Growing up during the Romanian revolution, the photographer’s latest project ruminates on the country’s complicated history and asks why to this day, the deaths of those lost have not been properly reconciled.
On Christmas Day in 1989, the Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu was execute by firing squad along with his wife, the Deputy Prime Minister Elena Ceaușescu. The two were charged with genocide, and a bloody revolt had led up to this moment. Born and raised in Bucharest, photographer Anton Roland Laub was a teenager at the time and remembers the day vividly. “We were glued to the TV, waiting to see what would happen. It took until 3am for it to be announced that the trial would be broadcast the next day,” he remembers. On the morning of the 26th, Christmas mass was televised for the first time – a strange and telling move because it had been strictly forbidden in the past. “It’s as if the cult of Ceaușescu was replaced with religion overnight,” Laub says, “and to this day, the church is very influential in Romania.” The dictator’s execution followed later that evening marking the end of a month of civil unrest, yet three decades later, many Romanians continue to seek justice for their murdered relatives. The names of their killers remain unknown.
Growing up during the Romanian revolution had a profound effect on Laub, and it is something he felt compelled to understand more later in life. “Back then, I found their execution relieving, but decades later I found it distressing to see the footage from that time,” he says. After studying media in Bucharest, he moved to Berlin to study photography and completed a Masters degree at Weißensee Academy of Art. Gradually, through his camera, he worked himself up to the gargantuan project of facing his country’s complicated history, and thus his new photobook, Last Christmas (of Ceaușescu), published by Kehrer Verlag, combines several series he has made since the beginning of 2015.
Working in diptychs as well as single images, Laub’s photographic style agitates the visual rules of the propaganda that surrounded him when he was growing up – glitchy stills from the television footage are isolated and re-photographed as haunting new images, and iconic press pictures are sliced up and set askew. The book opens with a portrait of Ceaușescu, his features cut away, leaving white space where his face once was. “During the dictatorship, this portrait was everywhere,” says Laub. “All of my school books started with it and it hung in every classroom.” In this way, he tries his own hand at diminishing that omnipresent cult of personality that Ceaușescu had ruled with for so long. Including the TV footage was a natural choice to represent a series of events so heavily televised for the first time. “Until then we only had two hours of staged propaganda television a day,” he says. “Suddenly, we had a reality show of this revolution around the clock. It was a brutal telenovela. These stills work like echoes, for me.”
Laub made the rest of his photographs in three key places – ones he calls “traumatised witnesses to a paradoxical past” – their architecture sombre under the weight of history. First was Ceaușescu’s private house in Bucharest; then the place of the execution în Târgoviște; and finally, Ceaușescu’s government palace, which was never inaugurated. He photographed the monuments, symbols and corners of them in colour with a heavy flash. “I wanted to isolate fragments of them, giving them an uncanny presence,” he explains.
As a child, Laub and his family celebrated religious holidays as a sign of protest against the dictatorship. Father Christmas was officially not allowed to be named, and so instead the regime called him the ‘frost man’. Thus, today, when he thinks of Santa, he thinks mostly of Hollywood and Coca-Cola, he says – a globalised image of Christmas grafted upon the shared recollections of a national past. “But I also look forward to longer, lighter days at this time of year too,” he adds, briefly recalling that tingling sense of hope he felt as Ceaușescu’s rule came to an end.
Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London