Photographing the folkloric mythologies of rural Romania

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“I feel like time is slipping away, and I’ve always had a sense that time is moving too fast,” says photographer Laura Pannack as we sit down to discuss her latest body of work.
“I just have this fear that I’m a grain of sand, that I am not making the most of the time I have here. It’s not just about this inner pressure to be productive, it’s about an appreciation of time.”
Pannack’s anxieties over the passage of time are not unusual, but universal. In an era where technology allows us to be inundated with our peers’ every success, our perceptions of time and achievement have become warped, giving us somewhat damaging illusions over our own measures of accomplishment.
The London-based photographer need not to worry – at least for now. Pannack has just received the coveted Getty Prestige Grant, awarding her $15,000 to realise the continuation of her project Youth Without Age, Life Without Death.

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The wheel of time
For her latest undertaking, Pannack set about unravelling the myths, culture and tradition of the rural Romanian landscape, using a blurring of fiction and reality to draw a line through past, present and future.
“I needed to escape, to begin an adventure in my search for meaningful answers,” says Pannack.
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The Offering, they got used to each other bit by bit
“I started thinking about how I could challenge myself,” she explains. “All my projects have involved doing things that scare me, and I knew what I needed to do was go to another country where I couldn’t speak the language.”
“One of my oldest friends recommended that I go to Romania. I had brought a map of the world and been throwing darts at it trying to figure out where to go, and Romania kept coming up, so I went there and I fell in love with it, it was everything I wanted and more.”
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The way was long and even longer
Inspired by a Romanian folk tale by the same title, Youth Without Age, Life Without Death reimagines the story of a young prince on his quest for eternal life. The work sensitively responds to the strong role that folklore plays within Romanian culture.
“As I started researching the traditions of where I was, this beautiful tale came up, and immediately I realised it totally reflected exactly what I’m yearning for, echoing this idea that I feel in my life,” she says.
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If humans can, we’ll have to fly
Over the past four years, she has journeyed the length of the country, from disparate villages to the mountains of the Maramures, exploring the themes of life, death and journey through symbolic representations and the collision of reality and fantasy.
Using the tale to guide her, Pannack has created a body of work that is as beautifully poetic as it is haunting. Symbols and cues are playfully introduced to encourage the viewer to embark on their own journey.
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Then the sisters made their guest and his horse known to all the wild beasts
From being chased by a pack of dogs, building human-sized bird’s nests and discovering a lake filled with cyanide, Pannack’s own experiences in the creation of the project could in themselves be taken straight out of a folk tale.
The series is shot solely on expired film, embracing the imperfection and decay contained within the ethos of the work.
“I wanted to embrace the idea that life isn’t perfect, that in reality you can’t have a perfect image, to embrace those mistakes and see the deterioration of time in my images, to see the death within the film.”
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The next day, when the dawn poured forth
Having carved out a remarkable reputation through social documentary and portraiture, Pannack also seeks to explore the complex relationship between subject and photographer.
Youth Without Age, Life Without Death is both a continuation and departure from this, capturing a genuine connection not just with her human exchanges but, for the first time more prominently through her haunting images of  the landscapes rural Romania, which capture intuitively the intimacy of her relationship with the land.
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Lunar Forest
“What I’ve been trying to do is to interject parts of the culture and tradition into the images. There is a lot of red string – the colour red is very prominent in Romania – used as a symbol predominantly referencing life and death.”
“In the spring, red ribbon is worn to commemorate birth, and at funerals red bags are knitted to give to one another as gifts – it is an integral symbol in Romania’s traditions,” she explains.
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Long life, master. At your service
“In the places I travelled, time stood still. I think the reason why I chose to go to Romania is that it is so steeped in untouched beauty , tradition, superstition and fantasy – it has given me the release I needed to step outside of reality and actually reflect on time itself.”
Alongside the series, the gallery will also present a curated selection of Pannack’s popular blog Image of the Week, which will be accompanied by stories and texts, written by the artist, offering an open and honest insight into her practice.
Youth Without Age, Life Without Death: Chapter 1 is on show at the Francesca Maffeo Gallery from 22nd October – 23rd December 2016. For more information, go here.

Charlotte Harding

Charlotte Harding is a writer, creative consultant and editor of More This, a sustainable sourcebook for doing good, based in London. She has been writing for British Journal of Photography since 2014, and graduated in 2016 with an MA in Visual Anthropology at Goldsmiths, UoL. Her work is published on various arts and culture platforms, including AnOther, TOAST and Noon Magazine.