Dubbed ‘the green capital of Europe’, Romania is home to some six million hectares of forests; an extensive population of large carnivores; and over 3,700 species of plants. However, in 2004, the restitution of formerly nationalised land resulted in a new ownership structure of two-thirds of Romanian forest. The large-scale purchase of forests by logging companies resulted in thousands of hectares of virgin forest being cleared. Large clear-cuts and monocultures rend the natural flora, leaving soils on mountain slopes unprotected and exposed to erosion.
Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC) works to protect Romanian land. Over the past decade, it has acquired more than 21,000 hectares of forest; created a hunting-free zone spanning 36,000 hectares; and planted over 1.5 million saplings. Its utlimate aim is to create a 250,000-hectare National Park spanning the Făgăraș Mountains, the Piatra Craiului National Park and Leaota Mountains area.
British photographer Nicholas J R White was captivated by the enormity of FCC’s mission. ‘Just how do you go about creating a National Park? How is that possible? Especially in Romania, which is far from an economic powerhouse,’ he says. ‘We often see conservation visualised mostly through pictures of animals or landscapes. In the Southern Carpathians, I realised that people were actively going out and trying to create a National Park. This relationship between the human and natural worlds is what inspired me photographically.’ To get out to Romania, White successfully applied for The Photographic Angle & Royal Photographic Society Bursary, which kickstarted his photographic work: Carpathia.
Knowing he had to earn the trust of FCC’s on-the-ground team, White immersed himself in their work. ‘I’d never been to Romania before, and I don’t speak Romanian. I was dealing with a cultural divide that was compacted by a long-standing suspicion of photographers. I needed to make sure that the rangers understood that I intended to celebrate their work, and I did so by getting my hands dirty.’
Carpathia depicts rangers and volunteers setting out into vast stretches of alpine forest, completing arcane tasks that, in their multitudes, form the backbone of a National Park. ‘I tried to create a sense of ambiguity as to how the rangers’ activities are depicted,’ says White. ‘I wanted to replicate the sense of their seemingly unachievable goal. To understand FCC’s conservation work, I became embedded in the ranks of the wildlife monitoring team. It’s their job to go out into the wilderness in search of single strands of hair, scat, urine samples, and footprints.’
White also focused on the other side of this story. The bears, wolves and lynx that FCC serve to protect can damage property and predate livestock. ‘Local Romanian communities can often be very poor, and damage to livestock can seriously impact their livelihoods. These communities form a huge part of Carpathia,’ says White.
FCC also works closely with the hunting community, but as White knows, local attitudes don’t always align with FCC’s conservation goals: ‘There’s definitely a generational gap. The older generation – many of whom grew up in communist Romania – tend to uphold the hunting culture. But there are a new generation of inspired younger people welcoming FCC’s mission.'
‘This is important because brain drain is a huge problem in Romania – younger people have abandoned small farming communities in search of employment opportunities across Europe. As Europe’s ‘green capital’, FCC know that protecting the country’s biodiversity is an act of economic preservation. Heightened conservation efforts promise to empower rural communities by increasing ecotourism opportunities, and in turn, incentivise younger generations to settle.
The growth of the national park and the societal transition that could accompany it will take a long time. With matched patience, White will be chaptering Carpathia into a chronicled log of the journey to National Park status. ‘I wanted to really spend time with rangers and local communities. Part of that came from not taking photos at all, instead building trust and experience. I often come back from Romania with just two or three negatives. If the project takes a decade, it takes a decade. There’s a saying that a photographic work isn’t good when it’s done; it’s done when it’s good.’
Inspiration: 'I fell in love with the works of Joe Cornish, Charlie Waite and David Ward. As I began working on projects, I was really inspired by the work of photographers like Simon Norfolk, Olaf Otto-Becker and Sophie Ristelhueber.'
Purpose: 'With the environmental and climate crises, together with a lot of social unrest that we’re seeing in the media now, it can be overwhelming. Stories told photographically should be able to cut through all the noise, and provide people with a way to understand our increasingly complex world.'
Advice: 'Don’t shoot projects because you feel you have to. Take the time to develop your own style, and build it with subjects that are close to your heart. Your interests outside of photography are as important as the photography itself – you have to care about and understand your subject choice.'