Having grown up for a time in Russia, Suspect was aware of the ideals and ideology prevalent in neighbouring Romania, and was keen to get a sense of their current attitude towards life and what remained of Communism. The format he used for his photography was new for him, combining a mixture of street photography and conceptual art. His Old Customs series, that has been published as a book, presents observations made on the beach of a town that, of itself, has a very special vibe.
Let’s talk about your series, Old Customs, which you made into a book. Why were you in Vama Veche?
I went to Vama Veche, Romania, in 2017, as a guest of a photography/visual arts festival called VSLO. I was a lecturer and workshop leader. Knowing the history of Romania and how Communism fell there in 1989, I was curious about the first generation of Romanians who did not have personal experience of what it was like to live under the rule of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s Communist state. This curiosity stems from my own personal experience growing up in Moscow in the late 70s, during the reign of Leonid Brezhnev. I recall how dark, bleak and miserable it was for me as a young person during that time. To be separated from this political ideology by the sliver of one generation was interesting to me, so I decided to explore these ideas photographically.
What tool did you use to explore these ideas?
For this work I used the Leica M-P (Type 240) with a 35mm Zeiss Biogon lens. That’s it.
Where was the series photographed?
All of the images were photographed in Vama Veche, Romania, a remote village on the shore of the Black Sea in the far southeast, bordering Bulgaria. The literal translation of “Vama Veche” to English is “old customs”. The settlement was founded in 1811 by Turkic people. In the 1960s, it became famous as an oasis of freedom far from the prying eyes of Ceaușescu. Poets and writers commingled with local fishermen, and the village grew into a colony of intellectuals living in tents or renting rooms from the locals. Since that time, Vama Veche has become known as a nontraditional tourist destination. There are very few hotels there and many people opt to camp in the surrounding areas. It has a Woodstock or hippie vibe to it.
You work very fast, intuitively. You like to use reflections, smoke and shadows. Please explain about your approach to this project: was it different from the way you usually work?
For the most part I do work fast and intuitively, looking for juxtapositions, gestures, geometry, humor, etc.. But my recent work with Old Customs is a bit different. I do have some intuitive work in there, but I also have some conceptual and planned work in it as well. It is sort of a hybrid between street photography and fine art. Many shots were set up for specific reasons and that was new for me.
You have included some mirror photographs throughout the book. What are they? How did this come about?
This was an interesting development in my process. After hearing the song I’ll be Your Mirror by The Velvet Underground on the radio while listening in my kitchen, I pondered the popular idea of the photograph being the mirror of the photographer, and wondered how I could turn that idea around by placing a mirror on people’s heads. So I made a mirror mask, using protective goggles and glue to mount the round mirror and off I went to Vama Veche. Mirrors can connote many different interpretations, and historically they have been used in art and literature to symbolize ideas of truth, discovery, wisdom, awareness, the conscious and unconscious. For example when I discovered that I could create a sunburst with the mirror, I was enthralled with the idea that I could elevate people into gods or goddesses. The shots looked amazing and reminded me of some of the iconography that you see in old Communist propaganda posters.
Why did you prefer to shoot Old Customs in colour rather than black and white?
Yes, most people know me for my black and white work because that is what I have published the most. But honestly, I shoot in color all the time. Essentially, I stick with color during the day as I can see color better when it is light out. And, because of this, I deeply consider the role of color in my day time photos. My color images are also a lot more considered and intentional. At night, I can’t see color as well, so I think more in black and white when I’m shooting. This leads to a different kind of photo. At night I look to capture raw emotions, gestures and energy, and I like to get close. Since I shot mostly during the day (and at sunrise and sunset) in Vama Veche, I kept everything in color. Plus, the environmental color palette on the coast of the Black Sea can be breathtaking.
So what was it that you wanted to show with Old Customs?
For me the challenge was to express in photographs the experience I had in my youth living in Communist Russia, and juxtapose that with what I was seeing in the young people I met in Vama Veche. I did this by focusing on ideas of freedom and youth tethered to history, by referencing Romanian mythology and Soviet-era propaganda, capturing evidence of Western culture and commercialization, and showcasing the concept of freedom and youth through street photography, conceptual ideas and even nude portraiture, all sequenced together in the style of a modern-day fairy tale filled with beauty, magic, myth, and mystery.
What do you wish for this younger generation in Romania and their future?
I wish them the best. This is a very bright, well-educated and intelligent generation.
Chris Suspect was born in the Philippines in 1968. He is a street and documentary photographer based in the Washington, DC area. His work has been recognized internationally and has been exhibited in Miami, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Romania, Georgia, United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom. His documentary work on the underground music scene in Washington, D.C., was published as a book, Suspect Device, by Empty Stretch in 2014 and was a featured exhibit at the Kolga Tblisi Photo Festival 2015 in Tblisi, Georgia. This same project was also featured in the Leica Gallery at Photokina 2014 in Cologne, Germany. The work is currently held in the Leica Gallery Archives. You can find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram channel.