A Romanian who quit his corporate career has found his calling photographing life in his country's most isolated villages.
Mihnea Turcu was a successful Bucharest banker who, in 2009, had every reason to expect a long and profitable corporate career. Then, one day that year, everything changed after he stooped to enter an old man’s hut in Romania’s Maramures County.
Inside that home, the pixie-like villager opened up to Turcu about life and spirituality, and the pair spoke for hours.
Days later, back in his office in Bucharest, Turcu recalled, “My eyes were staring into the computer, but my heart was far away, inside [the old man’s] little room.”
The photographer, who recently accrued a highly engaged audience of 50,000 followers on Instagram, explained to RFE/RL how he then walked away from a banking career and into the uncertainty of full-time photography.
Despite a steadily rising paycheck in a corporate job he enjoyed, Turcu says he “was starting to long for something else. It was freedom, being out there.”
“I felt like with just 20 days of holidays from the corporation each year, I was losing something in life, something that will pass by and I’ll never get back,” he recalls.
Turcu then set about scaling down his expenses, paying off his debts, and calculating how much money he needed to survive each year.
In late 2013, Turcu quit the bank and began a full-time career as a photographer.
“After I handed in my resignation, I went into the bathroom and cried,” he says. “I stepped into photography with a lot of fear.”
The fledgling photographer initially relied on contacts in the corporate world for commercial jobs that would pay the bills. But whenever he could, he drove into the countryside for days-long trips to pursue his true passion: photographing rural Romanian life, which in some places looks the same today as it did a century ago.
Turcu is unusual in that he is willing to focus on both the aesthetic beauty of rural life and the often bleak reality faced by Romania’s poorest villagers in areas that have been largely abandoned by younger generations.
After years of obscurity on Instagram, where he posted only his more technically perfect and polished photos, Turcu says that he changed his approach in the fall of 2021 and began to treat social media as a kind of “journal.”
“I thought, ‘F*** it. I’m going to post everything I have that means something to me, no matter the quality,’” the photographer says.
As people started to share Turcu's images, especially among diaspora communities who had been forced to leave rural Romania for economic reasons, the photographer realized “this is not about me, it’s about my subjects. It occurred to me: ‘What am I doing keeping these images from people?’”
Along with his intimate portraits of rural people, Turcu writes often detailed descriptions of the moments before and after the photos were taken.
The extended captions are a result, in part, of his frustration with what he says are the limits of straight photojournalism, a discipline he studied closely before embarking on his photography career.
“I don’t think a picture can cover the whole story. I have feelings. I’m present there. The people use a certain rural vocabulary. All of that affects me," Turcu says. “Sometimes I want to cry. I’m trying to preserve as much as I can the feelings from the encounters and put these into words without exaggerating.”
In January 2023, the Maramures man whose simple and devout life so inspired the photographer, died. Turcu says he plans to create a book about him from photographs he took and conversations they shared.
When asked for a memory of the villager who changed his life, Turcu told a story that hints at the urgency with which the photographer is documenting what remains of Romania's fading rural culture.
“One day in June, we were sitting in the grass, and he said, ‘Listen, that's the cuckoo singing now. In a few days, he will stop singing, and it means summer days will start to shorten again,'" Turcu recalls. "He had a lot of knowledge about the nature around us. All that is 2 meters underground now. We've lost it.”