1988. Hipsters in the communist days wore jeans and branded sneakers, like Nikes and Pumas, which sailors brought back from the West, along with vinyl records that were duplicated on to tape at an amazing speed.



1981. The 1972 Davis Cup final between the US and Romania was held in Bucharest. The Romanians, having been drilled with "You must win, you must win" for months, lost, probably due to extensive mental pressure. Ten years later, policemen guarding sport competitions would sometimes get so bored that they'd undress and lie in the sun, with their guns at hand.


1987. You weren't allowed to travel outside the country as a tourist, so all holidays took place locally, in the mountains or by the seaside. Some would travel there by bike, others by car, and would use their vehicles as all-inclusive hotels where they'd eat, sleep, smoke and, if they got lucky, bring a girl.



1980. People waiting in line for football tickets. The games were pretty tame as the fans were careful not to draw attention to themselves. Whenever Romania played against another country, the local crowd was separated from the foreign one by security forces.


1985. Cars were expensive and there was a seven-year waiting list to get one. There wasn't much choice of car brands either; most were Romanian Dacias, which would always let you down in the middle of the road. To save on petrol, only cars with even number plates were allowed to drive during the weekend, and cars with uneven ones during the week. If you didn't have a garage, your car would be left to hibernate in the winter snow for months until spring arrived to uncover it, all rusty.



1986. Ceaușescu visited China and North Korea in 1971 and came back with the megalomaniac desire of having hundreds of thousands of people shouting his name. From then on, the parades became national compulsory entertainment, for which people arrived in busloads from all over Romania. Eventually, these spectacles took place at every festivity. For example, at the start of the school year, pupils would wait for Ceaușescu in the sun for up to nine hours and more often than not he wouldn't show up. The specially selected children would be kept in quarantine for days to make sure Ceaușescu wouldn't be exposed to any flu virus.


1989. Chickens would often weigh less than a half a pound and were smaller than pigeons. There was always a food shortage. Outside Bucharest, finding bread was a real problem. To get bread in Bucharest you had to start queueing at the break of day. Meat wasn't sold at all, unless you knew the right people.


1989. Some football matches weren't broadcast on TV, so people would climb on to roofs to place TV antennas in order to watch the games through a Bulgarian signal.

1975. This girl serving a basic lunch in the yard is wearing a homemade dress. Clothes were made rather than bought, and any hole in your sock or blouse would be fixed immediately.


1992. A disabled child playing accordion on the Unirii Boulevard in Bucharest.

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