Zâne, a journey into unseen worlds

Teenager in a mushroom and berries pickers camp, Lotrului Mountains © Ioana Cîrlig

Of all the photography genres, documentary photography is among my favorites.

Just like a good book, documentary photography tells stories by engaging the senses and the mind and takes me to a journey at the end of which I find myself to be a little different from the person I was before experiencing it.

Documentary photography allows us to get a glimpse on how life unfolds for people we don’t personally know, what are their struggles, what makes them happy or sad, what scares them and what they hope and dream of.

Such accounts make me wonder and question the bubble I live in. They illustrate untold or unknown stories and capture the culture and the story of the people portrayed.

Photographs like these put an exclamation point around pressing social and human rights issues and can bring and inspire social change.

Documentary photography teaches us about the world in a beautiful way.

Working with Documentaria is a great opportunity for me to get exposed to such photography projects almost on a daily basis.

Below is an interview I held with Ioana Cirlig and Marin Raica, the two people responsible for one of my favorite Romanian documentary photography projects called Zâne (Fairies).

Letea forest © Ioana Cîrlig

Zâne is an ongoing project exploring the relationship between man and nature in remote and traditional Romanian communities.

“Zână, zâne”- Mythological creature in Romanian folklore. With many different representations, it is usually a female character, beautiful and kind, with magical powers and the gift of immortality. Spirits of nature, good fairies are born from flowers and they live in forests or at the top of high mountains.


Why do you do the things you do, what drives you to pursue this path?

We can’t not do it. If we could, we would probably stop 🙂

Ionel and Marian, Târșolț, Oaș. © Ioana Cîrlig

How did you end up working together at Zâne?

We’ve worked together on another project and it turned out ok, I think. It’s nice to travel together and brainstorm all the time, talk about photography and the story, observe as things change and unfold. It’s a lifestyle now and it’s lovely.

In an article on Scena 9 it says that you Marin are interested more in the mystical elements and the way people use them to connect with the unknown. Can you develop on this idea?

I always thought it was interesting the way mystical elements are naturally blended into daily life. People have given up on a lot of rituals, but they still hold on to superstitions and stories. A lot of people still blend religion with pagan superstitions, and even though they don’t actively pursue rituals they still fear the power of unknown forces and their ways. For example, you might get sick if someone, at a certain time, in a certain “bad” place, says something triggering.

© Marin Raica

Do you find these elements in urban areas as well or is it something closely related to the rural side?

They exist in urban areas as well, but in the countryside and especially in remote areas, these elements are more easily spotted. Also, people aren’t ashamed of their beliefs, of their superstitions as they sometimes can be in cities.

Ioana, what have you learnt about people in the time spent with them?

This is a big question, and hard to answer. I only manage to get really close to the people that I am very compatible with, of course. I have met many wonderful people that I would not have had the chance to even talk to if it weren’t for my constant obsession with taking pictures. I am always surprised by how welcoming people can be in this strange relationship that we ask for. We want to be sort of friends, we want to stay in touch for a long time and sometimes visit and take pictures of their lives.

Maria and the lamb, Sfiștofca, Danube Delta © Ioana Cîrlig

Why do you think it’s important to connect with nature?

It is very important and it also is almost impossible, I think, in a real way, for people from the cities. But people have started to make an effort to care and I hope it isn’t too little too late. Without a real connection with nature we become robots that destroy our natural habitat by blindly consuming everything, being devoid of empathy and turning it all into a big pile of garbage.

Can you talk about one of your favorite images from the project?

One of our favorite images is one with the last ray of sunlight on some trees. We walked for a long time, climbing to the top of a high hill. We didn’t have any idea what we would find there really, we just knew there was a small farm. We got there just as the sun was setting and we ran like crazy to get a few shots. It’s the kind of magic moment that keeps us obsessed with taking pictures of real places and real people, leaving a lot of room for chance and not trying to control everything.

© Marin Raica

What have you learnt about yourselves and from each other through this project?

We learned to be accepting of our limitations and of the natural rhythm of things (much slower than we sometimes like), to be constantly curious and aware, to be open-minded and more relaxed.

What are your thoughts regarding the role of documentary photography in society?

Documentary photography teaches us about the world in a beautiful way. I have travelled all around the world, exploring it through the eyes of my favorite photographers.

Do you believe we need visual education and if so, who should teach it?

We do, it is key for a healthy development. I think it can be taught by people with a rich culture from different fields, curious people who love stories and images.

Summer, Lotrului mountains © Ioana Cîrlig

What are some of the biggest challenges you had as a documentary photographer?

I think the biggest is getting people to trust you. Watching a lot of tv has made a lot of people very anxious, paranoid, hypochondriac. This is very sad and something I hope is going to change at some point in the future, when people will get bored with being so aggressively threatened all the time. In every place we go there is someone who trusted a reporter, a tv crew and then saw the way they were lied about.

© Marin Raica

Another big challenge is balancing real life with storytelling life. The documentary photography we do isn’t exactly a profitable career choice, it is something we do in our “free” time, and this can get very stressful and exhausting. But it’s worth it of course.

What’s the best advice you received regarding the work you do and what’s one you’d give?

Trusting my instincts and ignoring what I think people might want to see. Sounds easy but it isn’t. This is also the advice I’d give, instead of thinking about what you should do, stop being so nice and find what makes your voice unique.


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