Cosmin Bumbuț is a romanian photographer who used to work in the fashion and advertising industry. He later gave up this lifestyle and decided to switch to documentary photography and live in a camper. I’ve talked to him about his decision to make that move, how it is to live as a freelancer and the stories he’s telling through photography.
This interview was first published on Documentaria, a photojournalism platform created by a group of amazing people who want to show, through photography and facts, bits and pieces of Romania.
You’ve been working as an independent photographer since 1993. How is it to live like this?
I can’t remember how it is to live other than as a freelancer. The last time I’ve been employed was as a photographer for the Nottara theatre. I had to photograph new shows and to enlarge the photographs from the plays. To enlarge, not to print, because I did did in a classical way in their lab, where I developed films and optically enlarged photographs. I had an enlarger which, in order to make the 50×70 photographs that were to be exposed in the window, I had to turn it upside down on the table to project the image on the floor. I enjoyed working at the theatre, I liked the community there and the fact that my colleagues were actors.
As a freelancer you are alone, just you and your assistant, and you develop a sort of conjunctural friendship with various clients you get along well or work more often with. Sometimes you can chose what to work on. On the other hand, there is always a stress when the phone doesn’t ring for a long period of time and you’re afraid no one will ever call and that’s it with your career.
But now, I do a different type of freelancing – since I’ve given up fashion I’m not interested in the commercial side anymore and I stay away from the advertising industry. When I turned 40 I realised I didn’t want to do that anymore and I want to work on projects I believe in. Now it’s harder to live from freelancing – and to work only on subjects that interest me – since it was when I did fashion and advertising. Nonetheless, since november 2013 when I moved in a camper with my girlfriend, my costs dropped considerably. The less money you need to live, the more freedom you get to do what you like. Today I live from grants and from the money I get from the postcards. Those who follow our projects on Teleleu.eu – the website me and Elena publish our stories about today’s Romania – can support us through buying subscriptions to our postcards: once every two weeks I print and send via post a photograph from the places we travel to. Even though I earn much less then when I worked as a commercial photographer, the support we get from these people moves me and offers me a greater satisfaction: I feel that my photographs matter and all these people who support me appreciate my work.
What triggered the switch from commercial to documentary photography and what changes did this decision bring with it?
I took the Bumbata photographs during a full commercial period, probably at its peak, when I was very well paid both in fashion and advertising. My trips to Aiud were like small getaways, I didn’t have layouts to respect, art directors to please and deadlines for yesterday. I photographed in my own rhythm, with lots of mistakes which (I hope) I corrected along the way, I learnt to interact with other people from different fields that I usually used to photograph. And all these things overlaid with a period in my life where I finally figured out that money, fame, a house and a new car don’t bring happiness.
I needed a couple of years to convince myself of this and another couple to find the courage to admit that it’s more important to be proud of what I was going to do from then on than the money I earned up to that point. So I changed the first question I asked my customers from “how much money will you pay me?” to “how does the project look like?”.
The ‘90s was a period of good schooling for me. I was lucky enough not to have money for films and shoot less than I’d liked to or not be able to develop a subject that I felt had the potential, because my film was over. I believe in the first years, 1990 -1993, I shot an average of two films a week. I was lucky with the magazine Dilema, which payed for my films and developers for several years and, for the first time, I could put Kodak films into my camera.
Since 2004, I’ve archived everything I shot on film from 1992 to 2008 when I started shooting exclusively on digital cameras. I’ve gathered about 75 000 images scanned at 700 px. Last winter I looked over the photographs shot in the ‘90s and I told myself to scan some of them at maximum resolution, see how they looked and how they hold on, on a bigger screen. Besides the cloth that stuck in the emulsion from the developing of 20 years ago, the images seem ok. What’s odd is the fact that despite my memory is bad – I forget people’s names I recently met, I forget things that happened – I haven’t forgotten any image from those I shot on film, I haven’t forgotten where I took it or how I felt in that moment.
Has your perspective on the subjects or on photography in general changed in any way?
It’s nice to see those images; I discover my way of thinking back then or how I didn’t interact; I see my shyness and lack of experience and, more than anything, the fact that I hadn’t developed or shot more than one subject because I didn’t have films. I used the normal lens and medium telephoto lens more, while now I use more the medium superangular and very rare the normal lens. I also became more courageous and I managed to overcome my fear of interacting with the subject.
Do you have something in mind with this series?
I didn’t plan anything at first, but posting a part of them on Instagram and Facebook I instantly received positive feedback and encouragements to publish them in an album. Now I’m thinking about it, maybe I will make it, but for the moment I still have a lot of scanning to do to finish the 90’s – 2000. My images from a different century.
On the website you and Elena tell stories about people. What impact had these stories on your lives?
It’s strange that we recently remembered moments from past years, from the times we documented stories on domestic violence and people opened up to us and talked to us about their traumas. Of course they charged as emotionally, some of our friends who we used to tell about the things we saw or heard recommended us a psychologist.
We used to unbent by doing a different type of work, this is how we documented the bisons from Târgu Neamț: I didn’t want to hear about anything sad and we went into a forest to tell a story about wild animals.
By now you’ve photographed stories of people who live in Cuba, people who live in prisons, kids with rare diseases and other hard topics. Which of them put you out of your comfort zone the most?
The hardest thing was to photograph the sick children. We were at Center Noro in Oradea, I photographed in a part of the building, Elena took interviews in a different one. Our camper was parked in the yard and we met there periodically to cry without being seen. When we saw each other with tears in the corners of our eyes we bursted into laughter and mock ourselves: “such a pro!”
“Intermediates for health” is a project that shows how simple people change the life of their peers for the better. Do you think projects like this can generate similar behaviours in those who see the photographs?
Yes, definitely. The people who do these things feel encouraged when someone tells their story, when someone is interested and cares about their work, and those who hear about these stories find out they can do a something, that there are solutions and that you must be willing to make an effort to help.
What responsibility do you feel towards the people you’re photographing?
First of all I respect them. I’d like them to feel relaxed around me, even if I have the camera close to my eye. I don’t photograph them in possible embarrassing situations, because if you spend enough time with your subject you get to see that too. So I show them that by taking the camera from my face in those moments. I believe you can’t get their trust and honesty without it. All these things will show in the final photographs.
On the website you mention you live from grants, collaborations and postcard subscriptions. Do you think documentary photography can become a sellable product for the general public?
No. Right now the online space is too saturated with images and photography stories of any kind that it’s difficult to convince someone to pay money to see yours. I can’t see a mechanism for this at the moment, but it’s clear that photojournalism and documentary photography are reinventing themselves. The future is crowdfunding and donations coming from an educated audience who understands that.
How difficult is it to work on long term projects from a financial point of view?
We have far less money than we had when I was a commercial photographer and Elena was deputy editor in chief at Marie Claire. When we have money we spend them, when we don’t we cook beans and potatoes. Our needs are smaller than they were back when we payed rent in Bucharest. We can spend as much time as we need on a subject we’re documenting. The cost equals the cost of the period we don’t work. We don’t pay rent because we live in the car, food is cheaper, we don’t do restaurants because we don’t have to socialise in expensive places anymore, a great part of our electric needs are coming through solar energy, we ask water from people and the gas is expensive but if we spend more time in the same place it doesn’t matter. When you live in a camper it’s very easy to work on long term projects, but to get to live there, that’s a different story 🙂
What are 3 important things someone who want to pursue documentary photography needs to learn or know?
To photograph only subjects that she likes or she understands, to be open minded and non judgemental, to learn to listen better than she photographs.
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