Joost Vandebrug has been documentating the lives of four homeless teenagers living in the tunnels under Bucharest for three years now. Recently compiled into a book, Cinci Lei, he talks to i-D about his continued involvement in the lives of the boys and the future of Romania.
Cinci Lei translates literally as ‘five lei’, the currency of Romania, but it’s also the amount of money for one shot of Aurolac, the solvent the tunnel population use to get high off. The four kids who are the focus of the images have been homeless since they were about six, abandoned by their families, and looked after by the Godfather of the tunnels, named Bruce Lee, one of the first generation of post-Communist homeless population, forced onto the streets by the closing down of the orphanages.
The photos in the book are part coming-of-age document of boys being boys, part harrowing socio-cultural document of collapsed society and the people left behind; it’s always heartfelt though, and Joost has a wonderful eye for finding raw beauty and moments of joy in the squalor. These days Joost finds himself as much a social worker as he does photographer, intimately involved in helping the boys and trying to improve the lives he’s documented.
How did you first meet the boys that the book focuses on?
I came across them doing some research - you hear stories about these things, like how after the fall of Communism there were about 2000 street children living underground in Bucharest! So I went there, and I wouldn’t say there were 2000, but there were loads. One of the first kids I met then was Costel. I was shooting with an analogue camera and took some pictures of him, and the next day I printed the pictures, took them to him and he invited me into the tunnels. This is where I met Bruce Lee, who is like the godfather of the tunnels. At first I didn’t really know what his situation was there, but I soon started to see that without him, some of the children would have even less of a chance.
What was your initial reaction when you first went into the tunnels?
Panic! Not just the tunnel itself, but when you see these children - and I mean Costel was 13-years-old when I first met him - sniffing Aurolac, you’re like woah! It’s so close to home to see these kids who just don't have a chance. At first I was like “You need water! You need bread!” Then you realise they have the basics, the help they need is different.
Were you worried that your photos would glamourise it?
No, because when you start worrying about those things you don’t shoot anymore. I don’t hide that some of these boys are actually quite pretty, they do dress amazingly as well, and there’s nothing wrong with looking at it like that, they are pretty cool kids! I didn’t mind shooting that, because that’s what it was like - there is a lot of beauty. I became part of that group and shot what I saw.
Bruce is quite a protective figure for the boys isn’t he?
I understand how you could see Bruce as a bad person, but it is much more complex than that. Nico is still alive because of him; there’s no doubt about it. He was nine years old when he started injecting himself with heroin and Bruce told him not to. Though he contracted HIV at that time, he is still alive now - Bruce has done more for these kids than any one of us has done.But then he is also involved in drugs and I have arguments with him about it. The most recent was about the children who have a chance still. These four from the book, he uses them to sell drugs for him. “Why Bruce? You have so many here who could help you, why these children?” and I said the same thing to Nico, and I was put back in my place. He said, because he calls Bruce Lee “Dad”, “Dad helped me when I needed him, and he needs me there for him now.” Who am I to argue with so much street loyalty?
You’ve just got back from Bucharest, how was it?
I’ve been trying to go back, because we’re now setting up a foundation to properly receive the money from sales of the book to support the boys. I’ve been trying to organise a room for them to stay in outside the train station where they used to hangout, just so they don’t have to be homeless over winter.
How’s Nico now? At your last update he was very ill with AIDS.
He’s alive. When I took him to the hospital there was nothing left of him. Then he got his medication, his blood transfusions, and I stayed in hospital for a long time whilst he got better. Eventually we managed to get him into a safe house, it was a room in a dog shelter actually, there was shit on the walls, piss everywhere, and I asked the boys, “why don't we clean this whole place up, put bunk beds in, a heater, so Nico has somewhere to go to?” He’s ok now, he’s stayed on his medication, but he’s lived in the tunnels since he was four years old, and its stupid to think that he will change his life around, go to school, become a doctor. I have to watch my wallet around him; he’s still a gypsy boy from the streets.
What does the future hold for the four kids, but also for the tunnel population in general?
Bruce is paying almost London rent to the police as bribery money now, as well as the local gypsies for protection money. When I was there three years ago I decided I needed to document it because it didn’t seem sustainable, but it’s still there. I don't know too much about other bits of the tunnels, or whether it will last, but what you still see is people being left behind, like Costel, who can't go back to an orphanage at all now he’s 18, there is nowhere for him to go, just onto the street, and that feels very strange and sad to me.