Main image above: 'Woman with chicken'
It is eight hours in a car from Bucharest to Maramures, and that’s by today’s standards.
Imagine driving the same roads, which idle northwest from the Romanian capital through the crags and spruce forests of the Apuseni Mountain range, 40 or 50 years ago.
That distance and difficulty explains how the people of Maramures withstood the worst of the identity-obliterating policies of Gheorghiu-Dej and Ceaușescu under communism. The isolated valley, near Romania’s border with Ukraine, continues in a fashion that the rest of Europe left behind long ago.
“It’s like travelling back in time,” says the British photographer Judy Ford LRPS, who first visited Maramures in October 2019. “Coming out of Bucharest, the landscape is flat and quite dull, but as the roads climb, you begin to see horses and carts going along the road, and tiny, traditional wooden houses. It’s then you think: ‘Ah, this is something special.’”
Ford spent 10 days in the region. It was, she explains, her first photographic trip, “and I came home obsessed. The strength of the women there is incredible – their connection to the land, everything they have endured. It pulled at my heartstrings so much.”
'Ioan brings the cow home to his wife Maria'
As the recipient of the 2020 Joan Wakelin Bursary, Ford has been able to return twice since – in June-July 2021, and again in October. She believes it was her passion for this remote corner of Europe that helped her achieve the bursary, “but it was about more than the money – more recognition that the work was worth doing.”
The Joan Wakelin Bursary, administered by the RPS in partnership with the Guardian, offers £2,000 towards the production of a photographic essay on an overseas social documentary issue. Ford’s proposition focused on the values that seemed to her to underpin the older generation in Maramures – namely, tradition, work, faith and family – and whether those values have carried through to younger generations who may have sought a different, less toil-wracked life elsewhere.
'Irina's handmade traditional blouse'
“The middle generation have different challenges, the biggest being lack of employment,” Ford explains. “Hard work is ingrained in their character, but finding work to support a family is extremely difficult and providing for a family has forced them to make many sacrifices. I wanted to ask them about their hopes and aspirations. Of course, that was quite tricky, both because there aren’t many of them left, and it’s also not that easy to walk into someone’s house and say, ‘So, what are your values?’”
Ford travelled to Romania with her husband, Daryl, a blacksmith who is also a keen photographer. Their style is quite different: he prefers black-and-white, she colour; he DSLR, she mirrorless, and so on. She is, she says, always drawn to the quiet moments and small details that tell a larger story, and chiefly enjoys the connection that photography affords her with other people. “Learning about them and letting them realise that I’m really interested in them and care about them is hugely rewarding.”
'Ioana at the age of 96'
In Maramures, Ford and her husband, who make a living selling curtain poles and drapery arms from their North Devon smallholding, employed a local guide to help find subjects to photograph. “But in Apuseni, the guide didn’t know the locals and we just had to hunt,” says Ford. “I started every day with no idea what we were going to find.” To help, she had some cards printed explaining the project, “with pictures on one side, and a short text in Romanian on the other and my phone number, but on the whole people were so warm and generous, and sometimes pleased someone was taking an interest in them. One couple, Ioana, aged 84, and Dumitru, aged 86, wanted to be photographed in traditional dress. I had to wait ages for them to find it, and when I took their portrait, the woman said, ‘If we die then at least somebody is going to see us in our good clothes.”’
Ford learned that, in many cases, the women had made those traditional clothes themselves – including the fabric. “Long ago they would get together in the winter to weave, sew, embroider and chat. The youngsters would learn from the old people. One woman told me she so looked forward to those needlework evenings that she once passed up the chance to go to a dance in a local hall so she could attend.”
'Salvina damaged her back haymaking'
In the case of the oldest women, Ford was consistently taken aback by their stoicism. Nearly all were long-widowed – this generation rarely remarries – with children largely absent, since most move away to find work. During the punishing austerity measures imposed by Ceaușescu in the 1980s, one of these women had survived by eating tree leaves. Their traditional wooden houses, meanwhile, often lack running water, insulation, even electricity. Sanitation is also poor.
“They draw water from a well and use an earth closet,” says Ford, “but their homes were always well-swept – in fact they were quite houseproud. I left with a huge amount of respect for them.”
'Maria whose husband died 34 years ago'
Stoic these women might be, but loneliness, isolation and poverty are rife. There is no retirement on the horizon, either. As agricultural workers they do not qualify for any kind of pension. That said, those with a plot of land to their name, regardless of size, consider themselves hugely privileged. Partly it’s about ownership – having something that belongs to them and that they can pass on to their children – but it also has to do with the older generation’s marked rootedness to the land. “Even when their legs stumble and their backs are permanently bent,” Ford explains, “they continue to work the land.”
It doesn’t require a huge stretch of the imagination to see why: besides the obvious economic reasons, the landscape is ravishingly beautiful. “In summer, the meadows are a sea of wildflowers,” says Ford, “and they cut acres and acres of it by hand and with just a scythe. It’s unbelievable.”
'Petru plays the flute in his garden'
In her statement for the bursary, Ford wondered whether this older culture has something to offer the modern world, or whether there is a way of making the region economically viable without destroying the values and traditions that make it so unique. What is clear, she knows,
is that time is of the essence. Some of the women she photographed have since died – and for the most tragic reasons, such as one who fell into a well, or another who fell over while walking to a neighbour, when nobody knew she was going, and succumbed to hypothermia.
“It gives me this sense of urgency,” adds Ford, “to see what I can record before it disappears. Because it’s not going to be long.”
'Tina dressed for church'
All images by Judy Ford LRPS
Learn more about Judy Ford’s Joan Wakelin Bursary project in the May/June 2022 issue of the RPS Journal. Apply for an RPS bursary
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'Children at a religious event'