When I was travelling through Romania in 1992 with my future wife Ali, we witnessed a tremendous amount of poverty.
After seeing news reports at home in England, we had prepared ourselves for crowds of orphaned “street children”, but in fact hardly saw any. Instead it was the sheer numbers of disabled people begging for spare change that shocked and upset us.
There appeared to be a shortage of wheelchairs in Romania.
We saw many double legged amputees dragging themselves along the dirty streets by their hands. We could hear them coming: A horrible heavy slap followed by a scraping and a pause as the person rhythmically lifted and dragged their torso along; clenched fists acting as feet; hardened arms as legs; legless body rocking, lifting and sliding on a kind of leather pouch protecting it from the ground – The sight, and sound, gave me nightmares.
At one point in our trip we tried to talk to a man with clubbed feet who was begging for small change by showing off his dirty, swollen and damaged feet. It was obvious that parts had been poorly amputated and he was severely disabled. During our attempted conversation we gave the man some money at which point a passing policeman moved us on, then made us stand with our backs to a wall while he pointedly asked me how much my camera was worth. I thought he was going to rob us.
I purposefully tried not to photograph the disabled people that we saw. But one day, I did so by accident –
An interesting looking family were waiting near a train station and I gestured to ask if I could photograph them as there appeared to be 3 generations all lined up patiently waiting together.
After taking a few frames and thanking them, I was asked for money so I gave them some and started moving away down the street. At that point the man in the group roughly grabbed the young girl (second from the left) and pushed her towards me. I was shocked to see her stumbling about. Her knee joints were facing backwards!
Unfortunately her elders thought her distressing disability could be used to get more money off me and for some time I was surrounded by grabbing hands and the poor stumbling girls face being pushed at me as I tried to walk away. I gave some more money, but it did not satisfy them and unfortunately in the end I had to run.
Disability discrimination: the result of church and Ceaușescu?
I’ve read that the Romanian Orthodox Church says disability is the result of sins or weakness within a family. The majority of the country’s 20 million population belong to the church and disabled people and their families can find themselves castigated and sidelined because of this.
Under Ceaușescu’s communist regime, imperfections were not allowed. Children born with severe disabilities were taken away at birth and hidden in homes. People who developed disabilities later in life were deemed ‘irrecoverable’ and cast to the sidelines of society.
I hope very much that things are a lot better for people with disabilities in modern-day Romania, especially as they are now in the EU.
You can see more of my 1992 Romanian 35mm travel photography by clicking the following links –
A mindful rant
While in some countries societies progress, sadly in the UK we appear to be going backwards.
I’m not at all suggesting that our modern-day UK is anything like 1990’s Romania, but I think we are becoming less and less compassionate towards those needing help.
As an example, just last week in the UK a Conservative council announced plans to make it illegal for the public to give food to homeless people. There are also reports circulating on the internet that UK police have started confiscating the belongings of rough sleepers.
David Cameron has downgraded the role of the “minister for disabled people”. The new minister, Justin Tomlinson, will be only a junior minister, or under-secretary rather than a minister for state as his predecessors were.
I personally find it ominous that the UK government also wants to scrap the hard-won and widely recognised Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights.
It all rather beggars belief.
More mindful photography posts will be coming soon including a “then and now” comparison of my mindfulness and photographs at the world-renowned Hay Festival in Wales.
See you then 🙂
words and pictures © all rights reserved Miles Pilling
I imagine it must have been a dreadful sight. I was fortunate enough not having to experience the life in a pour community or ill-fated family in Romania. I was born in a developing city (and show me a city which didn’t have several industries at the same time – perhaps too many) where everyone seemed to live normal lives, where every parent seem to have a job and education was free and mandatory. Without denying its merits, the means employed be the communist regime in Romania to achieve development were atrocious. So they say and I kind of believe it, I was only a child. The state had supreme power. But where doesn’t these days? I think communists only lacked style.
Hi. Thanks for your interesting insight into Romanian life. We stayed with local people when we were in Romania and, although in western terms they had little, they had a lot of hope for the future and seemed happy. The poverty we witnessed was on the streets and trains while we travelled.
It’s really interesting to hear you mention the merits of communism (often overlooked by historians). Isn’t it a shame that governments seem too often to employ the philosophy of “the end justifying the means”….even when the means equals great suffering for certain groups of people.
I like your photography and I was moved to see pictures from Romania of that time; and I envy you for being there at that time 🙂
True, the communist doctrine did not take into account the lives of many in their path to ‘victory’. A paradox when their end was to serve the many.
Since your words complement so nicely the powerful images, I look forward to see more on Romania and not only 🙂
Thanks for your visit too.
Thank you for posting this, Miles. As someone who spent the majority of her working life in Social Welfare I’m appalled at the attitude of both “the common people” and the politicians towards homeless people. For some reason they seem to think those less fortunate could have a home if they really wanted one. Yes, people make bad choices or have “bad” luck….or in many cases “bad governments” but I can’t help but feel that most of us are one paycheck or one crisis away from being on the street ourselves. A bit of compassion never hurt anyone.
Thanks Michelle. You are so right. There was a true story that was talked about in professional photography magazines – a homeless man was recognised by an ex colleague – he used to be successful photographer, but a run of bad luck caused him to lose everything. “There but for the grace of God”. You are right. It seems politicians here want the problem to be invisible so they don’t have to deal with it. Thanks again.
It’s not just in “Westernized” countries that they want the problem to disappear. My post on my trip to Africa 30 years ago….there was a story that the government of Kenya rounded up the beggars and the prostitutes and shipped them out of town for the duration of the UN International Women’s Conference. I know during my time in Nairobi I only actually saw one beggar….in 10 days.