photographing the lost boys of transylvania
Dutch photographer Joost Vandebrug spent five years documenting the lives of Bucharest’s homeless children. Now he’s turning his attention to the Roma villages of Transylvania.
Joost Vandebrug's images of the children living literally beneath the streets of Romania's capital, Bucharest, are arresting, harrowing, shocking, but also tender and beautiful and heartfelt. His lens powerfully captures the universals of youth, the timelessness of adolescence, even if such situations can be precarious. He christened them The Lost Boys; they were the result of the collapse of the communist system in the country, those left behind to fend for themselves. More than just a simple photography project Joost found himself intimately involved in the lives of a group of the kids, as much a social worker as a documentarian. As he launched a children's clothing company to raise money to help them, and prepares the final touches to a filmed documentary of their lives, he found himself in a Roma village in rural Transylvania, in central Romania, after hearing a large Roma village had been evicted and forced to move.
While there, he slowly gained the trust of the local families, began shooting them and assembled another valuable document of the lives of children in a society than the world would rather pretend didn't exist. But like all Joost's work, it's never exploitative or voyeuristic; instead his images capture with tenderness the universalities of coming of age.
What were you expecting when you made your first visit to the village in Transylvania?
The only thing I knew is that there had been an eviction of Roma people by the mayor of a large city in Transylvania to make space for a church and a parking lot. Those people were moved to a rubbish dump which was already inhabited by a small Roma community and is now the home for about 1500 people.
What was your initial experience? What was everyone like?
The village, including landfill, covers around 40 acres with improvised housing pushed very close together. They ironically named the villages Dallas 1 and Dallas 2 — yes, after the TV show. The people are very wary, especially of cameras. As you can understand they aren't super proud of their living situation so they are not keen on foreigners taking photos. So at first I just spent time there and got to know a few families and played football with the kids. After that I asked if it was ok to take some family portraits, which I then gave back to them, framed, to hang on their walls. They really liked this, so more families allowed me to take photos of them.
Has living amongst and documenting The Lost Boys in Bucharest inured you to the most shocking things you can see in Romanian society?
The difference with The Lost Boys series is that mostly all of these children go to school and they are protected and raised by the village. That's a huge difference in comparison to the children that live on and under the streets of Bucharest, as they had to look after themselves and create their own 'families.'
The Roma, though, are a very marginalized group — they face racial discrimination, xenophobia, and intolerance from the general Romanian public. And at the end of the day these families have been illegally evicted out of their homes and relocated to a rubbish dump, with little regard for local or international law. It's a new sort of shocking, I suppose.
You mention the Roma being marginalized — how does that translate into their everyday lives? Is it something they are very aware of? Something that they can avoid?
They are aware of it, of course. But they find it very hard to get any sort of legal representation and they do not always understand their own rights. Recently though Romania's National Council for Combating Discrimination found the eviction amounted to ethnic discrimination, but that decision was overturned by the Court of Appeals. In other words, they are quite literally in the shit, but have nowhere to turn. I also hear stories of people that had day jobs when they were still living in the city, but lost them when they got evicted because it is very hard to get into town from the dump. And when they try to get new work, all goes well in the interview until they have to tell their current address and they don't get hired.
I loved the Q&A with one of the children that we published in our Futurewise Issue; he had a really sweet and beautiful take on life. Would you say that's the typical outlook they have? What are they like in general?
The kids are really great, that's why I started this project! They are upbeat, energetic, super friendly, and deal with whatever is in front of them. At the end of the day they are just trying to grow up in all of this. That's what my Lost Boys series is generally about, coming of age in whatever situation and amongst whatever politics are happening around you. It's that one thing we can all relate to.
What's your approach to the shooting kids? Do you find easy? There's something wonderful and natural about the attitude you capture.
Shooting kids is so easy, just hang out with them, let them be, and great things will happen. It all turns out super natural with kids, as long as it is, in fact, natural. Staging kids is so naff and backwards, it never works out.
The Lost Boys film is coming out soon, how's that going?
It's going really well! Bruce Lee and the Lost Boys is a modern Oliver Twist story set under the streets of Bucharest; it's about a little homeless boy, Nicu, being adopted by the notorious Bruce Lee — the king of the tunnels — and him growing up. I have followed Nicu's life for over five years (we just celebrated his 18th birthday party) and now, after Bruce got arrested last summer, he lives with his adopted mother. We are in the editing stage of the film and went from a whopping 120 hours of footage to around eight at the moment. We still have some months to go, but the end is in sight.
And you just launched a line of children's clothing right?
Also really well. The line was created to fundraise for the Lost Boys but also has a brand identity of its own, with great t-shirts that you can draw on (with washable pens) designed by Alex Noble and jackets with wings and a patched up baseball jacket. All sales go to the lost boys, so check it out here: jumping-dog.co.uk
Text Felix Petty
Photography Joost Vandebrug