Sunday, 15 December 2013

Challenging Romania's Stereotypes

You know, it's funny how quickly one's mind re-adjusts to new environments, turning them into 'home'. Because I'm living in Bucharest in my wife's apartment and actually doing 'work' with a research project, my mind hasn't oriented into a 'holiday' mode but rather a 'real life' mode. So much so, that I remarked to my wife that I feel like a Romanian with a job to go to in South Africa, not the other way around.

Because I care about my Romanian wife and feel like the above, I actually really care about how Romania is represented in the global media. In my discussions with Romanians for my research project I keep on trying to question their perceptions of Romania internationally, but nobody seems to really recognise that there is a problem (or at the very least be too concerned by it).

The perfect case in point came when I logged into to catch up with South African news, and the lead photograph on the website (which is generally a global news photo) featured Romania! This is an extremely rare occurrence ... I've remarked before that when it comes to Romania, the country never features in the South African public consciousness (you'll never find a book on the country in the travel section in even the biggest book stores  trust me, I've looked).

Ok, so what was the news that was so big that something from Romania was selected as the lead photo on a South African news site (admittedly on a Sunday - always slow for news)? Was it Ponta's handshake with Obama? Was it some new Romanian technological breakthrough? Was it Dracula?

None of the above. Here's the screencap I took just now:

Does that bother you? It seriously bothers me. After only a casual week spent photographing interesting things in Bucharest alone (and being very honest to not try and sugar coat the reality) I've shared dozens of photographs which are a fairer reflection of Romania than this one.

Sure, there's a strong argument to say 'This is just a single photo, and isn't intended to summarise the whole country. Scenes like this are common in certain parts of Romania."

My objection, however, is that when people receive very little information on any subject, the natural tendency is to extrapolate from the information in hand to draw vast inferences on unrelated matters. My question, then, is this: for people viewing that photograph who don't know much if anything about Romania, what sort of inferences might be drawn?

After all, the caption assures us that this is a 'vividly-coloured house in Bucharest'! I've only seen houses like that in Bucharest in the village museum, but maybe I'm wrong? However, the majority of people here definitely stay in ageing apartment blocks, so right from the outset the photograph was never a good base to extrapolate from.

Then you have the fact that this is not necessarily a happy or affluent kid, photographed with no friends or parents, at a moment of solitude and wrapped up against the cold weather. Finally, the kid has been performing 'traditional songs and dances' during a two-day festival (we're not informed what the festival is celebrating).

I don't know about you, but I hate 'news' photos like these, and here the AP was behind it. It's not a Romanian media brand, but rather a photo taken locally and then sent out to the global newswires and somehow selected by a news editor in South Africa to feature on the news website for no reason apart from it is something different ... those poor kids in Romania, right?

*shakes head* Maybe someday somebody will get it and do something about it. UKIP and the like might have less ammunition to protest Romania's entry into the EU and Schengen zone if there are better, more modern perceptions of the country in the global consciousness.

Do you know the reason this really stings? The exact same thing happens to South Africa. I know the only impact we've made on the global consciousness has to do with Nelson Mandela, the Big 5 wild animals and Table Mountain in Cape Town. As a country we've got a lot more to share and contribute than that, but for whatever reason news editors continually select images and stories which reinforce perceptions rather than those which challenge them.

What's even scarier for me is that journalists *on the ground* tend to pump out cliched news stories which reinforce these stereotypes because they think that is what they should do, and that is what will sell.

So are they right? If Vadim Ghirda from the AP had photographed a Romanian software developer coding a breakthrough computer program instead, would that photo have been selected by that faceless South African news editor?

Maybe not. But in the worst case, then, Romania's image to all those people viewing that photograph wouldn't be connected to a poor little girl walking past a peasant house. And in the best case, a stereotype would have been questioned, and journalists in the future will know that there's an appetite for more modern fare.

As journalists, we need to ask ourselves these questions and become critical media producers. As citizens, we need to judge the political and economic impact that our countries' global perceptions have on our personal life chances.

There's always hoping.


  1. Has it ever occurred to you that it can also be an instruction the jurnos have to portray Romania in a bad way?

    1. Sure Alex, that occurred to me. In fact, my whole working holiday in Romania centered on discovering what really happened from Romanian journalists themselves. If you haven't seen it yet, this post will interest you: