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©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

In modernizing institutions, new laws to permit intimate partner visits for prisoners were established. Cosmin Bumbuţ visited every penitentiary in Romania and photographed the boudoirs.

We’re obsessed with sex as much as we’re shy to talk about it open and honestly. We’re fascinated by prisons, particularly fictionalized accounts of prisons (Oz, Animal Factory, Shawshank, Orange Is The New Black, The Green Mile, the list goes on-and-on) but often our fascination doesn’t extend far enough to talk openly about what our prisons actually are and how they’re a symptom of a divided, racist, unforgiving social order. We’ve still a lot to unpack around prisons. Around sex too, we’re picky about what and where we unpack. I say this to acknowledge the fact that this is an article about sex, and prisons, and sex in prisons and those are fiery catalysts to the imagination. Be honest, you’re here because of the headline and you’re wondering whether to read these 1,300 words or just scroll through the pictures.

Fortunately, for us, these pictures, made by Romanian photographer Cosmin Bumbuţ (who is also one half of, sate our outsider curiosity without dragging us into a debased voyeuristic quagmire.

The series, titled Camera Intima, is expertly shot with phenomenal manipulation of space and lenses to secure these angles. Despite some of these rooms being converted basement store-rooms, the photos are well-lit and flooding with joyous color and pattern. Perhaps you enter this photo essay — and these rooms — expecting cheap gags, but you exit with a rounded and informed perspective on a type of room designed to meet 21st century policy, to ensure dignity and to bolster family relationships.

“In 2007, Romania joined the European Union,” explains Bumbuţ. “The whole prison system went through major revamp and the biggest reform was to introduce the right to private visits.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

Simply put, the price for entry into Europe’s *modern* club was to allow previously-forgotten and despised convicts to get it on with their loved ones. Married prisoners and those in long term relationships have the right to one 2-hour private visit, every three months.

“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,” explains Bumbuţ.

It’s obvious to say that these conjugal visit rooms are for sex. But it’s worth noting they are intended only for sex. In the United States, by comparison, conjugal visit trailers and designated rooms are set aside for the whole family. In these Romanian rooms, the only visitors are intimate partners but in the United States the purpose of family visits is broadened beyond just sex. Prisoners spend time with their children, siblings and parents; trailer visits are meant to strengthen family bonds throughout the entire clan. As such, US trailers have kitchens, dining and common areas.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

In Bumbuţ’s photos we see mostly, just the beds. For all their undeniably functional design for the carnal, these rooms are rather underwhelming. At its root, this photo essay could be of cheap motel rooms; they share the same essential elements — TV, mini-fridge, the occasional soft furnishing, nasty carpet and a sign or two reminding occupants of rules. The picture that these are prison rooms is Bumbuţ’s image of the cover page of the ‘Intimate Room’ handbook.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

Between 2013 and 2014, Bumbuţ photographed the “private rooms” in all 40 Romanian penitentiaries. “I think I can boast of being the only civilian who entered all the Romanian prisons,” he says.

It wasn’t a project that came out of the blue. Back in 2009, he facilitated a photo workshop for women prisoners in Târgșor Penitentiary (more about that here). Soon after that he embarked on a multiyear project documenting life in the notorious Aiud Penitentiary. He witnessed a creaking and unsanitary lock-up trying to clean up and drag itself into the 21st century.

“In 2005, Aiud looked like a prison from the Communist era. Rooms were dirty and the walls unpainted, the cells were very small and crowded,” says Bumbuţ. “In 2008, it was renovated and the cells were expanded, the prisoners didn’t wear uniforms and were referred to as ‘Persons deprived of liberty’! Romanian prisons started to look like the ones from the American movies, with white walls and new metal shiny doors.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

Even though prisoners are still handcuffed, Bumbut has, since 2008, been prohibited from photographing cuffed prisoners. Now it’s about image as much as it is about policy. When Bumbuţ first made his request to the National Prison Administration to photograph the conjugal visit rooms, he received quick approval and thanks for his dedication and help to the prison administration programs. Bumbuţ became well practiced at working in prisons. He reduced his equipment to a camera, a lens, a spare SD card and a spare battery to get through security checks as quick as was possible (often not quick at all).

The photographer’s good-standing all changed upon the release of his book Bumbata, an anthology of his best photographs from four years of shooting in Aiud Penitentiary. (Bumbuţ and I had an extended conversation about Bumbata in 2013).

The book was considered to gritty and perhaps, even, too sympathetic to the prisoners. Either way, it was seen as a damaging depiction. From there-on out, Bumbuţ was light on his feet and diplomatic. His access was never withdrawn.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

The pregnant pause within these rooms is what gives Camera Intima strength as an body of work. We look at the photographs and they ignite our imaginations about what goes on inside. When the door is open — and we and the photographer peer in — there’s nothing to see. What goes on behind closed doors will never be photographed. This tension is characteristic of good photographic series that insert themselves into the relationships of public/private space and personal/institutional power.

“Prisoners are allowed officially to have sex inside an institution, but they have to follow all the bureaucratic steps,” explains Bumbuţ, “to write a request, to wait for the approval, to obey the rules.”

Guards and the administration hold the promise of access to the rooms as a carrot to motivate prisoners toward good behavior.

“Only prisoners who behave in prison are allowed to have private visits,” says Bumbuţ. “Prisoners are more obedient when they have access to the intimate rooms.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

Similarly, in the U.S., conjugal visits are seen as a very effective way to maintain prisoners’ complicity, even docility. Not all U.S. prisoners enjoy regular time with their family or intimate partners. All conjugal visits are banned within the Federal system and while states are left to rule on their own prison policies, only four — California, Connecticut, New York and Washington — currently allow trailer visits. In 2014, both Mississippi and New Mexico summarily ended their conjugal visit programs.

Sometimes these decisions will be couched in language about security but more often than not the decision rests upon public opinion (outrage), the moral judgements of the administration in power and probably the bottom line. It’s cheaper to keep men and women locked in boxes than it is to provide programming.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

Back in Romania, it doesn’t matter what system or prison you’re in, your right to have conjugal visits is protected by law. And Bumbuţ was in many prisons when these visits took place. For a while he toyed with the idea of making portraits of prisoners and visitors.

“I even shot a couple before and after their private visit,” says Bumbuţ. “But when I looked at the portrait, I realised that it became too much about the couple and not about the intimate room.”

Bumbuţ wanted to spark our curiosity. He wanted to focus on the space and all the emotions, release, frustrations, love and contained freedom they embody.

Even though these rooms allow two humans to come together, they’re not places about individuals or individuality. They’re function spaces for the continuance of criminal justice policy. We know that given the choice, no-one would want to opt for these converted cells, cramped quarters or side-thought accommodations for their sexy time. No, Bumbuţ’s photographs are all about the denial of comfort and personal circumstance. These are compromise spaces. They’re about making do as much as they are about making out and they reveal carceral logic itself.

“So I decided to shoot the empty rooms.”

©Cosmin Bumbutz. All rights reserved.

If you’re still with my these 1,300 words later, I’m glad you stayed the course and I hope I’ve convinced you that these images are more than visual one-liners. That, in fact, by photographing in every Romanian prison — 40 in total — Bumbuţ has created a unique, complete and priceless sociological survey. These four walls are the fulcrum between Romanian rule-of-law and the European Union compact; they’re the pivot of negotiation between prison and prisoner; and, of course, they’re containers for sexual expression between prisoners and loved ones. Ultimately, the rooms are the physical manifestation of contradiction.

“These are spaces for intimacy,” concludes Bumbuţ. “But, at the same time, the prison itself denies almost all desperately needed intimacy.”

In recent years, Cosmin Bumbuț and journalist Elena Stancu have traveled through Romania in an RV telling stories about today Romania, marginal communities and extraordinary people. They are Follow Bumbuț and Stancu at the website and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.



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.

PPBumbata 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?

CBDana 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.


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