Eight years ago, Cosmin Bumbuț was one of Romania’s best-known fashion photographers. His partner, Elena Stancu, was the Deputy Editor of the Romanian edition of Marie Claire. To many, they were at the top of their game, pursuing their dream careers. But the couple had different ambitions. Wanting to leave office life behind, they walked out of their secure jobs, dropped their glamorous titles, and literally took to the road. The couple bought a campervan as a career move, so they could work collaboratively on in-depth features involving rigorous fieldwork and reporting. For the next five years, they journeyed across Romania’s towns and villages documenting an array of stories, from the country’s different ethnic minorities, to social issues such as extreme poverty, domestic violence, and the failing public healthcare system. They published their reports on their own website, as well as making them into a book.
Throughout their stories, they returned to one recurring topic: the growing number of workers leaving Romania. “Whether we were reporting on children living with their grandparents while their parents work abroad, or on medical staff abandoning Romania’s healthcare system, the diaspora was something of an invisible companion with us on our travels.” So, three years ago, the pair embarked on a longform project: Away (Plecat in Romanian), revealing the unheard stories of Romanian migrants in Europe.
It’s this project — which they plan to turn into a book — that they are presenting at the Romanian Cultural Institute in London, where we have our interview. The grand building in Belgrave Square also hosts a simple flat where the pair are staying for a couple of weeks, which they jokingly call “a sanatorium” because it’s the first bed they’ve slept in over the last six months they’ve been in the UK. “We spent the first couple of days having endless showers,” they laugh.
An estimated three to five million citizens left Romania since the country joined the EU in 2007, with the biggest diaspora population found in Italy, Portugal, Spain, Germany, and Britain. The protagonists of Bumbuț and Stancu’s project come from a range of backgrounds: from professionals in medicine, IT, academia, or the arts, to seasonal fruit pickers, construction workers, carers, and truck drivers.
They’d find their subjects through personal and professional contacts. But since their collaboration with Romania’s most-read newspaper Libertatea, they’ve had many people reach out directly, offering to host the travelling journalists. “They write out of kindness, asking if we’d like to stay in their home. What many don’t realise is that their stories are worthy of being heard,” Stancu explains. The campervan serves a second purpose: giving intimate access to the lives of their subjects. “We’d wash our clothes in their home, charge our phones in their sockets, and this creates a deep bond,” Stancu reveals. “Through this experience, we’ve been able to live multiple lives.”
What is prompting the exodus of Romanian workers to EU countries? “The reasons why people leave are crushing,” says Stancu. Extreme poverty is one overarching cause. Seasonal workers, who come from the poorest regions of Romania, will pick fruits and vegetables abroad in order to make enough money to mend their roof, or build an indoor bathroom (in Romania, some 25 per cent of households still only have outdoor toilets.)
“Each family has its own story,” Bumbuț says. “We recently met with a family of nurses in the UK who were so poor in Romania, where they worked as a school teacher and social worker, that they couldn’t afford to buy their two children a banana each: instead, the siblings had to share one same fruit. In Romania, everything they owned, including their washing machine, was bought with bank loans.”
Stancu and Bumbuț spend weeks with each subject learning about their routines, the challenges they face, and the opportunities they come across. “The Romanians abroad are just like the Romanians at home, but they have more doors open for them,” Bumbuț explains. “You see that especially with the kids.” The two children of the nurse couple they interviewed in the UK are a prime example: one of them is currently studying medicine on a highly competitive programme by Oxford University; the other, having completed her degree, is working as a trainee midwife. She is even mentored by fellow Romanian midwife Cristina Anghel, who featured on NHS bus advertisements during the pandemic, making her a star in the Romanian press. “This is the issue with representations of the diaspora in Romanian media,” says Stacu, referring to the Romanian press hype surrounding the NHS advert. “Romanian migrants are either portrayed as heroes or as criminals. There’s nothing in between,” Stancu argues. She and Bumbuț want to fill this gap by bringing nuance and diversity to their stories.
The reasons why Romanians leave their country aren’t just economic. As one of Stancu’s and Bumbuț’s articles states, you cannot consider the topic without looking at the problems Romania is facing as a whole. Prejudice and discrimination against minorities are still commonplace and is one profound factor for why some citizens move abroad. For the project, journalists spoke with Nicu Ion, a Roma-Romanian who has just been elected as a Labour councillor in the UK city of Newcastle. Back home, he spent many years engaged in civic work with Roma communities, but when he applied to become a member of Romania’s now ruling National Liberal Party, he was met with racist comments. The remarks spurred him to eventually move.
Stancu and Bumbuț also interviewed a lesbian couple who moved to the UK where they could finally marry. For them, it wasn’t just the homophobia they faced, but the general disillusionment with the political class that broke the camel’s back. “After participating in countless protests in Romania, at some point, they felt overwhelmed and exhausted and lost hope, thinking that the changes that they were fighting for would not happen in the near future,” Stancu recalls. For medical staff leaving Romania, corruption comes high up on the list of grievances, along with poor conditions of hospitals and clinics. “Despite graduating with a degree in medicine, many doctors have complained to us that they couldn’t get jobs after university without paying bribes or through nepotism,” Stancu says.
Inevitably, Stancu and Bumbuț share the frustrations of their subjects, with Stancu pointing out: “We haven’t set out to live in a campervan out of a sense of adventure. This is the only way we can cut down our living costs.” The two live off reader donations and journalism grants. “In reality, no one will pay us to do the in-depth reports we want to be working on. If someone was willing to cover our flights and hotels, we would definitely say yes,” she adds.
Meanwhile, life in a campervan comes with its own complications. “Our life revolves around the vehicle: whether that is planning where to park, where to find running water and electricity, or where to empty our toilet. We only end up writing and editing photos when everything else is sorted out.” Disagreements naturally arise over the lack of space. “While I wash the dishes, for instance, Cosmin can’t edit photos, or even change clothes,” Stancu explains. Yet, the two don’t regret their choices. “What would we return to? A life in the office? Fashion photography? We signed up for this lifestyle.”
For many couples, lockdown has been a make-or-break moment. I ask them if spending so much time together in such a small space has put a strain on their relationship. “It has made us even more intimate,” Stancu replies. “Yes, we end up bickering about our items, from how many cables Cosmin has to the fact that I have four pairs of shoes. But we never understood what all the other couples complained about during lockdown,” she laughs.
The pair are planning to spend two more years on their project Away, documenting the Romanian diaspora in France, Belgium, and look forward to returning to Italy, where their reporting was previously interrupted by the Covid-19 lockdown. “It will be a challenge to select the stories that will make it into a book, out of the thousands we’ve produced so far.”