Capturing the forgotten children

EAST ANGLIAN photographer James Fletcher is used to getting himself entangled in dramatic situations in his work as an EADT photographer - powerful pictures of police clashing with travellers backlit by flaming oil drums and burning tyres are among the shots in his portfolio but nothing could have prepared him for the danger and the inherent sadness of the lives of the street people in Romania.

By Andrew Clarke

EAST ANGLIAN photographer James Fletcher is used to getting himself entangled in dramatic situations in his work as an EADT photographer - powerful pictures of police clashing with travellers backlit by flaming oil drums and burning tyres are among the shots in his portfolio but nothing could have prepared him for the danger and the inherent sadness of the lives of the street people in Romania.

James and EADT reporter James Hore took a voluntary trip to Romania to capture the true face of Romania 15 years after the fall of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.

He said that even before he became a professional photographer, the plight of the orphans and street people had touched a nerve within him. “I have always been interested in photography and when in 1989 Ceausescu fell and the stories of those abandoned in orphanages came out, I knew I wanted to do something to help but didn't know what. It seemed a long way away and I didn't understand what I could contribute to make things better.

“Then two years ago I was very ill with cancer and that does concentrate the mind. Hopefully, I have got that behind me now but the whole experience gave me a kick start, made me re-evaluate my life, my priorities. I realised that it's all very well having ideas or dreams but if you don't do something about them now, then perhaps you may never get around to them. So with that in mind I set about contacting various charities working in Romania looking for a way to document life in the country 15 years after the fall of communism.”

He said that since the news stories about the orphanages and street kids have stopped dominating the news, everyone assumes that it is no longer a problem. “Even some charities have reigned back their funding, but as I discovered the problem is as big as ever - in some cases the situation has got worse. At least under the Ceausescu regime the orphans had some care, now many are just abandoned on the streets.

Most Read

“This is the point I wanted to make with my photographs. This is what I could do to help try and improve things. I could raise awareness, help reignite the debate about what is happening to these people. I wanted to get across that everything is not all right - that the problems of 15 years ago are still there and it's not too late to do something about them.”

He said that his arrival in Bucharest provided a rude awakening. He was given a charity worker to contact but failed to find him in a vast city. “It was about 11pm and suddenly there were crowds of homeless people starting to congregate on the streets - mostly people who had been turned out of orphanages because they had turned 18 and no longer had a place there.

“We started walking around talking to people. I realise now that we were very niave. We stood out a mile, I was laden with camera equipment, asking everyone if they spoke English. We were almost crying out to be attacked and robbed. Fortunately people were very friendly and welcoming. It was amazing. I was stunned by the number of people who spoke English, if not perfectly at least enough to get the message across. Mime and body language helped a lot but here were street people, with no job and no home, who could speak English far better than I could speak Romanian.”

He said that they met a girl called Christina who wanted money but settled for a coca cola instead. “She had amazingly pretty face but she had worked very hard at making herself look as tough and menacing as possible. She had a shaved head and very grungy, militaristic clothes. She told us that she had to be tough and look to survive.”

He said that while looking for their elusive contact they were approached by a street dweller called Marius who volunteered to show us around. “Again in retrospect it was a dangerous thing to do, especially when he led us to a manhole cover and asked us to follow him 20 feet down into a darkened sewer. Looking back on it now, it was an incredibly dangerous thing to do - anything could have happened down there, but there was something about him that made us trust him.”

He said that Marius introduced them to a family who were living in the sewer. “It was absolutely pitch black because they couldn't afford candles. Again they were incredibly welcoming. Very polite and they let me take pictures in return for money to buy candles and basic foodstuffs.

“It was an incredibly humbling experience and we couldn't believe that in this day and age, people were still being forced to live like that. We found ourselves apologising all the time because we didn't have any money to give them. We purposely didn't bring any money because we didn't want to be a target.”

He said that their trust in Marius increased still further when leaving the sewer he offered to carry some of James' cameras as they made the long slow climb up a vertical ladder towards the surface. James Hore unthinkingly handed over a camera and some lenses which Marius could have made off with and would not have had to work again for five years with the money he could have made on the black market but at the top he handed them over again.

“There seemed to be a wonderful element of trust between us. He told us repeatedly that he wanted us to tell their story, to let the world know how they were leaving, so someone could come and help them.”

He said that two days later Marius took them to a world which came straight out of Oliver Twist. “He took us to a derelict house in the middle of Bucharest which was exactly like Fagin's hideout in the Dickens novel. This place was run by his cousin who looked after and provided shelter for a whole army of youngsters and teenagers, who in return would go out and steal from the wealthy classes or hustle money from the tourists.

“There is an argument that he was leading these vulnerable children into a life of crime but in his defence he did seem to care very much for them and he did provide a roof over their heads and supply regular meals. In some respects these were the lucky ones.”

James said he was amazed that there was such a huge gap between the haves and have nots. “Since the fall of communism, there's a been polarisation between the wealthy who live in exclusive apartments and gated communities and those who literally have nothing and live on the street.

“During the day, the wealthy just walk about and they simply don't notice these people - it's as if they are not there. There's lots for them to spend their money, good restaurants, designer clothes, places like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken are opening up - they want to buy into western society and yet there's such poverty.”

But James said he remained impressed with the welcome he received from the people who were forced to scrape a living anyway they could. He said that on one occasion they were saved from an attempted robbery by a pair of unofficial security guards who were paid in tips by travellers to safeguard the Bucharest tube network. “We were having a drink one evening in a café, which we learned later was a favourite watering hole for the local mafia when we were introduced to a couple of security guards who had come into the city from Moldovia to gain a better standard of living.

“We were happily talking to them when a man entered the café and motioned for one of the guards to come over to him. They spoke to him for a couple of minutes and kept looking and nodding in our direction. The man went out and the security guard came back and sat down with us. I could tell they were talking about us and asked him what they were talking about. He said it was nothing. I got quite cross. I said; “We're not stupid, you were talking about us, what was he saying?”

“It turned out that the man was a local taxi driver and wanted the security guard to put us in his taxi and when we were outside town he would rob us and split the proceeds with him. The security guard said he would not do that and as a measure of protection offered to walk us home, even though he lived on the otherside of town.”

He said that the security guard was as good as his word and the long walk was made easier by animated conversations about football. “They love football,” laughs James, “in fact anywhere you go if you love football then you will be assured of a friendly welcome.”

James' exhibition Children of the Revolution, with accompanying text by James Hore, will be at the Digby Gallery, Mercury Theatre, Balkan Gate, Colchester, until Saturday April 15. The exhibition will then go on display at Les Livres Gallery, Colchester Library, from May 8-30; Chelmsford Library from June 19 to July 17 and the Halesworth Gallery from July 22 to August 10.

James is already working on a new exhibition of behind the scenes ballet photographs.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter