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NEU NOW LIVE Retrospective: Part 4 - Bogdan Gîrbovan, Photographer

05 August 2013

'For the first two weeks I stay in a new place I can't take any photos at all... '

Bogdan Gîrbovan is not interested in photographing sensational things. In his work, documentary photography that focuses largely on domesticity - how humans arrange and live in spaces, whether it be a communist era housing block in Bucharest or a small village in the Romanian countryside -  he is always looking for images that express a deeper understanding of a place.

The NEU NOW team dispatched Adina Ochea, resident NEU NOW documentarian, to catch up with Bogdan and talk about old - and new - times. 

This interview was conducted in Romanian via skype on the June 19, 2013 and translated by Adina Ochea. 

ADINA OCHEA: You participated in NEU NOW 2009 in Vilnius with your work 10/1, a series of ten photographs taken in ten single-room flats, one on each floor of a ten-storey apartment block in Bucharest where you were living at the time.

How do you feel about 10/1 looking back on it now?

BOGDAN GÎRBOVAN: I like it just as much, I swear! It feels like it’s the basis of the pyramid of my work, or the centre of a structure that I slowly built through my work. It is a supporting pillar and NEU NOW was very good for me, it boosted my spirits and was also a financial support

OCHEA: Because you actually sold the series during the festival.

GÎRBOVAN: That’s right. I did not expect it to go so well, but I am very glad it happened. It was my first festival, I was impressed. I was also overwhelmed - at one point I felt like running off! There were so many people and at that point I was unaware of the interest in my work and of my own capacities. I only slowly realized it later. In retrospect I still look at the series with joy and admiration.

'The apartments have changed a lot.
The young people disappear…
The old ones stay.'


OCHEA: Are you still living in the apartment block you photographed for 10/1 today?

GÎRBOVAN: No. I am renting it out and living in a larger place.

OCHEA: How has the apartment block changed?

GÎRBOVAN: The apartments have changed a lot. The young people disappear; somehow, they are the ones often moving out. Those one-room flats don’t even have a balcony and for the young people, for a couple, they are too small. The old ones stay.

OCHEA: Are you still in contact with any of the residents of the apartment block, the subjects of your photographs, today?

GÎRBOVAN: I say hello, we have a chat whenever I pass by.
OCHEA: Have the subjects of your photographs seen 10/1? How did they react seeing to the images of themselves and their homes?

GÎRBOVAN: I gave each one of them their photograph when the work was finished. Their reaction was a bit strange. It was of two kinds. Firstly, they asked why they themselves were so small in the photograph. They had expected portraits where they were the main focus and since I was also interested in spatial anthropology and the discourse of how people create their personal space, my focus was also on the space. They didn’t like that very much but they kept the photo and said thank you politely. They weren’t really sad, just surprised that they were small in the photograph. I don’t know if you noticed but they are all sitting in the pictures, because otherwise they would mess up my composition! 

OCHEA: And the second kind of reaction?

GÎRBOVAN: Secondly, they were very happy, but that was very few of them. A few of them were impressed by the quality of the image; you could tell they were a bit more educated about photography. I think if I hadn’t been a student I wouldn’t have managed to do this project.

OCHEA: Why? Do you think saying you were a student helped to convince them to take part in the series?

GÎRBOVAN: Yes, and even then it took a long time to shoot all of the photographs, it took 8 months. In the photos I focused on shooting most of them in the spring because I wanted a certain unity of the light. They are all made at 
the same time  of the day, too, around 12 - 1 pm.

'Taking part in NEU NOW, 
it raises your spirits, your quota, your visibility.

I only have words of praise.'


OCHEA: What was the impact of NEU NOW on your career?

GÎRBOVAN: Well it was very positive, of course. After my return to Romania I had my first deal with a gallery in Romania, in January or February of 2010. The gallery also went on to support me with my next project, Uniforms and Vestments. So things grew very fast from there. It was very important for me to be able to say that the series had already been bought and that I had participated in this professional event. Taking part in NEU NOW, it raises your spirits, your quota, your visibility. I only have words of praise. Due to the crisis, though, I am not working with that gallery any longer. We’re sort of in a latent state.

OCHEA: How has your artistic style and work developed since NEU NOW. What changed?

GÎRBOVAN: My style…I had a style already then that I try to keep through to today, since I see it as my own and I like it. So I have held on to my ideas about photography. Working with social documentary photography I always raise or pose a question. I don’t think it is up to me to solve the problem or to find the answer, but I think raising the problem is important in itself.

'The more I thought of this standard,
the communist ideal of building these identical apartments, I wanted to change something or

at least show how people live there...'

OCHEA: I saw on your website, there is also a project called 2 star trip, about the 2 star hotels at Romanian sea-side resorts.

GÎRBOVAN: Yes, it was a commissioned project purely for documentation.

OCHEA: The beds in one photograph from this project look exactly the same as they looked 50 years ago - the way they are arranged, everything.

GÎRBOVAN: Of course, you must make the bed ‘the way it’s made’. Romania seems to have always followed these standards - state standards of how things should look or should be done. I’ve tried to take advantage of this standard. I like showing it in
my photography. To what extreme they are followed was also one of my interests in working on the project Uniforms and Vestments

OCHEA: How did you become interested in larger social issues expressed through specific physical spaces, through these standards, in your photography?

GÎRBOVAN: I was always interested in this. For example, in 10/1 I was happy about having a place to stay, and so on, but once I started learning more about it, really thinking about how it was, it didn’t seem that great any longer. And I was aware that all the people on the floors below me, all the way down to the ground floor, lived in this tiny space - no balcony, no real kitchen just a kitchen corner, a very small bathroom. I found it awful. The more I thought of this standard, the communist ideal of building these identical apartments, I wanted to change something or at least show how people live there, and show it in an original way. At one point I was asked if I refurbished the same room 10 times. It was very funny. I liked the idea. The project would have been even better had I done that, but since I was interested in documenting and depicting in a realistic manner I  couldn’t go so far even if it implied a loss on the aesthetic side.

'We are just the pioneers, those working and being able to present portfolios of contemporary photography in Romania.'

OCHEA: I noticed that Michele Bressan [a prominent Romanian photographer] posted photos of the two of you on Facebook. Do you collaborate?

GÎRBOVAN: Well, we use it as a channel to promote our work but sometimes we also do it just for fun, I post pictures of him, he posts pictures of me. We had a common project in the past and even now we are keeping in touch strongly. We are trying to create a strong group of Romanian photography together with Matei Bejenaru in Iaşi. Bejenaru just created the Center for Contemporary Photography in Romania, it’s the first of its kind and I believe it is officially opening this autumn. We also help out with this in addition to our personal work, so to say. We each have our own projects but sometimes have common projects too, which is very nice.

OCHEA: Can you tell me more about Matei Bejenaru?

GÎRBOVAN: He is an artist coming from the exact sciences, math, physics; his work is very conceptual, very nice. He exhibited in the Tate. And the great thing is that he also wants to support this art not just practice it. The Center is his ‘child’. We are just the pioneers, those working and being able to present portfolios of contemporary photography in Romania.

'...you cannot separate
a great idea from a location...'


OCHEA: Do you consider your work to be distinctly Romanian or do your interests cross national boundaries?

GÎRBOVAN: I consider this to be a closed way of seeing things. Of course, in a way, they are Romanian since they are documentary, but I believe that if I moved to the South Pacific I would still be making the same kinds of photographs. They are Romanian because I come from Romania, but you can find this style of photography in Germany as well, just the location is different, the content is different. But I also think that today you cannot separate a great idea from a location, you have a great idea in a specific place, in a specific location, in your own space.

'I try not to deform or sensationalise
what I see in any way.

OCHEA: Have you ever been to Bulgaria, Serbia, Moldova? Have you worked there?

GÎRBOVAN: I have been there and I have thought of working there but I need an extremely long time to adapt. For the first two weeks I stay in a new place I can't take any photos at all because I’m not interested in photographing sensational things. I try to find something that has more depth and expresses a place better. But I think Moldovans have a better infrastructure than Romanians. They are also more united somehow. I thought the architecture in Moldova was amazing. I would like to work there at some point.

OCHEA: It’s interesting that you pointed out how you can't take photographs in a new place for at least 2 weeks. It seems like the exact opposite of a tourist, who takes hardly any photos in his usual space and while on holiday snaps away.

GÎRBOVAN: As I use film stock, I try not to make many technical modifications, it’s one shot. In college, I remember working on photographic reproductions of paintings and in that case you really have to try to perfectly reproduce the work of art the way it was made by its first author. I still use this principle. I try not to deform or sensationalise what I see in any way. If the idea stands and the story stands that is great and shouldn’t need sensationalism. If you see a landscape photograph that is very green or very red, does that seem real to you? I guess it’s a different vision with different photographers, some prefer documentary, others prefer spectacle.

'...the Romanian countryside automatically means poverty, nice landscapes, peasants.

I was interested in going there to see beyond these stereotypes..


OCHEA:  What are you working on currently?

GÎRBOVAN: I am currently working on a project entitled 2 months nowhere. I stayed for 2 months in a Romanian village. I bought a house in this village, it’s a bit of a self-funded residency. I want to go there regularly and document the place since I think places like it are slowly disappearing. I didn’t go there with a clear plan of photographing anything specific. I just went to stay there for a while, to get closer to the people, and to slowly discover what I would photograph.

Of course I knew these sorts of projects, photographs in the country side, have the downside of being considered stereotypical – the Romanian countryside automatically means poverty, nice landscapes, peasants. I was interested in going there to see beyond these stereotypes and to do so being able to talk to the villagers is important. You have regular conversations and you have to act and talk in a specific way, so I think it’s difficult to do this kind of thing in a foreign country where you are less able to adapt.

OCHEA: What are your professional plans for the future?

GÎRBOVAN: I’ve moved on to large format photography. I want to improve my technique and my possibilities to make landscape and urban architecture photography. I'm continuing with 2 months nowhere and this fall I have an exhibition of Uniforms and Vestments at Jecza Gallery in Timisoara, Romania.

Adina Ochea is Project Assistant for NEU NOW and has been with the Festival since its first edition in 2009.  

   2 Months Nowhere

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