Short interview for Arte channel available in German and French.
Republic of Moldova has one of the highest amount of inmates per capita in Europe, including the highest rate of the longterm convicted. To shed a light on the issues of penitentiary system, art centre “Coliseum” made a play in most secured prison (penitentiary for lifers nr17) in country. For several months inmates were studying the craft of acting to perform on the same level together with professionals from National Theatre.
All the inmates are the lifers and some of them stayed more than half of their life in prison. Through this play directors Mihai Fusu and Luminita Ticu aimed to draw attention to conditions of lifers in Moldova, to penitentiary system as whole and most important people’s stereotypes.
Inmates and their right to be changed is tabu topic among people and paired with poor economical conditions and corrupted institutions it leaves no chances for those who wants to be changed and forgiven.
Transnistria is a small, unrecognized state in Eastern Europe, wedged between the border of Moldova and Ukraine. It broke away from Moldova after the collapse of the Soviet Union, during an armed conflict between the country’s ethnically Russian minority and the new Moldovan government. Today, it’s status remains unresolved – and Transnistria is a curious remnant of late 20th century history: A Soviet-style republic with a population of half a million people, suspended in time.
It is also the home of Ramin Mazur (@raminmazur), a photographer based in Moldova’s capital, Chisinau. We asked him about his journey to become a photographer and how his origins motivate him to take photos that are more than just pretty to look at.
Ramin, tell us about yourself and your origin.
I’m 29 years old. I am half Ukrainian, half Afghan and was born in Transnistria – back when it was the Moldavian Soviet Republic in the USSR. Four years later, the Transnistrian conflict happened and I found myself living in a new country. I was there for most of my time in school, although I spent a few years living in Ukraine…
Then you moved to Moldova, where you live now.
Exactly. But I didn’t actually leave the country, because Transnistria is on Moldovan territory. I studied engineering at the politechnical university, but after three years decided that I needed something more humanitarian and chose Journalism.
How did you discover photography?
During my last year of university, I had the opportunity to work as a photographer at a new newspaper. I had always liked photography, had taken a course with my analogue camera, and just started shooting – then I got the job. The editor had no real experience in directing photographers, so she always just said “bring me something amazing”.
You taught yourself.
I just went out and clicked the shutter for a year – until the newspaper was closed down. It had been the election project of one oligarch and he stopped funding it. I was without work for a year, which gave me time to think about what all that clicking had been about. I started thinking more about documentary photography, started looking more into other people’s projects, and began taking pictures more deliberately.
“Photos should send a message”
What do you do now?
I am trying to document the reality and time of transition we live in. I try to communicate issues and problems through photography. For instance, I am participating in different projects to document people with disabilities. I am also doing work with prisoners and the prison system.
I do know how to do photography, but I don’t only want to do photography, if that makes sense: I want to try and show something through it, tell the audience something about itself. For some reason, people often perceive art as something beautiful only.
You want to create photos not just as an art form, but as something that sends a message?
That’s what I think art is all about: Sending a message. My background from the paper and my studies in journalism really helped: Keeping this deontological codex in my head – a sense of duty – and think about what I am taking the picture for. Exposing something? Helping people?
“If you look like a tourist, you won’t get in trouble”
What’s the situation in Transnistria like these days?
On the surface, you can see the same things in Transnistria that exist in Moldova. People have internet, people like coffee, and so on… but once you start taking pictures, you recognize that the Soviet mentality is still there. You cannot easily take pictures in the capital, Tiraspol: When you do, people ask you what you are doing it for. But when you explain that you are a tourist and look like a tourist, or convincing them you are, you have no problem. It’s much harder for people who live there and have relatives there, because they can be jailed.
That sounds decidedly like the Soviet Union.
There is actually a sense of nostalgia among the old people who never leave the country. It’s the same kind of Soviet nostalgia in Moldova, Ukraine, and probably even Estonia. But meanwhile, young people are leaving in droves, because there are no jobs.
People in Moldova, Ukraine, or others live in states that have moved on. Whereas Transnistria, at least on paper, is still Socialist.
But it isn’t! The country has barbarian capitalism – a few people have all the power. There is one company called Sheriff that runs most things. The only thing that has remained from that “Socialism” is the Soviet mentality.
How does the mentality express itself?
Governors do their best for a while, until the electorate notices they are jerks and elect a new jerk. But between those elections, people don’t think about the state at all. In the Soviet times, you just went to work and then went home. Meanwhile, the party secretariat made the plans for the country. The threat, of course, is that nobody thinks about the state and how it functions.
Your photos mostly leave out the Soviet-style monuments and focus instead on everyday lives of the people there.
A year after beginning with photography, I first started thinking about doing a series on Transnistria. I didn’t yet know that Jonas Bendiksen from Magnum had done a series there. The more I discovered, the more I realized that my first images weren’t all that different. And after the Maidan protests in Ukraine, there was a lot of interest in Transnistria – foreigners came there to do projects, to compare it to the conflict in Ukraine. At some point I didn’t like that much attention but then I realised that I’m doing it wrong, don’t add anything and just spreading the same cliche about this region…
“I take pictures to reclaim my memories”
How did you approach taking photos then?
I do not have a lot of memories from my childhood in Transnistria. I am sure they are blocked somehow, saved up in the back of my head. So I took my camera and tried to take pictures that would reclaim those memories: Reconstruct them by showing Transnistria and in the way I saw it, and with the mood it always had to me.
How did you go about that?
I showed many personal things: My family, my grandmother, things that harp back to my memories through a visual language. And now I am trying to continue. My cousin is 19 years old, and it’s quite symbolic for me to see what decisions she will make. In a way, I am showing her as me: The kinds of choices she has, the problems she encounters … and whether she will stay or leave. For my project, I even changed the name of the country: Calling it “Left Bank” because Transnistria was formed on the left bank of Dniester river and is constantly being left by people who want a decent life and live it on a bigger scale than what’s possible in Moldova.
“More than anything, I just want some status”
How often do you go to Transnistria?
I live in Chisinau, the Moldovan capital, so it’s not far: Transnistria is just two hours away. I try not to go too often, though. I take a few pictures during the weekend and then come back. I am not forcing the project but letting it happen: I have another cousin who is 15 and I am going to start photographing him, too.
The Transnistrian conflict is ongoing – do you think it will ever be resolved?
To resolve the issue, the Moldovans would even give that part of their country away at this point. There aren’t any negotiations, so the conflict is just a circus – and it stops the country from progressing. The political class on both banks benefits from the fighting, but people suffer and no one tries to initiate a real dialogue. It seems like the conflict is frozen and people are friendly to each other on both banks but if you start pressing them for a solution, it can turn into an unreasonable fight. I would adore for the country to be united again, but more than anything, I would like just some status – not this one.
Short interview for Radio Free Europe subtitled in english. Longer version in Russian and without subtitles could be found here
Author: Kinga Lendeczki Published on: 06.05.2016
Ramin Mazur is a photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Chisinau, Moldova. He graduated from the Journalism Department of Moldavian State University in Chisinau. In 2013 he had the possibility to attend the Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship in New York that had a great influence on his view on photography and on his working method. Using photography as a tool he observes the everyday life in those Eastern European countries that are still in transition and he makes an attempt to tell the stories of people living in these regions. The main characters of his recent series called the Left Bank are the inhabitants of his birth place, Transnistria, the unrecognized presidential republic situated on the left bank of Dniester.
Kinga Lendeczki: What does it mean today to be a photojournalist?
Ramin Mazur: I don’t know actually what it could mean. Same as I don’t know what it is to be a journalist today. In the times of easy access to any kind of information, journalism is not so meaningful thing as it used to be. Its old rules do not work any more, or if they do, it becomes the tool of propaganda to influence those who do not search for the proof of what they read or who are not sceptical enough. Forward-thinking journalism experiments with different mediums and try to use a less editorial approach and photography is just one of its tools (I am not talking now about a major corporation of news etc.). It will not advance people into action and it will not put focus on something by its own. We all know many iconic photographs and their influence, but I doubt if they would work in the same way these days. We live in a world of iconic posts and reshares.
Who I would call nowadays a photojournalist (taking it out of editorial context) is someone who stands between qualitative featuring and anthropology. People need to be reminded of the context of time and place, and that is the thing that journalism lost with being digitalized.
KL: You studied at the Journalism Department of Moldavian State University in Chisinau and you worked with different local print media as a photo reporter for a while. What were/are the possibilities of a newly graduated photojournalist or photographer after leaving the institutional framework of the university?
RM: I graduated from the Journalism Department as a writer, but I received an offer for a photoreporter position during my last year at the university. It was a pre-election project of a well-known Moldovan oligarch. That was what I discovered eight months later when it closed and I had been left without a job for one year. So it is hard to say what are the possibilities for the professionals since they are not produced by the educational system. Outlets don’t need professionals as they simply don’t know how a photograph taken by a professional should look like, but we also don’t produce them. Vicious circle should be changed somehow to move further from this situation.
KL: As it is written in your artist statement the lack of understanding in local media of what photojournalism is led you to start to work on independent projects. What were the difficulties you had to face with in finding your place as a photojournalist in Moldova? How did the situation change, if it had at all, since then?
RM: Well I just wanted to do something deeper than just taking photographs for a newspaper and there was neither someone to help with that, nor someone who would appreciate that. So I started to look by myself for something which I would be interested in. Now I would do that completely other way round but as I said I was self-taught and that was my first experience. Being in a vacuum of the industry made complicated to generate something. After finding your topic or project you have to face with the fact that you have no place to expose it and there won’t be many people, who would be interested in it. Nowadays this situation did not move much further. I see more people and more initiatives, what is way better than it had been, but it is still not enough.
KL: In frame of the Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellowship you had the possibility to continue your studies in New York. Compared to the Eastern European professional scene what were the most surprising differences for you?
RM: I was not aware of Eastern European scene those days so I am not sure if I can compare it somehow. One thing I can say for sure is that nowadays eastern europeans don’t rush so much to export things to west as they did before. Although westerners still want to import things except those small group of photographers who tries to do something meaningful in their own place without running for harsh stories from Third World countries. And that is what the actual industry needs today. Although it still goes for old, common stuffs, it really wants to see something new. Especially they are interested in view of locals and not of a “tourist”.
KL: How did this fellowship influence your career?
RM: It was enormous input in my vision of photography. I started to doubt things more than before trying to understand the essence, approaches and meaning of things I am doing. Before it I was not sure if I was doing something useful because of the lack of feedback. But after this fellowship I just started to do whatever I want without seeking for some kind of appreciations. Do what you feel and see what happens.
KL: Even before going to New York you crossed a significant border with moving to Chisinau from the region of Transnistria, where you were born. In your series called the Left Bank you captures the life of people who are living in this unrecognized state situated on the left bank of Dniester. Could you tell us more about this project?
RM: Shooting Transnistria started long before the series. It was occasional shootings that dragged me to a story, but after seeing how many foreigners come there for their projects, I understood that I want to avoid as much as I can to show the post soviet oddity of the place and rather focus on personal stories (including my family). I go there rarely for few days to do some pictures and when I come back I try to write something down from my memories. It is not over at all and I am not sure what form it will take at the end because life is changing each year and the context of my work is changing with it. Together with photographing I am also trying to collect pictures from the inhabitants’ archive so they would share their stories as well.
KL: Why is it important for you to collect and share these stories from this region?
RM: I just like to react on things that matter for me. Transnistria is not exception cause I spent my childhood there, but at some point I caught myself that I have no memories from it. So one by one I was restoring these memories and taking photographs is one of the methods I use for this.
KL: Both as a photojournalist and as a documentary photographer you strive for storytelling. What kind of aspects are essential for you when you take and select photos for a series or for a story?
RM: Being terribly perfectionist sometimes helps me to define if a picture works without thinking too much. I don’t like when pictures make me think. I want them to make me stop, feel and rethink what I saw. Not sure that the photo will have something original to say, but the result matters at the end. All of us want to have a perfect picture that represents what we see. The only difference is that some of us are waiting, others are running and some are don’t know yet how to approach it. Important thing for me is not to run for moments frozen in time but to wait for time to be freezed in moments. I do like having my personal relation with the subject. If it is a person I can even not talk with him/her. First I need to feel what type of man is in front of me to make a good portrait. It is the same with other topics. I can’t shoot when I don’t understand well enough what I am doing and where I am standing.
KL: What would be your next project?
RM: Not sure what will come first but it might be more conceptual work about rural migration.
Read online version here
Discovering the forgotten ex-Soviet state of Transnistria
Meet the photographer documenting propaganda’s influence on an ever-shrinking Moldovan community
“Westerners exoticise Transnistria. They see it as a Soviet enclave and nothing else. But I am interested in the people here,” says Ramin Mazur, a photographer born in Rabnita, Transnistria. Out of 25 of Mazur’s original classmates, only 6 or so remain. As more people leave Moldova’s breakaway region in search of better opportunities within Moldova and further afield in western Europe, Mazur captures those that remain in his latest photo series, ‘The Left Bank,’ whilst striving for a true representation of his ever shrinking community.
“Those who want to change something about their lives, who are more ambitious, just run away. The flux of people leaving the countryside in Transnistria is enormous, much bigger than in the Moldovan rural areas, but no one speaks about it. I don’t think these villages will exist for much longer than 40 years,” adds Mazur.
But for now the Soviet past does live on in Transnistria. Lenin statues, tanks, the Soviet (now Russian) army and Soviet-like school graduation ceremonies still have an overbearing presence in public spaces. Tanks may be used as a playground by children but all young men are required to fulfill their military service. In addition to that, in the final two years of school, everyone studies a subject inherited called The Civil Defense Basis, in which twice a week students are taught about the basics of military life – how to build and dismantle a rifle, the differences between chemical bombs, using the anti-gas mask, military tactics and marching.
There isn’t much for young people to do in Transnistria, and that’s why propaganda works so well. TV and public ceremonies are the only source of entertainment besides drinking in the park and one club with a maximum capacity of 50 people. Out of boredom, adolescents either eventually leave or get married very young. “I remember being really proud of the Russian army at school, even if I had never seen it in real life. Because I watched Russian television all the time, I knew that on the other side of the river Nistru were our ‘attackers’. Only when I crossed the river in 2002 to come to Chisinau did I find out that wasn’t necessarily the case.”
In addition to the Soviet inheritance though, there are a few chain pizzerias, billboards and even some luxury restaurants in the area. Young people live as much on their phones as they do anywhere else in the world. And the further you go from Tiraspol, the capital city of Transnistria, the less people believe in their government and its propaganda. “Because they understand that the government does nothing for its’ people.”