The underdogs and vagabonds of Romania's underworld

The underdogs and vagabonds of Romania's underworld

Falling on blades — Photographer Mihai Barabancea captures life on the fringes of post-communist Bucharest, with unflinching images that interrogate social stereotypes.

On Christmas Day 1989, Romanian President Nicolae Ceaușescu was executed by a firing squad after being convicted of economic sabotage and genocide. His despotic 15-year regime had come to an end, and the nation was finally liberated from the Eastern Bloc. 

As a new era emerged, artist Mihai Barabancea got his start with graffiti art. “By the end of the ‘90s, Romanian young democracy has been culturally colonised and influenced by American media. We were like a sponge for new trends,” he says.

“Graffiti was something that gave me dopamine. I started discovering abandoned communist factories through urban exploring Bucharest. Photography was an instrument for documenting these sessions.”

Barabancea continued making photographs, documenting the crooks, vagabonds, underdogs, con men, buskers, and shady characters that crossed his path as he travelled through Romania and Moldova using a process he describes as “hyper-reality hacking,” combining multiple genres into a single image to alter the narrative.

“I’m surfing for experiences, for new types of thrills,” he says. “There is a lot of inspiration everywhere. It’s all interconnected. It’s interesting how you get your answers from the most unexpected places. I’m passionate about cinematography, so in my books, I try to sequence a whole universe with a parallel alternative narrative – a surreal, magical realistic doc-fictional voyage.”

A new book, Falling on Blades (Edition Patrick Frey), showcases Barabancea’s radical approach with a series of intoxicating images portraying the fringes of society. The title references the phrase to ‘accidentally fall on a blade thirteen times’ – a poetic allusion to being stabbed but not killed, forced to roll with the punches and persevere against the odds. 

Falling on Blades is a world unlike anything ever seen before: a barbecue at the cemetery, nudists painted black playing backgammon on the beach, a car crashed into the upper floors of an apartment building. Here, sex, drugs, and caskets are all in a night’s work.

“My style is a mix of multiple genres of image representation. The types of missions I go into are so complex, so they keep me updated with the many layers of society and its glitches. It’s a way of knowing myself better and self-discipline by envisioning a better tomorrow. Many times I collapsed under the heaviness of my divine mission.”

Despite censorship from the Ministry of Culture, he perseveres. “They [the Ministry of Culture] could alter and decontextualise my name into losing credibility,” he says. “These things are already happening locally through [people] focusing on my unorthodox, extreme artistic practice… But these discussions are also my intended effect. Art is about free opinions.”

Falling on Blades is out now on Edition Patrick Frey. 

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