Often, Romanian photographer Bogdan Oiţă likes to think that he deals with the rediscovery of meanings through his practice of film photography and trying to shoot relevant moments of people's lives and habits, beyond the supra-aesthetic aspects of photography. Bogdan is a social worker also studying visual anthropology, in which he trusts in the power of photography in a social documentary and socio-emotional therapy way.
Tell us a bit about yourself. How did you become interested in photography?
Growing up in Targu-Jiu, a small city in Romania, I did not have access to a vibrant community of diverse crowds and spaces – one which I could identify with. Thus, I spent a lot of time by myself, increasingly drawn to the arts, which I eventually pursued academically, during high school. At my high school in Targu-Jiu, I was given the opportunity to explore the art field, learning about painting and graphic drawing. However, the very same environment that was supposed to be inviting, creative and positively challenging unfortunately became a significant source of social pressure and discouragement for me, which in turn negatively impacted the visions of exploring the arts that had permeated my life for so long. Despite my personal struggles, my passion for visual arts has always prevailed, and is now more tangible than ever, in my profession as a social worker in Bucharest. Navigating social problems and field work in urban areas, through different lenses, equipped with tools from the field of social work, my previous artistic pursuits and my current studies in visual anthropology, I naturally developed an interest in photography and now find myself documenting urban life, from the streets of Bucharest, in my free time. In my perspective, there is an inevitably strong connection between the concepts and practices of social work and street photography or social documentary photography, and my intention is to highlight such connections, capturing and bringing attention to the complexity of everyday life.
Where do you find your inspiration? And do you have a favourite place to shoot?
Urban life inspires me as it offers insights into the dynamics of daily social relations and interactions, different cultural aspects, and more fundamentally, the use or occupation of public spaces. In other words, I find inspiration in people, observing different social groups as they navigate the streets and public spaces of Bucharest. In many ways, I believe that street photography helps us understand a lot about the complexity of human life, including the cultures and subcultures that inform street interactions and behaviors, by observing the ways in which people occupy, interact and carry themselves in public spaces. Documenting life from the streets is particularly appealing to me, as I like to explore diversity and representation in the most vibrant, crowded places, where people have access to a wider cultural palette to choose from, in regard to self-expression. Generally, I think that 'Piața Unirii' (Union Square), in Bucharest, is one of my favorite places to shoot, as it serves as a meeting point where people from different social environments come together; it invites me to examine different social interactions and how such interactions transform urban environments.
In general, is there anything you want to express through your photography? And what are some of the elements you always try to include in your photographs?
In my work, I try to capture raw, real-life experiences and moments, as observed in the streets of Bucharest, as intimately as possible from a member of community. Through these observations and by applying perspectives from social work to landscapes for street photography, I can discover more about different social structures, mechanisms and relationships. More importantly, combining different practices, I can construct stories, but also learn more about people and to portray them truthfully, just like they are, to promote acceptance, tolerance of others and also minimising pressure on vulnerable groups. Based on my social work practice and field observations, I think that the lack of tolerance of other social groups is a significant social problem across all professional fields, including the arts, which we can see clearly now in different street protests around the world or relations between different cultures at this time of global pandemic.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers? Who do you think has mostly influenced your style?
I find inspiration in different artists and enjoy a wide variety of artwork. I often stumble upon new, interesting pieces on a daily basis, especially at this time where digitalization of the arts is increasingly in demand or necessary for access. Further, even though the art industry consists of a rather small international community with limited political power invested in its artistic and cultural fields, the production of arts continuously evolves. We can witness a substantial expansion in the field of visual arts today; in many ways, the world becomes visual. There are more opportunities to explore artistry than ever, which also enhances access to the arts for the average person; it is not so difficult to find really good artists today, in comparison to the past. In my case, however, I believe that I am more influenced by different artistic styles and movements than by a particular artists. I am interested in symbolism, street arts and documentary works. Sure, I appreciate classical art works, but at the same time, I am concerned that we tend to forget about the present, used to living in the past and referring to somewhat outdated, or at the very least, limited standards, perhaps more in the artistic field than in others.
Are there any books that you have read that have inspired your creativity and that you would like to recommend to us?
There are many great books to explore and learn from – something for everyone’s taste. For me, personally, I am drawn to books, studies and articles about communication techniques that can be useful in different areas of life, but also literature about different cultures and social groups. The most important thing that I want to share with you is to avoid pseudo-science books, as they pretend to give you scientific perspectives in an appealing, nearly magical way, which can be harmful to our artistic and social development. Basically, I don't think you can find a specific book that provides the answers you are looking for, in a biblical way. To enhance creativity, however, I think that critical elements of art history and modern day documentation of visual arts can enrich our photography experience.
Do you have a favourite quote/lyric/saying that especially resonates with you? And why?
From my point of view, the lyric or quote that you should keep close to your heart is one that makes you trust in yourself, in your capabilities and which strengthens your character. I like the lyrics from a Manele song: ”I feel like a Russian tank, whatever I do I don't get tired.” (Sorinel Pustiu –Tanc Rusesc).
Maybe some people will find it stupid, not only because of the absurdity of the line itself, but because Manele's music comes from the most discriminated social group in my country. Regardless, it makes me feel better and makes me trust I can do what I want to do; I especially turn to this song when I feel energy less or hopeless.
Does the equipment you use help you in achieving your vision in your photography? What camera do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?
The photography industry can be absurd at times. People spend money that they don't have on technological features that they usually don't need in their photographic work. Unfortunately, the system of capitalism has penetrated this field too, and in many ways, photography has become a refined hobby for particular high standing social classes. Social pressure leads people with limited resources to involve themselves in toxic relations with the banks and credit institutions, merely to pursue their passions. I stress the latter, not because pursuing your passion is wrong, but because you should not have to suffer to achieve your goals, or to find yourself in a situation where you become heavily indebted just for trying to live your passion. I strongly believe that we can deliver high quality performance in our photographic work and projects, with modest equipment. For example, I currently use a film camera, a second-hand purchase, for $50, and I love it. I think film cameras can help you a lot when you are practicing different techniques and familiarizing yourself with the field of photography and the technical features or functions of the camera. In general, if I decide to buy a new digital camera, I am sure that I will choose a cheap one and that a simple equipment will be sufficient for my use.
When you go out on the streets, do you have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just 'come to you' or is it both?
In general, I always have something in mind or start off with some ideas based on elements of social work or particular theoretical perspectives that I find interesting and valuable to apply to practice. I also keep an open mind and explore my ideas while engaging in observations, of people or the street, which is like a river, always changing. Thus, I often discover new ideas or images that tell me more about social life and particularly, how social life expresses itself in a visual way.
Have you ever been involved in the artistic world before photography?
I always had an interest in the arts, especially in the field of visual arts, which led me to choose a high school that specialized in such majors. During high school, I was interested in different art projects and art networking, but now I perceive and analyze arts more from the lens of social work and visual anthropology. I no longer have an empty slate from which I can look at arts in a 'pure' way; right now, I see arts as more of a tool to use to address social issues.
What are some of your goals as a photographer? Where do you see yourself or hope to see yourself in five years?
In the future, I think that I would like to create an NGO that promotes street art projects and the right to use public space, supporting cultural and artistic expressions but also social integration or social justice initiatives. I often witness structural aggressions against different social groups in public spaces. While not explicitly articulated, there is the idea that not everyone is welcome in the streets, and certain mechanisms put in place to ensure such continued exclusion, often in a less recognizable or indirect way, to prevent strong reactions and social awareness. To fight back, I intend to resist and oppose such mechanisms, to specifically provoke strong reactions and make more people realize the significance of the discrimination we continuously perpetuate with our inaction. I particularly want to bring attention to the vulnerability of homeless people in the streets, who are constantly denied access to public space. Above all, I think that artistic and cultural projects can cover many social problems that prevail in public spaces.
Are there any special projects you are currently working on that you would like to let everyone know about?
Right now, I am in the process of refining my skills and exploring ideas for future projects, and I wish to develop a project that meaningfully contributes to artistic and cultural development, but also which addresses social issues.
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
I like to go for walks. While the streets offer significant value to me, I am also drawn to the streets on a daily basis, even when I am not out photographing. Walking makes me feel good and gives me energy to do my daily tasks. It also gives me the opportunity to connect with people and to discover unique life stories. Apart from my personal and professional interest in street life, I enjoy spending time on Instagram and other online communities, to meet people from all over the world, who share similar interests.
All photos © Bogdan Oiţă
Interview by Melanie Meggs