My Fearless Story

This is not a story about the prestigious international organization Fearless Photographers or about the amazing Fearless Conference in Bucharest. This is a story about me becoming (almost) fearless.

Last year Robert and I worked really hard. We work hard every year, of course, but last year I felt I needed to do more than just earning a living. I needed to do something relevant, as a good friend told me. And as a very calculated and rational side of my being said It’s not possible”, another one that I hadn’t heard in years said “No. It’s necessary”*.

As a photographer, I have to pay attention to the background first. I’m afraid it’s a messy one. I live in Romania, an incredibly beautiful and rich country, with a history full of invasion, struggles, corruption. Living here is a constant fight. Many of us are brilliant students or hardworking people, but totally miss the American “can do attitude”. Our history keeps telling us “It’s not possible”.

I’ve got a photojournalistic style, so I decide not to change anything in the background to make it cleaner. I just try to see things with fresh eyes, from an unusual perspective. I need light. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light”*. I need patience. It’s hard to accept that I am the subject now. I’m waiting for myself to do something relevant.

One night, my son woke up crying. The noise produced by concrete mixers, cranes and heavy tools was terrifying. Tens of men were working, in the middle of the night, just a few meters away from my son’s bedroom. They were illegally building a huge block of flats. My son asked me: “Please, mom, do something. You must stop them!”. Most of the people would tell you that it’s impossible to stop this kind of thing in Romania. But as a parent, you want to make sure your children feel safe.  I was not able to tell my son “It’s not possible”. So I told him I would stop them. I had no idea how to do it.  A few months later, making huge efforts and resisting intimidation, I did it. Not by myself, of course, but gaining the support of hundreds of people. This war is far from being over, but now I can look into my son’s eyes and say “It’s possible. We just have to work hard and take risks”.

But there were other things to happen, too. I met Huy. His photography workshop was called “Big Lessons”. I was afraid that I had paid for an American-motivational-something that wouldn’t work for me. As most of the Romanian people, I’m pretty skeptical about such things. Fortunately, it wasn’t at all like that. Huy said: “There are times when you realize there are things you cannot do. In those moments you decide either to accept it or to fight for it”. I decided to give it a try and open my mind to his theory. I believed him when he said that change was possible, but slow. I admitted that my ego stayed in my way. It became obvious to me that too often I was making excuses instead of keeping up the good fight. I wasn’t sure I was able to change my life at that point, but at least I remembered my dreams, my priorities and timidly started to follow them.

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I found out that Huy was considering Romania for the Fearless Conference in March 2015. As you know, the background was really messy, so I said to myself “It’s not possible”. But the big lessons were already there, in my mind, so I was getting confused. Robert asked me to involve in organizing the conference. I was afraid, I didn’t want to. But I felt it was important for him and for many Romanian photographers. Maybe it didn’t seem possible, but it was necessary. Huy and I were total strangers at that point, but he trusted me to do that. The big lessons weren’t over, they were just starting.

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The time flew by. We met Candice and Victoria in March 2015. And we loved them both. That cheerful Thursday evening was such a great beginning.  We laughed about so many things I can hardly remember now. But I do remember when Candice told us to pay attention to what was going to happen the next days, because somebody might have a golden nugget for us. I knew she was right. Meeting the right people at the right time can make a huge difference in anyone’s life. You just have to open your mind and listen carefully.

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Then we met Kelly and Sergio. I had been eager to meet Kelly, because I knew she would fix whatever I had done wrong. First I was a bit worried, but she is one of those kind and elegant people able to make others feel well, no matter how clumsy they actually are/I am :).  I ended up being fascinated with her sparkling personality. Sergio, too, is amazingly charismatic – it’s almost redundant to say that about him. I hope to see them together on a big beautiful stage one day. (Kelly, if you ever read that, you’ll know what I mean! ;)).

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At that point, I already had not one, but a few golden nuggets. And there were more to come. I’ll never forget Candice’s magnificent presentation – she is that kind of generous and smart teacher that makes complicated things seem easy for her students.  It was so interesting and useful for me to meet the truly fearless couple Dorota Kaszuba and Michał Warda. Their courage to be themselves and to be so original was a great lesson to me. Sergio used his valuable business experience to help us see into our own future. We were so happy to discover Todd Laffler, the man behind so many bold and funny awarded photos. Carlo Carletti… well, it’s difficult to say only one thing about him. But if it has to be only one word, that would be “artist”, by all its meanings. His presentation reminded me that more than a photographer I was an art lover with a European heart.

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Erin and Ben Chrisman were the last I got to know, but there was a big golden nugget waiting for me there :). All I can tell you is that my nugget was not in their perfect presentation. It had nothing to do with their success, with their great technique or whatever comes into your mind when you hear their second name. Erin and Ben are some beautiful young people that can teach others not only photography, but also being gentle, honest, humble and generous in a world full of (huge furious) elephants.

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They are all amazing photographers, but you can find information about them on the internet. What I want to tell you is just a very personal story. And it comes to an end.

We also met Anna Kuperberg, an amazing photographer we’ve admired for years. When I met her, she told me she would talk about our photos in her presentation. I was so surprised…  After a couple of hours, I told Robert about that. We were keeping each other’s hands as we do whenever something big happens. “This is gonna be tough. But we are so lucky! We’ll be able to improve our work. We need that”. When Anna made her presentation, we were again holding each other’s hands. Half of my live I’ve loved Robert. Half of my life I’ve got over so many things because his hands have been there to support me. I thought about that. I looked at him. I was happy. “Come what may!” I thought. I was too happy to be afraid.

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Anna didn’t have the time to critique our photos during the conference. She did that later. And she gave us wings to fly. (Anna Kuperberg wrote on Facebook: “Hey everybody! I am sad that I did not get a chance to show Irina and Robert’s website. You should all check them out. They have a solid consistent style which is crazy and fun and loose and full of energy. They only show what they like to do, and not one single portrait on their website. This shows confidence and integrity. But I especially loved their section of Baptisms. I have never seen anything like it. Because we don’t have any contests or public showcase for this kind of work, it can get overlooked. I think they should publish a book of their baptism photos because they are so good, but also because it’s an important historic document to leave to the world. They are not just shooting for themselves and their clients. They are shooting for posterity”).

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Next day Robert and I attended The Civic Society Gala, a competition awarding the years’ best social projects, initiated by NGOs and individuals. It’s an event that promotes good citizenship and the citizen initiative. We were both very tired, but felt honored, proud and grateful to be among those amazing people. An NGO helped us a lot in our fight against the corrupt authorities that allowed the construction of illegal buildings in Bucharest, and we thought that was why we were invited. But we had no idea that our little project was to be awarded that evening. We were so happy. A good moment in life, for sure.

We ended our magic week watching Interstellar. Cooper, one of the characters, was saying: “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt”. But I thought: “No, Cooper. We’re not meant to look down in the dirt. We’ll learn to look up at the sky again”. The last two weeks had changed my life. I became optimistic. I became almost fearless. And Cooper is right in the end: “We’ve always defined ourselves by the ability to overcome the impossible. And we count these moments. These moments when we dare to aim higher, to break barriers, to reach for the stars, to make the unknown known. We count these moments as our proudest achievements. […] we are still pioneers. And we’ve barely begun. And […] our greatest accomplishments cannot be behind us, because our destiny lies above us”.

Many thanks to the fantastic Romanian community of photographers! We love you!

Special thanks to Huy Nguyen, Kelly and Sergio, Anna Kuperberg, WhiteSmoke Studio and Joshua D’hondt for the presents ;).

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Thank you so much Erin and Ben for that rainy evening. We’ll never forget it.

Thank you Pedro Etura and Victor Lax! If we are better photographers now, we owe that to you.

*Interstellar quotes.