Interview with Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin

Tiranca (peasant woman), Sîrbi, 2003 - From the Color of Hay
Tiranca (peasant woman), Sîrbi, 2003
Black cloth is the mark of a widow. She will wear something black every day she remains on earth until God decides she should join her husband.
From the Color of Hay

Can you tell me a bit about yourself? How did you end up being a photographer, and what made you choose photography as a career?

I began making photographs in high school, as a way to connect with people. The images were just color snapshots of friends and made photo collages with the pictures and cut out magazine images and letters, as well as  memorabilia (such as concert tickets or personal notes).

In university, I took my first photography class and immediately began spending hours upon hours in the darkroom. I essentially hid behind my camera when I walked around campus and when I went to night clubs to listen to bands. I’d spend the next day in the darkroom developing film and making 8x10 black and white prints and give them away to the people who were in them. I ended up receiving my Minor degree in Photography at Virginia Commonwealth University in 1990 (my Bachelor’s degree is in Psychology) and returned there to get my Master of Fine Arts in Photography in 1997.

The in-between years from 1990 and 1997 were awkward and difficult as I couldn’t find a job that suited me and I was attempting to fit in the 9-5 culture. When I began the MFA program in Photography, I knew that for my Thesis I would want to do something special that involved making portraits and experiencing a different way of life. That first year in the program I learned of recently arrived Russian Jewish immigrants in Richmond and found a way to meet them. Fortunately they were interested in being photographed and that project became my first body of work.

I used a medium format Bronica studio camera, a large white foam board to bounce light, a tungsten hot light, and tripod. I would clumsily enter into their small apartments and barely find enough light for a proper exposure. Recently, the portraits were exhibited at the University of Richmond as part of a show called The American Dream, Right?

Seva and Meri, Richmond, 1997 - Interview with Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin
Seva and Meri, Richmond, 1997
From Kathleen's first project in graduate school.

Jonathan, Richmond, 1997 - Interview with Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin
Jonathan, Richmond, 1997
From Kathleen's first project in graduate school.

In the middle of my graduate studies I moved to northern Transylvania, Romania with my husband Henry. There we lived with a peasant family for a year. My intention was to witness and document their traditional farming life for four seasons. At the time there was no plumbing, few cars, and no internet. The main mode of transportation was horse and cart.

Opportunities were few and the Romanians had to have a special Visa to travel outside Romania, even to European countries, and it was expensive. So lack of money and opportunity kept most people at home doing what they knew how to do well, which was farming. Most families were subsistence farmers and didn’t have an income outside of the little cash they earned from milking their cows. Trade and barter was the common mode of survival.

My career is mainly as an educator of photography. I decided years ago that I would earn my money that way and find grants to fund my photography projects. I teach at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California State University in Fullerton, and the New York Film Academy in Burbank. The grants I have received to fund my trips to Romania are from the US Fulbright program, IREX (National Endowment for the Humanities), the US Embassy in Bucharest (US State Deparment), and the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest.

I have also been fortunate to receive two travel grants to China to attend, lecture, and exhibit at photography festivals in 2011 and 2013.

Boys in Trees, Sîrbi, 2000 - From the Color of Hay
Boys in Trees, Sîrbi, 2000
After months indoors, fearing the health dangers of drafts and cold breezes, a balmy day liberates the young boys of the village to run wild.
From the Color of Hay

Vasile and Palaguta Borodi, Budesti, 1999 - From the Color of Hay
Vasile and Palaguta Borodi, Budesti, 1999
Romanians from the cities sometimes complain that in Maramures the people have everything.
“They just go to the woods and get what they need.”
From the Color of Hay

Tell me about your book, The Color of Hay. How did the idea for the book come about?

Since I was putting so much time, money, and passion into my Romania project, I always saw it as a book. Henry is a writer and wrote all the essays and captions. Before we left for Europe, I interned at Mary Ellen Mark’s studio in Soho. I learned how she meticulously catalogued and numbered her negatives and prints.

I kept a journal, wrote daily notes on who I met and got them to sign release forms, and knew that I was documenting a way of life that would sadly change and eventually disappear.

You and your husband immersed yourselves in this project to the extent that you actually assumed a peasant lifestyle.

What was your day to day living like, and what were the challenges that you faced in terms of living a completely different lifestyle and everything that comes with that?

We lived in a private room upstairs that was decorated with traditional tapestries and our bed was made of straw. We had a wood burning terracota stove for heat, called a soba. The wood was provided by the men in the family who cut down trees in a nearby forest on horse and cart. All our food was prepared for us fresh daily by the grandmother Maria and her daughter Ileana. Our rent was for just that – a private room, wood, and food. The toilet was in the outhouse which was through the barn and out back. Even in the coldest of winter we had to use it. There was no convenient store in the village and the nearby town was 30 minutes away, so all food was prepared for us from scratch. We eventually did supply our family with oatmeal and spaghetti to diversify our meals.  Even though they harvest oat, they don’t eat it, they say it’s only for their animals.

The food was utterly fresh and mostly came from their garden or animals. The milk from their cows, cottage cheese and sour cream from their milk, “mamaliga” (polenta) from the corn they picked from the region of Satu Mare, canned pickles, canned bell peppers, zacusca (eggplant spread), canned cherry jam (yum), and vegetables – potatoes, onions, cabbage, fruit, and nuts  from their orchards. They made us soup daily (cabbage, potato, bean, vegetable), used a lot of garlic in everything, and unforgettable pastries, my favorite being cozonac (a sweet bread with freshly chopped walnuts and rum).

We lived in what some may consider challenging conditions, though in many ways it was like living at a Bed & Breakfast, without plumbing.  We did not engage in farming work and the work we did was our own. I made photographs, which meant I walked around in the fields and traveled from village to village to observe, visit, and photograph. Henry stayed in the village often to work on his writing and watch anything the men in our family did on their farm or at home. Even fixing a spatula was truly impressive because nothing went to waste. Everything could be fixed, reused, or recycled.

As long as one’s mind is prepared to live a certain way, the challenges become a way of life that you get used to. The way of life was hard for the people in the village, and for us it was a life changing experience. We owned a camper van, so we had the ease of transport. We had money in our banks at home and had the ease of what money can buy. The stress we may’ve had was more to do with cultural misunderstandings. Some examples are that we like to drink cold water and soda and they forbid it because they believe it may cause sickness and even death.

The same goes for being in a draft (most Romanians believe this). If you are in a closed space, such as a room or bus, and there is a window open and a door – where a draft may occur – that is absolutely NOT OKAY, even in the heat of summer. The belief is that the draft may lead to sickness and death. Many illnesses are blamed on either drinking something cold, sitting on a cold surface without a blanket or coat beneath you, or being in a draft. I was disciplined about not making fun of them and respecting their beliefs, yet it caused me discomfort at times, like on hot days. The way I interrpreted this way of reasoning with nature is that I think, long ago, before there was medicine, people did get sick and die from some of these causes. Those memories and fears continued to exist in the 20th century village (and even urban) life.

There were only a few times I broke down. They were when all-nighters were expected of us – such as on Christmas night or a wedding. Weddings are for young people in the village to flirt and be seen. The older people are there because they are working or are very close family to the bridal couple. So with our limited Romanian language skills, the night wore on long.  We were told not to help or work so we sat. We danced a little and by 10pm we were ready to leave, only to have to stay for 10-12 more hours. That was painful.

Easter Sunday, Sîrbi, 2000 - From the Color of Hay
Easter Sunday, Sîrbi, 2000
Fashion has changed as women replace the homespun black in their skirts with factory printed fabric and given up their leather and wool opinci - the footwear of tradition - for vinyl pumps.

What remains constant is Sunday afternoon, when one learns to flaunt one’s sense of style.
From the Color of Hay

The Shepherd, Ocna Sugatag, 2000 - From the Color of Hay
The Shepherd, Ocna Sugatag, 2000
Villagers complain that shepherds are lazy. While most peasants must break their backs making hay in the hot days of summer, shepherds lie on the hillsides, watching their grazing sheep.

No one complains about them in winter.
From the Color of Hay

Cleaning Clothes, Sîrbi, 2000 - From the Color of Hay
Cleaning Clothes, Sîrbi, 2000
This weekly chore offers soothing cooling in summer but takes on a new meaning in winter.
From the Color of Hay

Packing up your life with your husband and moving to Transylvania to live amongst these people is a huge commitment.

Can you talk about the decision of moving and living there as opposed to doing several shorter trips over a period of time, and what sort of impact living there had on your work?

When I met Henry he introduced me to Balkan folk dancing. In the States we call this International Folk Dancing and groups can be found in most cities. I was enthralled and this was the same time I was photographing Russian Jews for my first year of graduate school. I wanted to experience Occidental “village life” and wasn’t sure we would find it by the time we arrived in 1999. Henry wanted to travel and had the opportunity to make some good money as a computer programmer during the Y2K boom in 1998.

We decided to sell everything, his house included, store our vehicles, and uproot. Our first 6 months we camped in a camper van we rented in Holland. We traveled in the UK and Ireland for 3 months, and went on to France, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, and Hungary. Budapest became our getaway escape from Romania, as it was more developed and is a terrific city. We were excited to begin our year in Romania, arriving in October, 1999.

The advantage of being somewhere for an extended period of time is being able to emmerse yourself in the culture. We learned to speak Romainan, though limited. It took about 2 weeks for us to finally understand what they were asking every morning, which was “how did you sleep?” Also by being there long term, we weren’t distracted by other projects or matters at home, so my work became more consistent and I was there to meet people, gain their trust (no, I was not a spy), and I became a thread in the fabric of day to day life. Our village family considers us family and we were fortunate to have found each other.

The shorter trips I’ve made recently are frustrating. There just isn’t enough time to acclimate, catch up with old friends, breathe in the fresh air, savor the food, and photograph everything you hope to catpure. It’s always hard to leave.

Ion, Glod, 1999 - Interview with Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin
Ion, Glod, 1999
Ion made sure we felt welcome in his village. As we passed his home, he rushed inside and emerged with his arms dripping with walnuts. He would not relent until we had stuffed our pockets with them.

When he was a child, walnuts were used as currency for all manner of goods. Even today they are used in trade with the gypsies for pots.
From the Color of Hay

Planting Potatoes, Budesti, 2000 - Interview with Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin
Planting Potatoes, Budesti, 2000
One potato, two potatoes, three potatoes in… ten potatoes, twenty potatoes, thirty potatoes out.
From the Color of Hay

Publishing a book is a daunting task for any photographer. There’s the pressures of gaining good material over a period of time. In between all of that, there’s bills to pay.

What sort of challenges did you face not only to get the project off the ground, but to publish the book?

The book project took years, beginning in 2001. I began working with book designers in Romania when I lived there for a second year in 2003. At one point I considered having it printed in Romania but overheard the owner of the press say he could line up several women to hand sew the signatures together, and that scared me. When we returned home, I worked with two more designers and ended up working with the third one, Frances Baca.

I found her because my photographs were in a two-person exhibition with the photographer Don Normark and his book Chavez Ravine: 1949 was beautifully designed by her. I approached Frances and she agreed to design The Color of Hay, which became a three year process. I approached university presses, attended professional portfolio reviews, and networked all the contacts I had. Finally in 2011, I created a Kickstarter campaign and raised some money, which was only a fraction of the cost. Two thirds of the money to print the book in Hong Kong was from a generous friend, Henry Lord, and the rest was our own.

The reason to not use a print-on-demand serive, such as Blurb, was because my book was too long (204 pages) and the cost per book was about $100 to print that way. It was most cost effective to have it traditionally printed. The printer is Oceanic Graphic Printing, who I highly recommend. They have an office in San Francisco and New York. 

You used a medium format camera and film for this project. Can you talk about your equipment choice for this project and the reasons behind it?

In graduate school I was introduced to medium format film. My good friend Carol Golemboski, who I met there, is a fine art photographer and her work ethics and aesthetics influenced me and my work. I wanted to make larger prints in the darkroom that were of a higher quality than 35mm. As far as cameras go, I wanted one that was on the light and quiet. Quiet because I knew I would be photographing at funerals and inside churches.

For my first year in the village I used a Mamiya 7 rangefinder. It’s a beautiful camera and was in many ways the perfect camera for The Color of Hay.  I didn’t realize the rangefinder focus would slow me down, so my images became more thoughtful, composed, and formal. The second year I lived in Romania, I used a Mamiya 645 SLR. This was a much faster working camera. I used auto focus, manual exposure, and worked more quickly and spontaneously. Most of my work that second year was color film and only a few images are in the book. I also shot a lot of black and white film that year as well.

My trips back I shoot some film, though primarily digital. I use a Canon 5D Mark II. The lens is the 24-105 series L. I mainly shoot at 24mm. My most recent trip I dropped my Mamiya 7 and shattered the filter and couldn’t get it off, so I had to only use my digital camera.

Petru and the Claie, Sîrbi, 1999 - From the Color of Hay
Petru and the Claie, Sîrbi, 1999
The quality of a haystack can be told by its color. The quality of a man by the time it takes him to bring one home.
From the Color of Hay

Cocoana, Sîrbi, 2000 - From the Color of Hay
Cocoana, Sîrbi, 2000
On Easter morning, Victorita wears a typical camasa (blouse) made for little girls. It takes up to four months for a woman to cut away the threads that make the holes and frills in this blouse. If the women in a girl’s family haven’t the eyesight or the time to make these clothes, they can purchase them for the equivalent of three month’s family income.

Why do they go to such lengths to dress for Easter?
It is never too early to impress a future mother-in-law.
From the Color of Hay

What projects are you currently working on / working on next?

I continue to photograph in the village Sarbi in Maramures. I returned in October of 2012 and 2013. I plan to return in April and October, 2015.

One of my new projects is called Fetele din Sarbi (The Girls from Sarbi). About three years ago, the girl Ileana we lived with for a year in 1999, asked me over the phone if I was on Facebook. I couldn’t believe it and sent her a friend request while I was still on the phone with her. Within weeks I became facebook friends with 90 young people from the village Sarbi. It has been a fascinating and illuminating window into the life of the village.

Fetele din Sarbi is a portrait series of 15 girls. They truly have their feet planted in two worlds – that of the past and the present. They continue to don costumes, listen to folk music, and celebrate their way of life – while also wearing tight jeans, posting selfies on facebook, and attending high school.  Some of them want to remain in the village and some want to live in a nearby town. Most attend high school and most will attend university.

Another project I began was to re-trace some of my steps that began in 1999. I collage together in Photoshop an old black and white photo I made and a new color digital image. I am surprised so much change has happened in just 15 years. I was expecting this to happen, though not expecting wooden gates to disappear so quickly, as well as funerals being catered, or houses painted so brightly.

Here at home, I have been documenting my life since I became a parent in 2005. One series I have is called In My Back Yard, which is actually the shared parking lot where we live. It’s about capturing the precious moments of my kids’ childhood. I cherish these times and want to savor them and not forget them. So by photographing them, I re-live my own childhood and record their’s.

Batrine Walking to Funeral, Sîrbi, 1999/2013 - Interview with Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin
Batrine Walking to Funeral, Sîrbi, 1999/2013

In My Back Yard - Interview with Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin
In My Back Yard
A photograph from Kathleen's In My Back Yard Project.

Kathleen loading film with Vasile, Sîrbi, 2003 - Interview with Kathleen Laraia McLaughlin
Kathleen loading film with Vasile, Sîrbi, 2003


Where can people find more of your work?

I’ll have an image in the upcoming issue of National Geographic issue in the Best of the World feature story scheduled for the Dec/Jan 2015 issue.

Where can people buy your book?