Precarious Archives: Western Images of Romania and the Politics of Documentary Photography

Following the official end of the Cold War, the West’s “ethical imperialism” advanced the imposition of capitalist solutions on “communist” societies. In the course of this, the image of Romania (and Eastern Europe at large) has been remade with elements of international media stereotypes, as the photographer Petrut Calinescu argues in a “Black Box East”-interview with Stefan Candea.


Stefan Candea: Clearly, “ethical imperialism” rests and thrives on double standards. Characteristically, these double standards promote transparency (or opacity) where it is beneficial to imperial enterprise. In this context photography as a medium that produces the appearance of visual transparency (or visual opacity) plays an ideologically crucial role. If you reflect on your post-1989 work, and think about the requests, selection criteria, etc. deployed by Western media outlets vis-à-vis your photographic practice – what are the standards for transparency and opacity in images of Romania?

Petrut Calinescu: It is important to understand the post-’89 context. We come from a small country, an isolated culture that was thriving for half a century during the period of “nationalist communism.” And before the 1940s, photography – technically complicated and expensive – was a very elitist practice which existed solely in a niche.

Even if there was a mass popularization of home-made photography during the 1980s, including DIY techniques for paper photography, before 1989 we had access to only a handful of photography books by Romanian and Russian authors. They were mostly focused on ideological propaganda, positive stereotypes of those times, no real documentary techniques. For civilian amateurs, photography was in the shadow of paintings, and was supposed to show “nice” things that one intended to preserve and remember, such as family memories. As far as uglier realities are concerned, people didn’t think that the totalitarian regime would ever end, so why take risks to document critical observations?

Consequently, we have very few documentary pictures from those times (one exception would be, e.g., by Andrei Pandele) which covered only small parts of the country. Photography is information – but back then, information had no chance to travel. Photography is information and the information was controlled by the government. Even today, many people, looking back at Pandele’s pictures, are convinced that he had to have been part of the Securitate. Otherwise, how come it was possible for him to photograph such things? On the other hand, the few other pictures revealing “communist” realities are mainly by Western photographers. They knew what to look for. 

It was only natural that we wanted to break free from what was the Eastern Bloc, so we jumped on any occasion to learn how things were done differently, and on Western possibilities promised by the multitude of pictures available, hoping we could learn how to document real life. A natural first step was to see what was done in the West and to copy.

But we didn’t quite manage to leave that moment behind us: we kind of stayed in a servant role. We thought we’ll learn and then we’ll get the chance to contribute on our own terms. We didn’t, we simply filled existing buckets – illustrating already determined narratives. Creativity was not encouraged or even desired. Looking back at my decades of doing journalistic photography, I have the strong feeling that the story lines were decided in the offices of Western European / US newsrooms no matter what. One could find new elements or invalidate such story lines, but at the end of the day you wouldn’t change the publishing agenda.

It is worth mentioning that the early 1990’s came with a shock of very powerful images, such as the televised revolution, orphanages and the miner’s riots. But even those images stuck to the iconographic stereotypes already cultivated by photo editors in the West. How little said images from the 1990’s changed these stereotypes and managed to create a different story line is underlined by what one foreign editor told me at a festival I recently attended in France: the last thing he has in mind when it comes to Romania is the revolution that occurred 30 years ago.

That time was also about setting a standard of getting images, as an extractive process: I heard stories about foreign reporters during the 1989 revolution buying bulks of pictures from unknown or uncredited Romanian photographers. Either that, or requesting locals to illustrate specific stories – there was no interest in commissioning the discovery of new stories, but only in illustrating existing, expected narratives.

SC: An integral part of post-’89 “ethical imperialism” is the approach of exploring the premodern Other with the purpose of civilizing it. What are the image standards for civility and premodernity?

PC: Civility was always pursued in chasing success stories about foreigners from the Western world who make great sacrifices to succeed in Eastern Europe, like in a kind of savage environment, and build shiny modern alternatives, in contrast to what locals do. Be it Prince Charles in the Viscri village, or an initiative to create a natural park (Wild Carpathia) without further interrogating the backstories of such actions. 

Meanwhile, premodern wilderness is represented by the iconic stereotype of the horse and carriage, always present in pictures showing the backwaters of Europe.

The dual standard applied is most visible when showing pictures of victims or of children: if they are from a country outside the Western world, there is no problem in showing the faces and even featuring the names of victims, something that would be unacceptable if the focus were a similar situation involving a citizen from the West.

SC: Studying Romanian newsrooms, assignments ordered by editors sitting at a desk in the West with expectations of “ ambulance chasing” voyeurism mixed with romantic backwater stories come to mind. Looking back at your activities in the past two decades, is the role of the local photo-journalist different from, say, an international photo-journalist traveling through the country? What does it mean to be “from the place” that is the object of image production in “ethical imperialism”? Does it grant you a certain freedom and agency — or more the opposite?

PC: There is no freedom or agency for a local photo-journalist. 

Assignments are very clearly defined; they give you very little time and little room to try your own research, concept and your own choices. You are given clear directions with no room for input outside the template.

Moreover, the rule is that if a Western media has a big story that requires many images, they will send their own “star photographer” rather than using the work of a local photo-journalist. The work of the local journalist will only be to provide one or two published pictures. With time you get to know what they expect, and you’ll provide that. My experience during these many years is that what I wanted to publish was often not accepted – but, well, this happens to everyone.

I experienced photo editors from very big newsrooms who used astonishingly small resources in trying to understand the context of the story. Just to give a very recent example: from a bundle of selected pictures I sent after an assignment, I was asked to photo-shop (!) a person out of a picture. I knew that my selection including a human wouldn’t make it, so I prepared two versions of the image: the next picture that was part of the bundle was the same shot without the human, but, as the photo-shop request shows, the editor couldn’t be bothered to click next. 

This leads to local correspondents of photo agencies flocking together – they create cooperative networks, even if they work for competing media. 

The international news agencies that publish news pictures rely on the work of local photographers – but they have to agree on a non-competitive approach, making sure to cover the same topics following the same angles. Such correspondents very rarely risk an approach outside the group of peers. See the coverage of Easter, Boboteaza, and Christmas – the agenda is the same, but each year such events are presented as news. The focus is on the premodern side, for instance, on funerals or pagan rituals. All shots are of the same place, the same targets – and in doing so they optimize their use of resources. 

It is a Western model: optimize resources, don’t waste time searching for new paths. The payment is not higher if you get new things. Journalistic photography is a product, as a photo-journalist you participate in selling a product, you know what gets sold to your editor, you stick to the template and feed the cliché chosen by the editor paying from his office in the Western world. Doing independent stringer work, pursuing entrepreneurial approaches – those rarely cover the travel costs. Ambulance-chasing does. 

SC: Diving deeper into “ethical imperialism’s” standards, the case of archives is highly political. Could you discuss the lack of locally designed and curated image archives and the practice of tagging the Other in international photo archives? 

PC: Looking back, I’m now sorry I didn’t put more time into documenting life around my own environment, low-hanging fruit. With the years passing, I realize the value in using photographic documentary methods in my region, where I understand the context and where I can go deeper. I also didn’t do it because in the past it seemed like constant unpaid work with an uncertain future. 

However, there are some kinds of archives, old (FORTE PAN and AZOPAN) and new (Andrei Birsan) ones, but these are the efforts of individuals and volunteers.

Thus, as such, there is no photo documentary archive since 1989. Various newspapers that had stubs of such archives simply vanished or the photo archives vanished since the ownership changed hands. Nobody thought to prepare to pay the costs of storage locations or the digitalization of such archives. When I left the last newsroom I worked on film, and I took with me the most important films I shot. They were actually the newspaper’s property, but I literally saved them since a few years later the complete archive was thrown out, tossed in the garbage. Nobody finances the preservation of local archives, as is being done in the West; one example would be United Archives.

At this point, several decades after 1989, there are initiatives to build thematic archives, but they don’t have the force of a long-term approach mainly because of the lack of resources and money. 

So there is no consistent effort to design and construct such an archive, nor to curate it, and therefore there is no ongoing effort to think about different ways of tagging images. In my own experience, at the newspaper I worked for, the effort to build an archive was a personal matter and was connected to the newsroom’s various desks, like sport, politics, etc. Today nobody is looking further into archiving options because many images are simply “googled” – and sometimes just grabbed without respecting copyrights.

So we are left with the existing archives about our region, done exclusively by the editors of large Western media and agencies. That’s why you have tags such as “Eastern Europe”, while you don’t see “Western Europe” tags on news pictures. 

SC: Speaking of the political economy of photo-journalism, an Eastern European photographer can make a living working either for the local and international news industry or advertising agencies or working in the local media field or on the NGO circuit, fed by grants for conferences and networks issued by Western donors. High achievers make it to the archives, museums, awards, and fellowships designed by Western-centric programs. It seems that in this context the “ethical imperialism” in question presents its benevolent side. But where does the “help” of Western capital in fact obstruct the goals of emancipation, progress, and development it claims to support?

PC: A perfect illustration of this issue is the following type of approach: inviting Western “star photographers” and well-known photo agencies to cover our own region, and hiring them to do so using local public money, while also asking Romanian professional photo-journalists to support them as fixers working for free in order to learn from them. And this is not an isolated incident; I’ve seen many similar situations in Georgia or Ukraine involving the same scheme.

Leaving aside the possibly corrupt aspect of such contracts at the local level, it is the perfect proof of cultural imperialism. The approach of these foreign “star photographers,” chasing stereotypical images with Ceaușescu’s portraits in the background and shooting miners in black-and-white, are stuck in the early 1990s and has nothing to do with Romania today. But they are still paid with local public money to provide a lesson to locals about how to cover their own region.

SC: Tellingly, your photo-journalism is not seen as journalism, but rather as a service that caters to the demands of media outlets driven by the interests of “ethical imperialism.” In the same vein, your research process in photo projects is not seen as image investigation (as data and statistical approaches are seen as investigative data journalism), but reduced to formulaic delivery. Certainly, this has to do with the overall commercialization and commodification of journalism, and it seems that this process is particularly extreme and problematic in “the East.” To what degree is the aforementioned to be traced back to commercialization and commodification of journalism? How is it related to the imperial appropriation of your work that could bluntly be called “photo-grabbing”?

PC: Being a photographer in Romania today, you do get to make a living out of documentary photography, that is, if you work for hire to document various events, mainly weddings and baptism parties. This became a tangible alternative because the value of documenting through photography as a local photographer was not cultivated, neither at home nor abroad. This is not real documentary photography: it has no value in the long run, and only satisfies those who are paying for it. 

So that makes local photo-journalism in Eastern Europe a sort of artistic hobby, not remunerated but always only compensated through publication, the motto being: “it is enough that you are published, you should not ask for more.” National Geographic Romania pays about 20 Euro for a full page (photos, text or both) published in the local edition. This actually means that those whom they publish are rarely professionals, but rather enthusiastic hobbyists who can survive by other professional means. 

For the local market it is hard to manage and protect image rights – images are simply stolen, nobody pays for them. For the foreign market, the context of the images is in many situations distorted. 

And finally, the work space in the non-profit realm is even more problematic. There is a business model for Western Europeans to “manage,” “network,” “put in dialogue” Eastern European photojournalists and their work. That means there are organizations based in Western Europe, financed by grants to export democracy, whose hired staffers simply exploit the problems and the work of photojournalists in “the East.” I recently had experience with such an organization based in Germany called n-ost, repeatedly asking for unpaid contributions, repeatedly underpaying commissioned work or simply ignoring requests to pay agreed fees for published material. There are cross-border approaches that are under the guise of East-West collaboration, but are actually run, managed, and decided by Western entities, that are funded with resources where it is claimed they are benefiting Eastern Europeans. 

SC: Against the backdrop of what we have discussed so far, let us look again at your various projects and engagements, including 7 zile, collaborations on CRJI and The Black Sea, Pride and Concrete, and CDFD, and the competition for young photo-journalists. All of these activities focus on what is lacking in mainstream media and on developing new constellations. In this way, your work pushes towards shifting a different type of archive – a totally different archive than the mainstream Western archive. Speaking of this different archive, what does it take to avoid replicating the broken system you are trying to move away from?

PC: Systemic financial problems and financial needs, be it in the for-profit or non-profit realm, simply shift your focus. On the one hand, we don’t have a management education, we don’t know how to manage the finances of non-profit entities and we lack financial independence; there are no regulations or protections in place. Whoever has more money can initiate more relationships and secure more lucrative projects, regardless of the quality of their work. That means we remain at the margins and don’t have the luxury for long-term strategic thinking, nor for long-term editorial planning.

You can add to this the fact that we are talking about a lack of an ecosystem: as in so many fields in Romania and Eastern Europe, the education related to photography as a documentary tool is non-existent. Both for practitioners as well as for the wider audience, there are no specialized publications or galleries or any other entities that could commission such work.

So I co-founded CDFD to gather colleagues to find solutions to such problems as a group, to pursue a photographic project once a year, to meet, show, and discuss independently.

Note from the editors: This article is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Black Box East” text series. The German version is available here. You can find more texts, artworks, and video talks on the English-language “Black Box East” website. Have a look here:

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