Following the December Revolution in Romania in 1989, documentary photographer Joseph Rodriguez, from Brooklyn, travelled four times to the traumatized country. He produced incredibly haunting images that shone a spotlight on a country that was just beginning to shake off decades of communist dictatorship. The pictures also reflect the suffering and suppression experienced by the people under the Ceausescu Regime. Rodriguez’s book “Romania” has been recently published as an ebook, available on iTunes. More information can be found in the current issue of LFI, on sale now.
Q: Joseph, you’ve worked extensively in the United States, Central and South America. How did the idea to travel to Romania in 1990 come about?
A: I was living in Stockholm, Sweden, when I learned about the fall of Ceausescu in 1989. I had heard that there were orphans and children simply locked away in darkness, and that the camera had never documented these people. I immediately called Médecins Sans Frontières and they were very helpful in guiding me to many orphanages and institutions in Romania’s Moldavia and Transylvania regions. I also worked with the Swedish Red Cross.
Q: Can you remember your first impressions of Romania?
A: When I first got to Bucharest I found it a fascinating city; in earlier days it was called the Paris of Eastern Europe. The Romanian people were warm and helpful, though they had been forbidden in the past to speak to outsiders, especially journalists and photographers. Several American and Western European documentary photographers visited Romania during the Communist era, but only a few of them have returned there since.
Q: After going to the country in 1990, however, you returned again in 1993, 1994 and 1996. Did you want to follow up on your existing contacts or were you visiting other regions?
A: After 1990 I returned to follow up on some stories I’d done in Bacău in Eastern Romania’s historical Moldavia region, driving through the Carpathian Mountains to small villages and factories. In 1994 and 1996, I discovered the village of Markód in Transylvania where I stayed with families and began photographing the pastoral countryside. Many of these folks spoke no Hungarian, as for decades under the communist regime they had been forbidden to speak their language.
Q: The eyes of many of the people you photographed in Romania reflect their suffering and pain as well as their insecurity. Did that change at all between 1990 and 1996?
A: Yes, there appeared to have been a slight shift in people’s mood, and there seemed to be a sense of hope and possibility in the air.
Q: You photographed in black-and-white in Romania, and, looking at the pictures, one gets the impression that it couldn’t have been any other way. Did you ever consider color?
A: I did shoot two rolls of Kodachrome at the beginning, but I found using black-and-white film more appropriate for a country that seemed to have been forgotten in time. I also had photographers like Aleksander Rodchenko and André Kertész on my mind at that time.
Q: In Romania you worked with a Leica M2 and an M6 with 35 mm and 50 mm Summicron lenses. Do you still use those cameras or have you changed to digital ones?
A: Yes, I still use the M2 and M6. I just started a new project with them in Puerto Rico, but I also use digital cameras.
Q: What projects are you working on right now?
A: I just returned from Puerto Rico, which I hope to turn into a long-term project. My colour pictures, taken in Spanish Harlem (1985–1990) will be published in a book by powerHouse Books in the autumn of 2016. I’m also launching an Instagram project this week.
Thank you for your time, Joseph!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Joseph on his website. Read the interview in German here. View more in LFI. Also available for the iPad and Android.