We know of the groundbreaking Child Brides series by Stephanie Sinclair. We know what it feels like to see the juxtaposition of a 55-year-old man seated next to his wife, aged 8. It is difficult to comprehend the justification of such an arrangement, but through the lens we have become accustomed to attempting at an understanding of the lives of others.
When the brides are adolescents, however, as in the images from the series Be Good by Berlin-based photographer Maria Sturm, the images of married youths in Romania take on another tone. The Roma boys and girls are barely 12 and 13 in some cases. They are on the cusp of adulthood, but their beds are still decorated with toys, their portraits still show lanky limbs and ponytails. Here, the portraits of these adolescents carry more weight, for we know that there has been some innocence lost. In Sturm’s statement for the series Be Good, she asks: “Are these teenagers less happy, because they’re ‘missing out’ on something so essential to us?” From our Western point of view, an answer would be presupposition. We sat down with Sturm to hear more about her experience working with these youths.
Happiness is a subjective and particular word, but I’d be interested to know what you experienced getting to know them. They are at once children and adults, it’s very complicated.
“In my statement I’m talking about the term youth. In our understanding the definition of youth is tied strongly to freedom and individuality; [something] we cannot imagine growing up without. It’s something we see as a [human] right; it’s something we would fight for! Because of this upbringing we can’t understand a different way of life, or at least it is very hard for us. The way we have been taught is the ‘right’ way, therefore we feel pity for those who don’t have our choices. Of course I wouldn’t let my child marry at such a young age, but I didn’t grow up among those traditions. But at the same time I try not to judge, even though I photographed some youth that have had a very hard life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are not happy.
“I did interviews with everybody before I photographed them and I always asked them in the end what their dreams are and what they are wishing for. I was surprised that even among the poorest families not even one person had a materialistic or egoistic wish: they all wished for health, good understanding in their families and that their children will have an easier life.
“Some people who looked at my work during the exhibition said things like “oh that’s so horrible, those poor kids,” once they knew what the work was dealing with. A lot of people are only using one measure. And I can also understand it psychologically, but it would be nice if we as people stop seeing the world in black and white.”
Did you take any photographs of couples together or did you purposely omit any couple imagery?
“I photographed the couples together as well, you can find few of them in the book—the whole work includes the installation, but also a book and a video. But I chose to not show them in the installation to be able to give them a place as individuals. Individuality is something that doesn’t exist in their society, their language. Imagine a family living together in a house with one room—there’s just no room for individuality to develop. The children and family come first.”