When she started photographing rural life in the Carpathian Mountains of Romania in 2003, Tessa Bunney was attracted to the many unique cultural differences she discovered there — rough-hewn tools and farm implements that had been used for generations, old-fashioned fabrics and textures, and a cohesive way of living in accord with the seasonal conditions of their harsh environment. However, a mere five years after she started her documentation, many of these age-old cultural practices and artifacts are disappearing.

The primary reason for the change is that the Romanian government wants to be accepted as a member of the European Union, and so they must require all Romanians to adhere to strict new policies and safe practices prescribed by the EU.

Here's what Bunney says about the situation today:

The Romanian government’s interpretation of EU policy has resulted in the banning of horse carts and hand milking of cows. No animals are to be kept within 200 meters of the house. If they decide to strictly implement these rules it will be the end of the family farm. No animals will mean no hay and the landscape will change forever.

At the moment the Maramures landscape looks much the same as it always has. The old people are still making hay, picking plums and growing vegetables. But, everyone we spoke to has at least one child working in Italy, Spain, France… And tractors, quad bikes and grass cutters are appearing everywhere.

As a photographer, I have a particular interest in different landscapes and the way they are shaped by human activity. Intuition plays an important part in my working process, with my camera I’m drawn to observing and recording details which we usually let slip by unnoticed. Exploring people’s relationship to the landscape, my work records a fragile way of life threatened by EU membership and forms a visual response to the issues raised by EU enlargement and its cultural consequences.
About the beginning of this project: Like many projects 'Hand to Mouth' came about by chance. As I was driving home late one evening in the UK, I heard a programme on Radio 4, 'Wild Europe', about how the lives of the travelling shepherds are affected by bears and wolves in the Romanian Carpathian Mountains. These few minutes were enough to inspire me to visit the shepherds and their wild landscape.

In June 2003, I arrived in Bucharest and took the twelve hour overnight train to Sighetu Marmatiei, the market town of the Maramures region, close to the Ukrainian border. When I awoke on the train in the early morning, we were travelling through a landscape of conical haystacks, where people were already at work scything before the heat of the day set in.
Much of this project is a kind of ‘street’ photography relying on chance encounters. I would get up in the morning with no agenda and walk all day, sometimes from village to village along dirt roads, other times following cart tracks and footpaths used by local people through orchards and meadows. I would photograph the people I met on the way, people who interested me for some reason — peasant farmers working the fields, women walking along knitting in the street. I was able to meet shepherds and spend time at the sheepfolds as they milked the sheep and made cheese for the villages. Unintentionally, the fabrics and details of their clothing became as important in the photographs as the actual activity.

— Tessa Bunney

"Hand to Mouth" was commissioned by Impressions Gallery, Bradford UK, supported by the European Cultural Foundation and Arts Council England.