Mugur Varzariu Interview, part 2

Here is part two of the interview with Mugur Vărzariu who embodies the definition of a compassionate photographer: “I only press the shutter release when I can help my subjects.”

Mugur Vărzariu’s winning photo for the ‘Leica for AICR’ People photo contest hosted on Leica’s page on Facebook was featured on Leica’s profile picture on Facebook during the week of July 5 as part of the efforts to raise awareness for the Association of International Cancer Research (AICR). It simply shows a silhouette of an agile young boy doing a perfect cartwheel, but its dynamic composition captures the pure joy of life and expresses the transcendence of the human spirit. This image and the compassion behind it reveal a force powerful enough to overcome even the dire circumstances in which abandoned children find themselves.

Vărzariu understands this because he is deeply a spiritual man and an insightful and patient photographer who has also documented the faiths and houses of worship of his native Romania, and plans to extend this mission to other countries. To give you a clearer picture of this emerging pro who leads with his heart, defines with his eye, and uses a Leica M9 to express his creative vision, we present the second part of our interview with him. We’re sure you will find his insights and observations astute and inspiring.

Q: Can you tell us something about the shooting technique you used for Abandoned Valley series showing abandoned kids playing in silhouette, and what inspired you to create these images? In particular how did you shoot the incredible ‘cartwheel’ picture that was included in the Leica User Forum Book?

A: It was on my second visit to the valley that I first began shooting this series. My day began in church and it was extremely hot so I couldn’t do much between 12 noon and 6 PM. Most of the time was spent following around a group of kids who lived in the village, close to the church. After 5 o’clock, I decided to go to back the camp to see if I could shoot the sun as it was about to set. Some of the kids where playing soccer and others were just running around on top of a hill. I followed them and started to take pictures. It was the first time I had ever shot silhouettes, so I had no idea how to work in such extreme backlight conditions, with the setting sun behind my subjects, so I took a few pictures and checked the results. I worked mostly with my 50 mm lens. Luckily, the very first image was one of my favorites.

Realizing the visual potential of what was in front of my camera I got comfortable with the settings. I concentrated on two essential elements—to make sure the images of the kids were sharp (accurate focus was important but so was a fast shutter speed because they were running), and to achieve precise exposures under the extreme lighting conditions. Those kids played hard, and by the grace of God, at some point two lively dogs arrived on the scene to add another dramatic element. Initially the kids were tossing the ball to each other, but then they suddenly started doing cartwheels. I followed them, running up and down the hill after, them hoping that they would somehow arrange themselves into a dynamic composition. I was fascinated with one kid in particular because he was phenomenal at performing cartwheels, so I stayed with him and at some point everything seemed to fall into place. By that point I knew I had taken some good shots, but I continued shooting until I captured the winning image. I therefore believe that persistence played a crucial role in this story. Amazingly the narrative I’ve just related happened in less than 30 minutes!

Q: It is evident that you have a facility for taking natural-looking pictures of people who seem unaware of the camera or very comfortable about having their pictures taken. Is there any secret to this or tips you can share?

A: I have genuine empathy and deep respect for those people I photograph. Indeed, I only shoot them so that I can
help them. I resonate with them and I identify with them and this has created an abiding sense of fellowship. I do not drink, eat, sit, or go to the bathroom for as long as I stay with them (sometimes it’s even more than 12 hours) and I believe they sense my caring and my dedication. I do not become invisible. I become part of them. For me, true humility is the key. They can feel I am grateful for letting me help them.

Q: What characteristics of the Leica M9 do you find especially well suited to your genre of photography, which can be broadly defined as documentary.

A: The first things I really love about my M9 is that it’s a virtually silent shooter, an amazing characteristic that’s really essential when you’re taking pictures in places like churches where almost any noise can be obtrusive. The other thing is the discreet Leica form factor that poses no threat to the subjects and allows them to be themselves. Additionally, the full-frame 24x36mm sensor is a major technical plus for me.

Q: We noticed that you make extensive and effective use of a wide-angle perspective. What’s your favorite wide-angle lens and why do you think it works for you? When do you use your ultra-fast 50mm f/0.95 Noctilux-M?

A: I order to connect with people I get very close to them, often in confined spaces. I love the 50 mm, but in such cases it doesn’t really work. On my Leica I generally use the 28mm. On my Canons I use the 24 and in some cases the 16 mm. If I feel that the background is important I use a wide-angle lens to accentuate it. In many cases I am less than a meter away from my subjects. When you shoot from a longer distance you tend to act like a hunter stalking its prey. You set the trap and wait for things to come into place. I prefer to go in close and become one with the scene. Most of my images are shot from an arm’s length distance.

I use the Noctilux in low light conditions and for portraits. It is truly an amazing and distinctive lens, both technically and in terms of the images it captures. I also used my Noctilux when I caught sight of the Abandoned Valley kids playing on the hill (the kid on the stairs in front of the church). I was leaving when I noticed them and the longer focal length was useful because there was at least 100-150 meters distance between us.

Q: What are the some of the special challenges and opportunities of shooting in Romania?

A: It is not easy being a photographer in Romania. Apart from the general lack of respect shown to photographers you can barely make a living at it in this country. On the other hand you do not need to travel to India or Gaza to find interesting stories—Romania provides an endless variety of amazing opportunities for anyone devoted to storytelling with pictures.

Q: In the first part of our interview we featured your compelling images of abandoned kids that run the emotional gamut from stark to joyful. Can you tell us something about some other subjects or themes you’ve covered or intend to pursue in the future?

A: My first project is about faith in Romania. I am covering all major religions (Orthodox, Old Rite Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim) and their principal events and ceremonies over one-year period. I intend to expand this project to include other countries with significant populations that practice these religions, such as Israel, Russia, Turkey, etc.

Q: Are there any stories you can share about any particular image or series of images you’ve taken recently?

A: About a month ago I learned about the deadly Israeli strike on the Gaza-bound humanitarian flotilla from Turkey. I decided to cover the events that followed so I jumped on a plane and flew to Istanbul. I was there during the protest in Taksim square, at the airport, when they brought in the dead bodies and over the next two days during the
funeral processions. It was an amazing experience—the crowds, the shouting, the emotion. At one point when I was at the Fatih mosque, I climbed up onto a steep wall to get a better view, and even now I don’t understand how I didn’t fall. During the second day at Bayazid I got pinned down on a ledge and was trapped there, hanging high above the ground, for almost 3 hours. It was only by taking such chances that I was able to capture the feeling of the tumultuous scene and the deeply charged emotions etched into the faces off the victims’ family members.

Q: How did you find the Leica page on Facebook and how do you feel about contributing to the Leica AICR project and the fact that your winning photo helps raise awareness for that worthwhile charity?

A: I went on Facebook long time ago, to be able to understand the medium and to promote it to my clients. I really didn’t use it much myself until recently when I started to share some of my images and I got a lot of positive feedback from people who saw them. I quickly learned about specialized pages and, being a Leica enthusiast, then searched for Leica. As I said before, in my case, I wouldn’t even press the shutter button if I couldn’t see a way to help those I photograph. Well, after presenting my images of the abandoned kids to a large multinational company, they asked for the priest’s contact details and decided to supply the community with contributions on a long-term basis.

I was extremely happy to see that one of my images meant to help these abandoned children also had the chance to help others suffering from cancer as well. Helping others is my gift to the world. By selecting this image you have helped me share that gift with a much wider audience. I thank you for that from the bottom of my heart.

-Leica Internet Team

This post is part of the special ‘Leica for AICR’ series. To purchase the ‘Leica User Forum Book’, please click here. Proceeds benefit the UK-based Association for International Cancer Research (AICR). Please visit our page on Facebook to enter the ‘Leica for AICR’ photo contest; this week’s theme is Architecture. Based on Leica’s Twitter initiative, Leica is donating €3,000 to AICR – thank you for making this possible!