At the turn of the millennium, for a year of days beginning in the autumn of 1999, Kathleen and Henry lived in a remote village, in the Maramures region of northern Transylvania, Romania. This region is unique amongst the former Soviet Bloc for the way it has preserved its way of life. After World War II, for forty years of communist rule, a few valleys in Maramures escaped collectivized farming because of poor soil and hilly landscape. In the post cold-war period, preservation continued because of pervasive impoverishment which slows the advancement of modernity into the reaches of northern Transylvania.
But nothing will stand still forever. While the older generation still don winter footwear that pre-date the Romans, the younger generation flock to market to buy shoes bearing that ubiquitous swoosh of western manufacture.
An internationally exhibited photographer, Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin was awarded a number of grants for her work in Romania, including a Fulbright Senior Scholarship, an IREX IARO Grant (National Endowment for the Humanities) and a Houston Center for Photography Fellowship. Her images have appeared in LensWork, Rangefinder, B&W Magazine, Black + White Photography (UK) and The Times Saturday Magazine (UK). Her photographs have been show in the US and abroad and are in the permanent collections at the Museum of Photographic Art (San Diego) and the Art Museum of Western Virginia. Kathleen received her MFA in Photography from Virginia Commonwealth University. She has been a freelance photographer and photo educator for 10 years.
In 1995, Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin was introduced to Romanian and Balkan folk dancing, and she was transfixed by the rhythm and context. She would remember those dances a few years later, when she began to consider what type of photography project she would like to do.
“It is clear our modern world is continuing to speed up and people everywhere are losing touch with being connected to the land and familiar customs,” says Kathleen. “Going somewhere to witness and experience an older way of life called to me. I realized I wanted to see what the dance folk songs were singing about.”
So, before her Fulbright experience, Kathleen traveled to the Maramures – a region in Northern Romania. There, she and her husband lived with a peasant family for a year, in a village that had been almost untouched by collectivization in the 1950s. It was there that Kathleen first fell in love with Romania.
“That first year I focused on the deep-rooted relationship peasants had to their land and village,” explains Kathleen. “I experienced modernity taking hold, such as the village road being paved, phones and cable TV installed in the village, and more and more imported goods at the market. I could see that change was going to happen fast, and I wanted to return to document [it].”
In 2002, Kathleen got her chance to return to Romania as a Fulbright U.S. Scholar and to teach two photography classes at the University of Art and Design in Cluj-Napoca. In that short period of time, she was amazed at how much Maramures had changed.
“There was an incredible increase in cars on the road, new stores or stores being renovated, tractors in the Maramures fields and an increase in internet cafes and students with cell phones,” reflects Kathleen.
This time, she focused her camera on the changes she witnessed taking place, specifically on the relationships between the urban dwellers and the rural peoples that would visit the town.
“As time has progressed, change is now becoming woven into the generations,” says Kathleen. “In the house where we lived in Maramures, the parents were illiterate, but now their child has attended university.”
“Though peasants clearly desire this kind of change – a washing machine can actually save grandma’s life if it keeps her from falling in the river while washing clothes – they also appreciate the efforts from Fulbright and others to help preserve something of the memories of traditional lives.”