I would have liked a childhood like the other children who have their parents, their toys… It has been different for me: street people are my family now.Bruce Lee – ‘King of the Tunnels’
In the West, when we talk of ‘family’, we mean the small group of people linked by marriage and heredity: mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, perhaps grandparents and maybe even aunts and uncles. But the word for ‘family’ in many European languages derives from a Latin term that described a much wider grouping: a household. The two things that define a household as a unit are that its members share the dwelling space and that they eat together. It is an expanded concept of family that is more generous and flexible in its understanding of how people share space and resources, how they support each other and form relationships.
Massimo Branca is an anthropologist and photographer who works between Italy and Romania. He is the co-founder of Collettivo Fotosocial, a group of photographers from different academic disciplines who use the photographic medium to tell stories. These stories arise from an immersion within the subject of their work rather than the detached view of an outside observer. They interact with the people and environments they are documenting in order to better understand the relationship between how things appear and what they might mean. The process is driven by an ethical sensibility that emphasises positive social benefit rather than simply creating a dramatic image for its own sake. In a fast-moving world flooded with images, they take the much slower route of spending extended periods of time getting to know their subject and understanding the meanings to be found in the details of human interaction. Mutual trust and continuing dialogue are essential to this way of making images.
The subject of Massimo Bianca’s series here is a community of homeless people who have come together to live in a network of tunnels under the Gara de Nord district of the capital city of Romania, Bucharest. Far from being an excursion into a world of abject spectacle, his images bring out the remarkable way in which individuals who have been pushed to the margins of society can come together to find companionship, shelter and a degree of mutual sustainability.
Alasdair: When did you begin making photographs?
Massimo: Well, I first used a camera when I was around four years old, but I guess you mean when did I begin in a professional way. Initially, I studied visual arts but then changed to study statistics, which is when I also began seriously photographing. It was a significant shift in perspective that led me to change again, this time to study anthropology. I was twenty years old.
What drew you to anthropology?
What fascinated me about documentary photography was the opportunity to travel to different places, learn from different human beings and experience different realities on this earth. I thought studying cultures and society would be interesting and useful, because I am interested in discovering and retelling stories about people. In that sense, I do not think that I ‘make’ photographs. I work in a documentary way and do not ‘set up’ my shots – I take photographs, capturing images of the events unfolding around me.
Why did you and your colleagues establish Collettivo Fotosocial?
Collettivo Fotosocial was officially founded in 2009. It is an Italian association that uses visual narratives to spread awareness about society and promote positive change. Its members come from very different academic backgrounds (political sciences, law, arts, design, anthropology…) and each deals with photography in their own way. Nonetheless, we all agree that good photographic practice must be based on respect, dialogue and participation in the lives of our subjects. It is only in this way that there can be a true and deep understanding of the different realities in which people live. This is essential if we are to disseminate the images and information in a responsible way. We believe that social photography can – and should – have an educative role.
How did you first hear about the community living beneath the streets of the Gara de Nord?
I was travelling in Romania with my friend Igor Marchesan. We saw a man wearing a leather jacket walking barefoot through the streets of Bucharest. He had chains on his wrists and ankles and was followed by a pack of a dozen or so dogs. He seemed such a bizarre figure that we wanted to know more. A friend who lived locally told us about him and a group of young people who lived in a tunnel in front of the Gara de Nord railway station. Igor and I decided to ask the group for permission to visit their ‘home’. What we discovered was something like a family living underground, below the station. It made a deep impression on us and we decided to begin a photographic research project about them.
Who was the man you first saw that led you to this community?
He called himself Bruce Lee and he was the leader of the community, nicknamed ‘King of the Tunnels’. For many people in Bucharest, he was a kind of living legend. Looking back on their time there, many of the local street people claim to have spent a period of relative calm and serenity while Lee was in the Gara de Nord community.
What drew you to develop an anthropological project around this community?
When our friend was explaining to us about the group living under the Gara de Nord streets, he showed us some photographs of the place. These images, and the local TV coverage, depicted the tunnels as dark and ugly places; the emphasis was on poverty and abjection. But my experience was quite different. When we visited, the tunnel was brightly illuminated with electric bulbs. There were fans to circulate the air, pictures on the wall, a television, a gas burner for cooking, music… The atmosphere was quite positive, and we were made welcome.
That contrast between what I had seen for myself and how it had previously been depicted in photographs was the main reason why, as an anthropologist, I decided to begin a research project about life in the tunnel. I wanted to explore in more depth the issue of social exclusion and the ways in which human behaviour adapts under conditions of extreme urban disadvantage.
What was the original purpose of the tunnels?
They were built during the regime of the former Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, to carry large metal pipes filled with boiling water as part of an urban central-heating system. When the dictatorship fell at the end of the 1980s the country went through a period of harsh political and economic reorganisation. Many children who had previously been in state orphanages, or who had run away from abusive home environments, ended up living on the streets. [Under the Ceausescu regime both abortion and contraception were forbidden in order to encourage population growth. Meanwhile poverty increased, resulting in severe stress within families and large numbers of children abandoned to state educational institutions that were, in effect, orphanages.]
To protect themselves from the freezing winter, these young people took shelter in the tunnel, which was warmed by the central-heating ducts passing through it. They entered through manholes in the street. In time, the tunnels became home to as many as fifty people during the winter months. To set that in context, there were, in the 1990s, more than fifteen thousand children living on the streets in Romania. The number did reduce over time, with the creation of a new residential system to house children without a family. Yet, many continued to live on the street, or ended up there again once they had turned eighteen.
How did you go on to develop the mutual trust that encouraged them to open up and allow you into the underground community space, and for you to feel safe in so doing?
There is no simple recipe for building a relationship. It grows from time spent together, interaction, respect, patience and the will to be useful in some way. Trust is something that only happens after you get to know each other. There is no ‘contract’. It is the same way we make friends in our lives: very simple yet, at the same time, very complex.
This series of articles is about the domestic. Do you consider the life under the Gara de Nord to be ‘domestic’?
Yes! It was definitely a kind of household. One should not think of a household in a rigid way. Family can be interpreted in many ways, depending on the particular habits, cultures, place and time. Although families can be very diverse, most share certain common features: bonding, hierarchy, affection, sharing.
Was the domestic structure in the tunnels similar to that of a family, with a patriarch and matriarch, or was it more egalitarian or anarchic?
Bruce Lee, the leader of the community, was called “daddy” by many of the young people that lived in tunnels under the Gara de Nord, because of the way he took care of them all. Considering that many of them had either been abandoned at birth or had run away from an abusive home situation, it was perhaps natural that life in the tunnel was organised like a family. However, while Bruce Lee was the most respected character, the hierarchy was not really imposed. It was the consequence of a social balance created over the years, on the basis of individual usefulness, seniority, experience, charisma, health and resource. Before he arrived, the tunnels were very dark spaces lit only by candles. He brought in the electricity. (We experienced what it must have been like before this, when there was a power cut and the tunnel was temporarily plunged into darkness. And, each day, Bruce Lee made a hot meal for everybody, using a little gas cooker. They used to say: “We eat together, we are like a family”.
When Bruce Lee was arrested in July 2015, the community of Gara de Nord lost its leader and were subsequently evicted from the tunnel. Now, they have no place to stay. Today, I think, most of the tunnels have been closed by authorities to prevent people from going inside.
What circumstances led people to live in the community under the Gara de Nord?
The main reason why people end up living on the street is a lack of affection; they are escaping the orphanages or an intolerable home life. Alternatively, it might be an immature quest for freedom. In a few cases it is because of drug addiction. But in every case, social exclusion, in its wider meaning, is the underlying issue.
Could you illustrate this by talking about the story of one particular person?
When Catalina was born her father was in prison. Her mother already had four children and, finding it too hard to care for a fifth, she left Catalina to the social services who placed her in one of the overcrowded orphanages. Those early years probably shaped her psychological and behavioural character forever. Consequently, when, at the age of five, she was taken back by her biological family, she found it very difficult to get along in that unfamiliar environment. Over the years she had many conflicts with her parents until, at the age of twelve, she ran away from home and ended up living on the streets.
She did return home, but by then she had already become addicted to drugs, which she probably financed through prostitution. As a result, she contracted HIV. From then on, while she continued to visit her family occasionally, she spent most of her time on the streets, which had become the place she was most used to. She died in May 2014 from of a severe infection in her neck that spread to her brain. She had just turned eighteen. Given most of her biological family were currently in prison, the funeral was mostly paid for by her adopted family from the tunnel.
Catalina is just one example from many, each with their own story…
How long did you live with the community?
In total, I spent just over nine months there, spread over several visits spanning a period of three years.
How quickly did you adapt to life in the tunnel?
My feelings changed a lot over time. The experience was physically and emotionally messy: moving, surreal, harsh, confusing, at times exhausting. Even so, I began to feel more at ease after a few weeks, although I can hardly say I ever adapted.
I was OK living in the tunnel, but then I always knew that I could leave any time I wanted; they could not. To adapt means that you change to fit into a certain environment and you are able to survive in it. I don’t think I would have been able to survive in the tunnel for long. I had to take breaks away from it all. Actually, after a two-month period spent there during the winter, I was quite traumatised. I still don’t know if I have totally recovered.
What was it about the hidden life below the Gara de Nord that you wanted to make public through this photographic project?
The project was an exploration of experiences and feelings I had during a period of coexistence with people that are often stigmatised, exploited, hated or just ignored. I wanted the pictures to show the aspects of their life and relationships that they share with the rest of us. I particularly wanted to avoid simply encouraging a superficial pity or anger in the viewer. What we came to understand during these three years of research is a very simple and logical idea, even if most of us usually forget it: every man or woman is shaped by a complex series of interactions with his or her social and cultural environment. The inevitable consequence of this observation is that we should always remember those external forces that act upon the individual before judging or criticising those who live differently from ourselves.
What kind of response to your work do you receive from the public?
Of course, there is no way I can be aware of what the whole public might think. But, from what I have witnessed, people become very curious about the underground life at the Gara de Nord. In most cases they seem to respond empathetically – they have some sense of human connection – which is what I hope to achieve.
Does the work make them feel sad?
Some particularly sensitive people have cried. I had to comfort them saying that life in the tunnel was not so bad, after all. Actually, this is one of the points of the work: life is life.
What do you mean by that?
Happiness in this world is only partially linked to our material condition. Even in the tunnel under the Gara de Nord, in a situation of extreme social marginality, there were moments of joy and laugher. Human beings can adapt themselves to almost any kind of environment. We just have to be kind and understanding, help each other, and avoid making other people’s lives any worse. It’s all we can do.
Born in Trento, Italy, in 1985, Massimo Branca graduated in anthropology with a dissertation on the use of photography for cultural investigation in the social sciences. His work has been published in magazines such as National Geographic and Stern, and shortlisted for prestigious international competitions including the Lucie Emerging Scholarship (2015), Getty Reportage Emerging Talents (2015), Photocrati Fund for Humanitarian Photography (2014), and the International Photography Awards (2014). In 2015, he won a ‘Magnum 30 Under 30’ award, which identifies the best of the new generation of narrative-documentary photographers worldwide.
His book, ‘Inside Outside Under Bucharest’ was published in 2016 by Grafiche Antiga, Italy.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the April 2018 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.
First published in English at Talking Pictures 21 March 2020.