Documentary, Photobooks

Mihai Șovăială’s portrait of a disused airstrip in Romania

All images © Mihai Șovăială.

“Children from the nearby town, Ghimbav, came to play. For me, it was a very utopian vision. This is how my project started"

This article was originally published in issue #7893 of British Journal of Photography. Visit the BJP Shop to purchase the magazine here.

In 2014, an airstrip was constructed a few miles to the west of Braşov, in central Romania, as the inaugural stage of an international airport. Yet half a decade later, the airport remains unbuilt. The Leipzig-based Romanian photographer Mihai Șovăială — a native of Braşov — initially followed the airport’s travails from afar. After construction halted, the semi- abandoned runway became thronged with activity. “There were agricultural machines using the land strip to cross the fields, and speed lovers came for car racing,” recounts Șovăială. “Children from the nearby town, Ghimbav, came to play. For me, it was a very utopian vision. This is how my project started.”

The aptly titled Holding Pattern is named after an aerial manoeuvre whereby pilots circle around an airport until they can land. Between 2016 and 2019, Șovăială repeatedly returned to Braşov to circumnavigate the site, capturing the surrounding ground, and the structures and objects that litter it. Initiated by the Documentary Photography Centre in Bucharest, the project will be published as a limited-edition book by Atelier Fabrik.

When Șovăială first visited the airstrip, he found it encircled in barbed wire and heavily guarded. “I was trying to go in and one of the guards caught me on the CCTV camera, and he came with some dogs, barking at me,” he recalls. “They were very aggressive. They thought that I was going to hurt them.” For Șovăială, this culture of suspicion has historical roots: “It’s a way of thinking that comes from the communist regime. Back then people were afraid to speak to one another because of informers. And I also think it has something to do with corruption because people have done bad things in the past.”

Much of Șovăială’s work to date has interrogated his country’s recent past. His 2014 project Production Areas charted the ghostly remnants of communist-era industrial sites. There is something haunting about Holding Pattern too. With the exception of a parachutist framed against a vast sky – the area around the landstrip houses a helicopter factory and a gliding club – humans are absent. Instead, Șovăială depicts the strange, often surreal debris on the site.

Șovăială explains that initially he was “looking to forms and shapes. And all the time I was trying to create a language or a dictionary of the shapes which I discovered there, and a vocabulary of how these forms relate to each other”. In the book, the images are paired across the verso and recto by form, creating strange echoes between land and sky, organic and manmade, the new and the old. Many feel simultaneously like relics from a society long lost and alien artefacts dropped onto the earth. “It has this atemporal feeling,” he muses. “It could be the past, the present or the future. And if you look at the images, this situation could be anywhere – in South America or another country in Europe. One cannot locate it properly.” Șovăială’s
use of black-and-white compounds this eerie ‘placelessness’.

Holding Pattern concludes with two wide aerial shots, taken from a plane, that draw the curtains on the series’ location. The first shows the strip itself, a white seam on the landscape resembling some ancient chalk artwork. The second finally alerts the viewer to the location in Braşov by depicting the district of late-20th century housing blocks in which Șovăială grew up. “You look at all these objects from the airport’s surroundings and they don’t make sense,” he explains. “Then you see the city, and it makes everything more questionable. It makes you go back and look again at what you just saw.”

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