Ciprian, 37, started photographing at 29. Because he discovered late what he really wanted to do, he says now he has to work hard to make up for the lost time.
For him documentary photography means to depict reality through simple, powerful and straightforward images, in order to show as much as possible the truth of a scene or a story. And in order to show the essence of things you need time. That’s why many projects in this field require a lot of time, even years to complete. I’ve spoken to him on behalf of Documentaria about one of his ongoing projects and his thoughts on the current state of documentary photography.
Out of the dark is a project about the life of people with visual impairments. How did you end up working on it?
I haven’t been photographing in a while and I started this project to get out of a bad, morass period I’ve gotten into. I don’t remember how the idea came to me, all I know is I needed a subject. Preferably one that would interest someone else, not just me. Maybe it was also an unconscious drive that pushed me towards people who cannot see: visual communication is essential to me and I can’t imagine how I could live without it.
What is the significance of the title of your project?
A while ago I applied with these photographs to a grant offered by a US foundation and it was then when I first named it Out of the dark. I’ve been searching for an equivalent in Romanian since then. I want the lives of these people to get out of “the dark” and for us see. We who are often more blind than they are, to see how they live, how they work, how they have fun and how they love. We pass them by on the street, see them with their white stick and our hearts melt for a second, but we soon forget. I want to know more about them and show others as well.
And I can tell a little story here, one that could be funny if it wasn’t sad. I knew that Adrian, a person who is visually impaired, will attend a concert at the Arad Philharmonic accompanied for the first time by a service dog he had just received. I called the Director of the Philharmonic, told him about it and asked for permission to take some photographs during the concert. His reaction was: “Why bother taking photographs, they’re blind anyway, they won’t be able to see them”. I don’t think I need more to prove myself that what I do has a purpose.
What have you learnt working on this project and what message do you want to convey through it?
I’ve learnt that we can do almost anything if we work hard and don’t give up easily.
I don’t intend to be a moralist, but I sincerely believe that if we knew how these people live, we’d complain less about small salaries, lack of parking spots and other similar problems. Maybe we’d even manage to rearrange our priorities.
Through these photographs I want to show that people with visual impairments are just like us, the difference being that they’re forced to put out more effort than someone who’s able to see. That’s why amongst them you’ll find strong people, endowed with certain qualities and skills which often exceed those of people who can see. Of course, not all of them manage to adapt perfectly to this disability and that’s precisely why we need to understand them better and help them overcome some difficulties.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions regarding people who are visually impaired?
The biggest misconception I identified is the idea they are helpless, that we need to pity them. The result is an overly protective and completely unhelpful behaviour. Furthermore, this misconception is also present in the manner in which state institutions relate to these people. It’s not enough to give them a disability allowance, an allowance for accompanying and other gratuities. Most of them would take a greater advantage if they had personal and professional development opportunities, to help them become financially independent.
What are the biggest difficulties blind people face?
There are plenty: there’s a lack of accessibility for blind people in pedestrian traffic (acoustic traffic lights, tactile warnings) in public transportation, in public institutions, in stores. There’s a lack of online optimal accessibility, insufficient funds for assistance dogs and other supporting materials. But the biggest problem is having an inadequate training system for the blind. Thus, they can’t develop skills and abilities that are looked for in the work field. Not all of them must get a job in the “Brushes and brooms” department just like before 1989, and now not even those jobs exist anymore. Not having a job and an income can lead to restrictions of their social activity and to social isolation. I believe these matters should be a priority for those in charge with making the laws in this country.
Tell me about one of your favorite photographs in this project.
There’s one photograph I like, with Aurel and Florin, splashing around in the pool. The people from the visually impaired association in Arad organized a getaway at the thermal pool in Dorobanți. I started to picture horror scenarios right from the bus. I was the only one able to swim and see and my lifeguard skills are not that great. But to my joy, they were changing water in the pools that day and the water level would only reach the knees. Nonetheless, this didn’t stop my friends to have a lot of fun there and I could get into the water with my camera and photograph from the same level. I imagine we gave quite an amusing show – two grown men splashing in the water and a third one, in his underwear, carrying a big camera and photographing them.
What impact did your photographs have after publishing them?
The project is not finished, I still have a lot of work to do and I’m not exactly happy with the results so far. Some of the photographs were published here and there. The feedback was very positive, although I don’t know if these appreciations managed to change something regarding people’s attitudes towards the people who are blind. If this didn’t happen it’s only my fault and it means I need to work more and make better pictures.
Why did I chose photography? I’m going to paraphrase Garry Winogrand and tell you that I have a burning desire to see what the world looks like photographed by me. I’m incurably curious.
What do you think is the role of documentary photography now, when we have instant access to information?
This is a favorable moment for documentary photography because it can distance itself from the breaking-news part. Everyone can easily make live videos, take photographs with their phones and upload them instantly on social media platforms or news websites. Documentary photography can’t and it shouldn’t compete with this phenomenon, this is not its purpose. There are a lot of people willing to know stories which are not presented in the social media, interesting stories, photographed with passion and dedication.
Is documentary photography a niche or can it be turned into a sellable and accessible product for the general public?
This is a really hard question. It can be a dream job if you wouldn’t be forced to live with insecurity and be on a continuous race after funding sources for the projects you’re working on. People in Romania are not ready yet to pay for a premium media product. Yet. Nonetheless, I’m sure that things will start to change. But the support for documentary photography is an international issue. We are forced to look for alternative funding, chase scholarships, collaborate with NGOs, private companies, photograph weddings and baptisms to support our documentary projects. But despite the harsh conditions, Romania has very good photographers who work on beautiful and important projects. And even if he doesn’t sees himself as a documentary photographer, I have to mention Vadim Ghirda who just got a prize at the Word Press Photo. And that’s a thing not many can do. So we do have photographers.
How important do you think visual culture is for the general public. Is visual education still present in Romania and who do you think should teach it?
If the photographs are powerful they will have an impact even for people who don’t have a so-called visual culture. What bothers me though is the lack of visual culture on the side of people who are in charge with the visual aspect of various publications in our country. Competent photo editors have disappeared from the offices because there are no more money for such things. Shame. I believe the taste of the broader audience forms through the product you deliver not the other way around. It’s not nice to blame it on the public who only asks for sensational and quantity.