Ioana Cîrlig is a twenty seven year-old Romanian photographer, whose images document the country’s landscape and its people; haunted by the remnants of industrialisation.

Firstly, tell us a little about yourself and what you do.

I studied Cinematography in Bucharest and worked for a few years as a staff photographer for a newspaper before deciding to dedicate full-time to my personal projects. I like spending a lot of time with a story, so in 2012 I moved with another photographer, Marin Raica, to a small mining town in Western Romania to document the effects of deindustrialisation on the people and the landscape – industrial, urban and natural. I am still working on that project and hopefully we’ll have a photobook by the end of this year.

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Did you enjoy photographing for the newspaper? What challenges did you face?

Working for the newspaper was great because I was able to experience photographing in different environments at a young age.  At a certain point I realised that photojournalism wasn’t really my thing and that the only way I enjoy working is photographing a subject long-term, having the time to re-visit many times and to think things through.

What drew you to the area you’re working in; why do you enjoy photographing the town and its inhabitants?

After travelling to heavily industrialised areas in Romania, I became interested in how all the changes affect the landscape and the people. Rural areas have been urbanised and industrialised as part of the communist dream to have an industrial centre in every area. Then, during Romania’s transition to capitalism, most of these centres have been closed or severely downsized. I became interested in how the two aggressive waves of change affected these communities and  how mono-industrial areas can deal with the loss of the central activity.

I am currently living in Petrila, a small mining town in the heart of Romania’s coal mining area that is now going through the deindustrialisation process.

I like the small town feeling, the rhythm life has here. I enjoy the atmosphere and I feel it’s easier for me to find stories here.

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Has relocating to to somewhere so affected by your chosen subject changed the way you make photographs?

Yes, it changed it like nothing else I’ve ever done. It changed the way I think about a story and they way I take pictures. I am more relaxed and I allow myself time to think things through. I re-visit a place I like dozens of times and I developed real friendships with the people I want to photograph. It’s the ideal work rhythm for me.

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Tell us a little about your project ‘What Do You Miss?’ Also, what do you miss?

What do you miss? is a series of portraits of inmates at the women’s penitentiary in Romania. It’s a project I worked on in 2012. I asked each of the women about their life before they went to jail and I shot a polaroid of the thing they said they missed. I asked for the first thing that popped in their mind and I got answers like: the seaside, watching TV, going out dancing, seeing handsome men in suits, eating a favourite dish, taking a bubble bath etc. I was curious about the little things that matter to a person.

What do I miss? Well, being away from home a lot makes me miss my family and friends but  I get to make new friends and sometimes, when I’m really lucky, I get to feel like I’m part of a family’s life. That’s the coolest thing about documentary photography, I can get really close to people I otherwise would never have met.

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What is the most interesting story you’ve encountered on your photographic journey?

I only have the courage to approach (on the street) the people that completely fascinate me and usually they have interesting stories because there’s something about them that’s different, that makes them stand out somehow. For example, we saw a man on the street in one of our travels. He looked wonderfully different. We started talking to him and it turned out he had the most amazing life story: he was an intellectual, an anarchist, which landed him in prison during the communist years. He escaped, travelled the world and ended up getting a job as a miner in a small remote mountain town because it was a great hideout and a good job for a runaway: the working man was a hero – not a threat to the system.

How important is it to be working within a creative environment? Do you photograph differently now that you’re living and working alongside Marin?

A creative environment is key. It’s motivating to be able to be able to discuss stories and make plans all the time- we always plan more trips than we can ever make, but that’s motivating too. It’s our main focus and that’s great. Travelling and moving together to small towns is also great because, even though our presence there still seems weird to a lot people, it somehow makes more sense that we’re a couple doing this strange thing. For example, in Petrila, the small town we live in now, the people at the dog park created a funny theory about us. They couldn’t understand what’s our business there, why anyone would spend so much time (they know journalists just spend 1-2 days) and who pays us to live there and take pictures. So they decided we are some sort of government spies, undercover. This fear is understandable because the communists used to have these kind of “spies” everywhere.

What has been the most challenging project to shoot?

Photographing teen mothers was really hard. I’ve been visiting with a few for two years and it was always a sad, frustrating experience. They were all living in underprivileged areas, coming from poor families. I was able to observe the vicious cycle of poverty and abuse and I always left their houses feeling powerless and angry. Angry at the men in their lives, angry at society and at myself, for not being able to help more.

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What would your dream project be; if there were no limitations?

It would have to be a story where I get to photograph interesting (to me), beautiful people for a long period of time: for more than five years, to really see them changing, growing, experiencing life. (This is something that I have just started doing with a family, hopefully I will be able to carry the plan out). The story would be something small, the everyday life of families or groups of people in a fascinating area, something simple, quiet, not newsworthy. Access is key, in a dreamworld I have a lot of it, people trust me and welcome me in their lives. I am able to take pictures everyday- no day job, no other responsibilities. And I have unlimited films and processing.

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How do you choose your subjects?

I always choose my subjects using a very personal filter: I only document things that get me really excited, because these are the subjects that can keep me interested for a long time. For example, I have been in love with industrial sites ever since I was a child. My father used to work in a big factory in Bucharest and he would take me to visit every time he could (I wanted to go everyday). I love the atmosphere, the grandeur, the colours, the architecture, the smells.

The new project I am working on is about living close to nature. This choice has a personal motivation also: “real” nature (the raw, untouched by people kind) scares me, in a good way. It’s completely out of my comfort zone. I grew up in Bucharest and apart from the annual vacation at the seaside I would spend all my time in the city. I think the first time I set foot in a real forest in the mountains I was 22-23. This is why I am drawn to it, to me it’s new, mysterious, magical.

What advice would you give to graduates embarking on creative endeavours?

Well, I guess my advice would be what I try to tell myself everyday: work hard, always pay attention, try to think with your own mind, always be curious and excited about the life around you, try to take a step back from what you expect the story would look like and just look at what’s really there, be patient- don’t expect it all to happen at once.

You can see more of Ioana’s work at ioanacirlig.com