Tomas Bachot’s documentary series about a gold mining initiative in Romania took an unexpected turn, evolving into an introspective investigation into the nature of documentary photography itself
In 2013, a proposal to initiate Europe’s largest gold and silver mining project in Roșia Montană, Romania, sparked a series of anti-government protests in dozens of cities across the country. The proposal is still awaiting a parliamentary decision, but among its many contentions are the long-term health effects ofcyanide poisoning – a potentially deadly chemical used to extract gold – and the suspicion of fake documentation, prompted by vested interests within the government.
Belgian photographer Tomas Bachot travelled to Romania in 2015, intending to create a documentary project about the state of the mining conflict. After months of travelling through several cities, one of his couchsurfing hosts reacted negatively to his photographs, and said she was unable to support his vision of her country.
“I was shocked, because as an image-maker you’re always open to hear feedback, but you’re also scared,” says Bachot. “I realised what I really needed to do, rather than just observing the place and the situation. I realised that what I was doing was a very limited way of meeting people and making images.”
From then on the project evolved into an investigation into the nature of documentary photography itself. Bachot returned to the same towns and cities, determined to photograph new things in different ways. “It was a bit like a personal exercise to broaden my ways of seeing others,” he explains. In 2016, he self-published an experimental book, and, after submitting to an open-call, has since been selected to exhibit the work in an open-air projection at Riga Photomonth this May.
The book is split into three sections; each one is titled with a quote from the press. “Those who eat fish from the cyanide lake improve their sex life,” were the words spoken by the mayor of a Romanian village when questioned about the health effects of opening the gold mine. “He was neglecting the protests by making it seem ridiculous,” says Bachot, explaining how each of the titles aims to question the role of the media in politics and conflict.
Tucked inside the book is a print of a photographic plate that was gifted to him in Romania. It cracked in his backpack during his travels, but Bachot felt it was important to include it, because “it tells part of the story of the way I travelled”. The project also includes interviews with Romanians who respond to his photography, and he continues to experiment with new ways to engage his viewers, like inviting people to draw on his photographs at exhibitions. “It becomes more of a conversation and a dialogue instead of an observation or a truth of something.”
“I’ll continue down this path because it’s more personal. You listen to your own feelings about how you can relate to others as a photographer, and how you can include more voices in your pictures, rather than just your own,” says Bachot.