The traditional pastime of bathing has been explored in several projects before, including the bathing ghats on the Ganges and the stunning architecture of the Budapest baths. In London-based photographer Emily Garthwaite’s project on the salt flats of Turda, Romania, a similar sense of community is captured, but the humour and extraordinary detail takes her work in a wonderful direction.
Emily stumbled upon the baths when in need of a peaceful retreat: “I was working with the Ratiu Foundation on a project with an anti sex trafficking consortium in between Turda and Cluj-Napoca in Transylvania,” Emily explains. “I was spending 80% of my time with sex workers on the highways and it was an emotionally demanding project. I stumbled upon [the salt flats] after a local said, ‘You want to see the real Romania? Follow me…’”
Turda is an old salt mining town and the mineral had been extracted from the landscape since the middle ages. It was 1932 when the mines became inactive, “but with new financial aid from the European Union, a 120 metre deep disused salt mine named Salina Turda has now become a tourist destination,” says Emily. “On the perimeters lie modest pools of thick, salty mud dimpled with footprints and among the dense forest, water-filled salt quarries – it’s here that many elderly locals bathe.”
Featured in Suitcase magazine Volume 13, Emily presents a beautiful set of portraits that focus on the characters that use the baths. Mud-encrusted wrinkles and body hair become the same chocolatey texture and despite the lack of colour there’s an incredible vibrancy from everyone’s sludgy grins. Their expressions give Emily’s photographs a light and add to the relaxed nature of the bathers as their swimming costumes and trunks hang haphazardly from the weight of the mud.
Many come to the flats for the rejuvenating and healing powers of the salty mud as they prepare for the bitter winter ahead. While there Emily met Andrei, a former truck driver: “He stood beside me and exclaimed, ‘It is a free space for Romanians. We are all covered in black clay and we are all here to heal.’”