House of Stone!
So sang the shabbily dressed, sweating Florin Salam, a modern-day gypsy pop star, as he serenaded 200 guests at a roma (gypsy) wedding in the small village of Sintesti, 15 km (10 miles) from Bucharest, Romania. The wedding had begun the morning before and showed no sign of slowing down; the guests drank and danced like it was only beginning.
I first visited Sintesti in 1990 when I began a documentary project that was to become a 16-year labor of love, the latest installment of which was being here to photograph this wedding, to see Garoafa Mihai marry Ciprian Lulu. Both of them I've known and photographed for many years, for most of their lives. Garoafa was now a 14-year-old bride and Ciprian, her 13-year-old husband-to-be.
I'd been in the camp only a few weeks ago and had felt my time there was coming to an end. My access was slowly changing as the roma became richer and richer from their scrap metal business, leaving them less time for my photography, and my enthusiasm for being there and for the project itself was waning. But this wedding had held out the prospect of good images; images that without good access can be hard to get, and as the old maxim goes "access is everything," so I had persevered; I had returned once more.
It was a two-day wedding and because it was illegal under Romanian law as the kids were too young, no paperwork exists, and no visit to the local Orthodox church took place. The bride's family had no enthusiasm for it, a family member was ill in hospital and they'd rather have postponed the wedding but the groom's family had arrogantly insisted. I asked Grafian, Garoafa's father and good friend to me over the years for his thoughts on his daughter marrying at such a tender age, he grimaced, drew on his cigarette and replied, "It's not the right time; it might be hard for her but for her future it will be good." With that he offered a shrug. Garoafa was marrying into a wealthier family and for him that was important, that was life.
Like so many things in the camp where in recent years incredible wealth has been obtained through scrap metal dealing, I was to see in these two days not so much a marriage of love but quite plainly a business transaction and a display of wealth. This soured my view of the shoot. I found it hard to enjoy the wedding and photography when I knew that the bride and her parents would rather it didn't happen. The 13-year-old Ciprian played with his friends rather than talk with his future wife and the amounts of money involved seemed to Toni, my translator, and I to be like Monopoly money.
As $30,000 worth of pigs were slaughtered in the drizzling rain — food for the evening meal — I shot with my Mamiya 7 camera. The blood mixed with rain on the wet concrete but the sight didn't move me; I'd seen it so many times in my years there. The sun came out along with $30,000 worth of gold Franz Josef coins that made up Garoafa's 'salbe,' her dowry necklace, and she danced in the street with the coins catching the light, shining yellow, while I crouched beside her shooting against the sky. But even then she rarely smiled, again leaving me saddened.
In the evening the singers arrived to belt out their loud 'manele,' music extolling the wealth and success of their patrons for the day, earning themselves $20,000 in wages for a few hours' work and another few thousand as male guests paid for requests and dedications: "From Simione, 200 dollars!!!... this song's for Ion!!" In the background Grafian and Papusha watched, almost forgotten now that their daughter-bride had been taken.
I'd had my fill of the music and photographing the dancing. The party was winding down and I kissed Garoafa. I wished her "casa de piatra!" or, to you a solid relationship, a house of stone! I packed my cameras and film and drove with Toni into the black night of the countryside.
(Please go to http://www.jeremysuttonhibbert.com to view more work from this project and to watch a video interview with Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert about the work.)
© Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
Dispatches are brought to you by Canon. Send Canon a message of thanks.
Back to October 2006 Contents