Tuesday, July 31, 2012

PHOTOESSAY: A Dip Into the Black Sea. Photos by Petrut Calinescu & Text by by Kerri MacDonald (lens.blogs.nytimes.com)

Nina and her daughter (background) fish from a jetty for Frog fish. The catch suppliments their meagre diet which is limited by her monthly pension of about 50 Euros. Ochamcira, Abkhazia; Copyright by Petrut Calinescu

Slideshow & Full Text: lens.blogs.nytimes.com
Kerri MacDonald www.kerrimacdonaldonline.com
Petrut Calinescu www.petrut-calinescu.com

(lens.blogs.nytimes.com) As a boy growing up in Constanta, a Romanian city on the western coast of the Black Sea, Petrut Calinescu made the seaside his playground. He spent his afternoons with friends, searching for German bunkers and plotting adventures. He recalls being drawn to the mystique of the open water.

“Once you look at the sea, you always want to know what is across the sea,” Mr. Calinescu said recently from his home in Bucharest, a few hours by car from Constanta.

But for most of his 36 years, he never made it to the other side. SoThe Black Sea,” a project he pursued jointly with the writers Stefan Candea and Ioana Hodoiu, was born out of nostalgia for an unknown place.

Except Mr. Calinescu had never traveled there before. He didn’t think it was exotic enough. Romanians have typically been more interested in traveling to European cities, he said. He had always assumed that the Black Sea had nothing to offer — that nothing there has changed, or will change.

But with a grant from the German Marshall Fund of the United States, Mr. Calinescu and his colleagues began to explore what he calls “a black hole” in the Romanian mind-set. They traveled more than 9,000 miles in 80 days, documenting their journey on a blog. Some of his most surprising pictures were taken underwater near a seaside resort using a blog-friendly digital camera (Slide 6). “It was a funny lottery,” he said. “I was doing pictures, but never knew what was going to be recorded.”

They started in Romania and from there went to Bulgaria and Turkey, to Armenia and Azerbaijan (neither of which borders the Black Sea, though both are included in the Black Sea Economic Cooperation). They visited Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia, and traveled to separatist republics: Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria and Abkhazia.

Overwhelmingly, the region’s “Communist” aesthetic felt familiar. But Mr. Calinescu was struck by the beauty — and the peculiarities — of Abkhazia, a breakaway region in the former Soviet republic of Georgia that was, at one time, a hub for tourism.

“It was the dream of every Soviet citizen to have one time in his life a holiday there,” he said.

Today, postcards for Abkhazia could feature scenes reminiscent of the cold war era, and buildings speckled with bullet holes. Yet Mr. Calinescu’s pictures capture something rather jubilant, like a pair of Russian women dancing a samba in the early evening light (Slide 16).

Mr. Calinescu, who is represented by Panos Pictures, went to school for journalism, studying to be a writer. He started taking photographs, mostly for fun, in high school. Now, he concentrates on projects, including one that explores the effects of labor migration on traditional populations in Romania.

But he isn’t finished with the Black Sea. He sees it as a metaphor for life in the region. Some spend much of their lives dreaming of the beach, he said, and working to make it there. But, “once they get to the seaside, they see that it’s very expensive, crowded and ugly.”

Nonetheless, Mr. Calinescu and Mr. Candea are applying for grants to continue their travels. In July, they received a second grant from the German Marshall Fund, which will allow them to return to their Black Sea travels beginning this fall to publish in-depth reports online.

“It was like a dip into the sea on an August day,” Mr. Calinescu wrote on their blog, using another Black Sea metaphor.

“After five minutes out of the water, you want to go back in.”

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