A couple of months ago, photographer Cosmin Bumbuț contacted me out of the blue and asked if I’d look over his new book Bumbata. I was aware of Cosmin and his work because of the photography workshop he initiated in Targsor women’s penitentiary in Romania in 2009. However, I was not aware of his long term project documenting life inside a Romanian men’s prison. He made photographs in Aiud Penitentiary between 2005 and 2008.
Bumbata — which is a Romania slang term for “prison” — was awarded the Book Art Object Award at the Romanian National Book Design Awards last month. The book paints a portrait of hard life in prison with variation, colour and curiosity. It is a stunning object; thoughtfully designed and brimming with crisp, images full of intimacy, unexpected interactions and (it sounds strange to say) disarming hope. Bumbata is one of my books of the year. You all should get a copy.
During Romania’s Communist era, Aiud Penitentiary was as a site of subjugation and abuse against political prisoners. Since Romania joined the European Union, conditions in Romanian prisons have improved greatly but the country’s overall prison population is growing.
Scroll down for a Q&A with Bumbuț.
Prison Photography (PP): Congratulations on the book. How did it develop? Did you release any of the images online or have them published in print before the book?
Cosmin Bumbuț (CB): Some of the portraits of prisoners that I shot in 2005 were published in the Romanian edition of Elle Man in 2006. In the same year, I won at the International Photography Awards with these portraits. I have not published the photographs online until now because I wanted to complete the final selection and find the flow of the story. I had 15,000 images and difficulties editing them. I did not like the flow of the pictures from the layout drafts I was working on. The book looked like a classic photo album, but I wanted more. I stopped shooting at Aiud in 2008 but it wasn’t until 2011 that I was satisfied with a selection.
During my last visit at Aiud, I found a file labeled ‘Literary Works of Prisoners’ in the office of the Social Reintegration staff. I read some works on the spot and took pictures of the rest thinking I might use them. I also photographed the prison magazine called Light From The Dark, which at that time was handwritten and stapled in one hard copy.
While I was editing the photos for the 1000th time, I read a text which made me think that prisoners’ texts might be binder for my photos. After this point, it was much simpler. I finished the layout quickly using InDesign which I learned in order to be able to make the design for my own book – the project was really important for me, so I wanted to make the book on my own.
PP: How did the book realise it’s final form?
CB: I printed three copies at Blurb, just so I could film them and try to raise the money for printing through a crowdfunding campaign. After I successfully completed the crowdfunding campaign I realized that I underestimated the printing costs.
CB: Two weeks before the completion of the crowdfunding campaign, I had the idea to make a hole in the cover, a hole that leads to the idea of the eye (sight) of a cell door. I remade the whole layout of the book because of this and I started looking for a printing house that could make this cover. Eventually, I managed this with the help of Atelier Fabrik – great people who never once said “It can’t be done.” The last minute changes of the layout and print cost more money which I paid for from my own pocket.
PP: How do you describe the book to people who have not opened it?
CB: Inside the prison walls, people laugh, play, sing, watch TV, read or write. Prisoners rebuild new homes inside and have created a micro-society with its own rules and functions. Bumbata reveals an intimate perspective of this micro-society. There are libraries, art and theater but many photos are in cells or on the yard.
PP: What’s life like inside Aiud? What sort of rehabilitation programs exist? How are the prisoners’ days occupied?
CB: They are not busy at all. Not all of them are allowed to work or are willing to work, although they are released sooner if they do. Most of them “sit on the room”, as they say, and hang around watching TV or talking. There are not too many volunteers for the activities you are talking about – I met men sentenced to four years of prison who could reduce their conviction with a few months if they would work, but they preferred to lay.
After 2007, when private visits were made law, there was a noticeable difference in mood and spirit. Prisoners were allowed to receive packages from their families; they received better food; they did not have to wear uniforms any longer; and guards were not allowed to beat them.
Once Romania joined the European Union, in 2007, the whole prison system went through major revamp and the biggest reform was to introduce the right to private visits. This means that a prisoner who is married or in a relationship has the right to receive, every three months, a two-hour private visit which takes place in a separate room inside the prison compound. Plus, if a prisoner gets married in detention he or she can spend 48 hours with the spouse in the special room and is allowed visits once a month in the first year of marriage. In such a context I started photographing the first couples to enjoy the new rights inside the Aiud prison.
So, a side project is called Private Visits Room. I have photographed 34 rooms in almost all the Romanian penitentiaries. I do not know yet what am I going to do with this project.
PP: Prisoners are happier then?
CB: They are aware of their rights and this has made them more “courageous” in their relationships with the guards. I am not sure if that is right or wrong. Some of them eat and live better inside a prison than they did in their own homes – they have hot water and warm rooms.
PP: I really enjoyed Hungarian writer Attila Bartis‘ musing on freedom in the introduction to Bumbata. He describes YOU as free; free from expectation, free from dogma of the medium; free to explore. Is he right?
CB: If he describes me that way, he must know something! Atilla writes that I am not “constrained by documentation nor by shocking.” I spent more than three years taking pictures in Aiud and during this time I witnessed all sorts of happy, sad and even absurd events. I tried to get close to the prisoners and to photograph them without any exaggeration, without making them look like monsters or victims, but exactly the way they were: mockers, ostentatious, nostalgic or God-fearing. So in that sense, Attila is right – I was not constrained by documentation nor by shocking. I was free to observe unspectacular everyday life in prison.
Attila and I have been friends since 2010. I met him when I published his photo portfolio in Punctum magazine. I read his novel, Tranquility, all in a breath and after that I wrote to him, telling how much I enjoyed his photographic descriptions. I knew that he was also a very good photographer, so I interviewed him for Punctum magazine.
PP: Can you tell us about Punctum?
CB: I launched Punctum in December 2009 in Romania. Until Punctum, there was no magazine dedicated exclusively to photography in Romania. I wanted to launch a printed magazine because I missed photographs’ consistence and I wanted to educate the public and prove that photography means more than technical information, exposure compensation, shutter and ISO. I found a sponsor who could take care of the contributors’ fees and printing costs. I volunteered my time.
Punctum encouraged diversity and presented different kind of artists: renowned photographers from Romania, but also young students, pictures taken by prisoners from Targsor (the women that attended my workshop), but also portfolios of photographers from New York, Japan, Cuba and Hungary. Additionally, it recovered the history of Romanian photography and published documentaries about photographers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who were hardly known by the public. Each issue presented a photographic portfolio of a famous writer, director, painter or a violinist interested in photography, for example Bartis.
But after five issues (the magazine appeared quarterly with a circulation of 1,000 copies) I realized that I did not have the abilities to sell this magazine and make it profitable. After all, I am just a photographer, not a business man.
PP: Bumbata is of men’s prisons, but you also coordinated workshops in the Targsor women’s prison. Were these projects pursued at the same time?
CB: No, I held the workshop in Targsor women’s prison a year after I finished shooting in Aiud.
In Targsor, I chose six prisoners and I gave each a camera so that they could photograph inside. Of course, I needed special approvals for this. I taught them basic settings and concepts during one visit each week. The workshop lasted for two months. While I was there, I was downloading their pictures and explaining to them how could they improve and what they should shoot the next week.
PP: Did you do a similar workshop with the men in Aiud?
CB: I never held a photo workshop in Aiud. Actually, Ms. Raducanu from the Social Reintegration Department was supportive of the idea, but a workshop needed some special approvals from the National Administration of Prisons.
PP: How long have you been interested in prisons?
CB: Since 2005, when the National Administration of Prisons got in contact with me and offered me access in any Romanian prison. They had seen my photo album Transit. I told them I want to pick only one penitentiary. In order to do that, I visited several and then chose the one in Aiud, which I did for visual reasons: the old cellular system with small detention rooms.
PP: Who helped you secure access?
CB: Dana Cenusa, the spokeswoman of the National Administration of Prisons, helped me and secured my access anywhere inside the prison system.
PP: The guards uniform interests me. Why the balaclava hood?
CB: According to the law, prisoners inside maximum security facilties that are convicted for murder, drug trafficking or cruelty deeds are accompanied everywhere by guards wearing balaclava hoods.
PP: Your work was exhibited and prisoners were escorted to the gallery by guards. What was the event like?
CB: I did not organize the exhibition. An art gallery from the city in collaboration with the penitentiary did so. I was touched by the encounter of the detainees with their families, wives and children.
PP: What are the attitudes toward prison and prisoners in Romania?
CB: Generally speaking, it is a controversial subject. Prisoners or former prisoners are considered the scumbags of the Romanian society. I was often asked what am I doing in the prison – have I not found anything more beautiful to photograph than the prisoners? I think that the bad image of the prisoners inside the Romanian society was one of the reasons why National Administration of Prisons asked me if I want to take photos inside the prisons. Maybe they thought that the fashion photographer in me could rehabilitate the image of the prisoners?!
PP: You explain that the prisoners appreciated the Polaroids and printed photos you gave them. How do you define photographs value within prison?
CB: They all want to send photos of them to their families. Because photo cameras are forbidden inside the prison, the value of a printed photo is priceless. They will be released and they will go back home. Prisoners are afraid of being forgotten – so the photographs helped them to remind their families of their existence.
PP: What were the prisoners expectations of photography and of you making images in their prison? Did they think you’d hit the news or sell images for big money across the globe? What was their understanding of your work?
CB: Some of them understood my work, others did not. They kept asking me what I was going to do with the images and I answered them that I will do an exhibition and, probably, a book. After Elle Man published the photos, I became famous inside the prison. They all wanted to be photographed because they have seen that my pictures were not denigrating them. After that, they trusted me.
PP: What did the staff think of your project?
CB: They wondered why I did not have something better to do with my time and money! But as I had all the approvals from National Administration of Prisons, what could they possible do to me, a mad man?!
PP: You did three years. How did you know when the shooting stage of the project was done?
CB: I wanted to finish with a prisoner’s release, so Pricu’s release ended the project. I knew before that I had come to an end. I felt I had become too visible – all the prisoners knew me and wanted me to photograph them. I could not pass unnoticed anymore. So, I took a break until I found out that Pricu was going to be released. I went to Aiud and spent the last two weeks only with him.
PP: What’s next?
CB: Recently, I won the The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism together with the journalist Elena Stancu and the next year I will travel around the country working on a multimedia project about the culture of education by violence in the Romanian families and society.
PP: Thanks Cosmin and congratulations on the impressive book!
CB: Thank you, Pete
Cosmin Bumbuț studied at the Faculty of Journalism Bucharest, and later studied photography at the Academy of Theatre and Film. For the last 18 years, Bumbuț has been a freelance photographer. His fashion stories and reportage has been published in Elle, Esquire, Marie Claire, Tabu, Cosmopolitan, FHM, Dilema and Viva! He worked as a photographer for Nottara Theater and Today newspapers. Between 1997-1998 he was a professor at the Academy of Theatre and Film.
Bumbuț has worked on advertising campaigns for Vodafone, ING Bank, Procter&Gamble, Wella, Epson, Coca-Cola Romania, Marriott Hotels and Mercedes-Benz Romania. to name a few. He was awarded The Best Fashion Photographer, Pantene Beauty Awards (2002), The Best Advertising Photo (Ad’Or Festival, 2001) and Best Advertising Photo (AdPrint Festival 1996). In 2006, he won the International Photography Award for a series of photographic portraits of convicts from Aiud Penitentiary.
In 1999, Bumbuț co-founded the photo group 7 Days and organized a series of workshops and photo camps. He co-authored the photographic album 7 Zile – 7 Ani in Maramures “7 Days – 7 Years in Maramures” (Humanitas, 2007). His book Transit (Humanitas, 2002) won the Art Book of the Year Award awarded by the Romanian Publishers’ Association.
Between 2009 and 2010, Bumbuț published Punctum, Romania’s only magazine dedicated solely to art photography. Bumbuț’s photographs have been exhibited in New York, Amsterdam, Luxembourg, Thessaloniki, Madrid, Rome, Warsaw and Naples to name a few.