Transylvania: Built on Grass, Rena Effendi's photography

Rena Effendi Transylvania: Built on Grass

The whole Borca family, from Breb village, puts finishing touches on one of the 40 haystacks it makes each summer in Maramures, Romania, 2012.

The Borca family relaxes after a working day that started early. Gheorghe and Anuța Borca were married in July 1995, in the middle of the grass-cutting season. The honeymoon had to be shortened. “We started making hay again one week after the wedding,” Anuța says ruefully. This photograph was made in Maramureș, the Romanian-speaking part of northern Transylvania, 2012.

Corn is shelled, then fed to the cattle. Ion Petric and his wife, Maria Vraja, who live in Breb, help out their neighbors’ daughter, seven-year-old Adriana Țânțaş. Transylvanian family life and village life remain intimately bound up with the needs and services of farm animals. Maramures, Romania, 2012.

Andrei Rus, 12, relaxes in his father’s palinca still in Strâmtura. Palinca—the name for all kinds of fruit brandy—can be as much as 58 proof here. The stills require copious amounts of cooling water and are nearly always on the banks of streams—as are fulling machines, which use water-driven hammers to thicken up the fibers of woolen cloth. Maramures, Romania, 2012.

Ioana Oros rakes hay that she had just cut in the field, in an attempt to collect the last bits before the snow fall. Guilesti village. Maramures, Romania, 2012.

Cooking up plum jam in the autumn is usually a man's job. It takes eight to ten hours of uninterrupted stirring to make sure the jam on the bottom of the pot doesn’t burn. This grandfather from Sârbi wears the traditional small Maramureş hat. Anyone who sports one of these little hats in Bucharest will likely be laughed at. Maramures, Romania, 2012.

On the porch of their home in Breb, Ileana Pop alters a skirt to fit her 12-year-old daughter, Crina. Ileana’s mother, Maria Bud, shares a playful moment with her grandson, Ion, four. Maramures, Romania, 2012.

Nastafa and Vasile Nemes have been married for over 50 years. When a boy likes a girl, he first declares his feelings to her parents. In turn, the parents inform their daughter and if she likes him she would go out and stand on the front porch. At this point, he has about 2 minutes to run up to her and confess about his feelings. Maramures, Romania, 2012.

Cousins Anuța and Magdalena Mesaroș, dressed in traditional outfits are on their way to a wedding in Sat Șugatăg village. Maramureș, Romania, 2012.

On the evening hillside outside Breb, alfalfa stacks stand sentinel. The roots of Transylvania go back at least a thousand years. The farming way of life will continue only if it is treasured and nurtured by the villagers and seen by Romania and the European Union as worth sustaining. Maramures, Romania, 2012.

Artist's statement

For centuries, the small villages in Transylvania have preserved their hay meadows, raised cattle and operated self-sustainable farms. The agrarian fairy-tale that is extinct in Western Europe still exists here in bucolic scenes, where young boys learn to cut and rake hay by hand, where all village women are proficient in weaving, and all men can build a house from scratch – with thousands of hard-split wooden shingles on the rooftop.

In this old world, defined by traditional belief systems and respect for the environment, one does not trample a meadow of high grass before mowing it, the cows and horses find their way home along the muddy village tracks and the rivers’ water is busy with the milling, washing and alcohol making.

Having survived the collectivization of Ceausescu’s Communist regime, this fragile rural environment now faces the modern threat of industrialization and globalization – as a result of Romania’s 2007 entry into the European Union. It is not alarmist to say that today this world is on the brink of extinction, as local small-scale farmers cannot compete with the European imports and industrialized agricultural production and as the youth leaves the countryside in search for work in the cities of Western Europe. 

As more horses are traded in for tractors and more wooden houses and gates are disassembled and sold off for furniture parts, this pastoral dream of a world is vanishing. Though when you see eighty-year old man cutting hay by hand, you realize that the Transylvanian peasants will farm until they die. They are deeply connected to their land and there is still hope that this traditional way of life will somehow persevere. We work hard to feed our animals and in return they work hard to feed us. This is our cycle of life, they say. Stuck between an economic rock and a hard place to live, these proud, and mostly hidden faces deserve to be recognized before progress continues its march through the pristine meadows of Transylvania.

About the photographer


1977, Azerbaijan



Based in

Istanbul, Turkey

About Rena Effendi

Born in Baku, Azerbaijan and educated as a linguist, Rena Effendi’s early work focused on the oil industry’s effects on people’s lives in her region. Over six years, she followed 1,700 km of oil pipeline through Georgia and Turkey, and in 2009, her first book, Pipe Dreams: A Chronicle of Lives along the Pipeline, was published. In 2012, Effendi published her second monograph, Liquid Land.

Effendi’s work has been exhibited at institutions worldwide including the Saatchi Gallery, London; Istanbul Modern; the Venice Biennial and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her work is in the permanent collections of Istanbul Modern and the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development Amsterdam. She has received two World Press Photo awards; the Fifty Crows Documentary Photography Award; Sony World Photography Award; All Roads Photography Award from National Geographic; Magnum Foundation Emergency Grant; Getty Images Editorial Grant and the Alexia Foundation Grant among others. In 2011, Effendi became the laureate of the Prince Claus Fund Award and in 2012, she was shortlisted for the Prix Pictet for her series Chernobyl: Still Life in the Zone.

Effendi has worked on editorial commissions for the National Geographic Magazine; The New York Times Magazine; Vogue; The New Yorker; GEO; Time magazine; The Sunday Times and many others.