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Cinci Lei

The lost boys of Bucharest

Exploring the generation time forgot in post-Communist Bucharest

Fashion photographer and filmmaker, Joost Vandebrug’s latest project sees him roaming the streets and tunnels of Bucharest. In a world devoid of parental guidance, the stereotypical tropes are there; drug abuse, run-ins with the law, gang-mentality, yet they are eclipsed and often subverted by the familial bond between these so-called ‘Lost Boys’ - Bucharest’s youth left behind after the fallout of Communism. Led by a myserious tattooed character known as 'Bruce Lee', the group make up just four of an estimated thousand homeless children who end up forming tunnel communities together. 

Vandebrug has been documenting the lives of these homeless boys since 2011 and is now gathering together over 6000 stills and 30 hours of HD footage, all ready to be aired but in need of a financial boost. Through Kickstarter, Vandebrug and DUST magazine, who will be the art-producers for the project, are looking for pledges to make the book, Cinci Lei, a reality. 

Dazed Digital: How did you come to hear about and meet the lost boys? What prompted you to act and document their story?

Joost Vandebrug: I was researching a different project in Bucharest and it was there that I met Costel, one of the Lost Boys. I shot some pictures of him and gave them back to him. After some time he invited me down to show me where he lived and this is where I met the other kids as well. It was quite obvious then that I was going to stick to this story and so I went back to see them as much as possible.

DD: You've said you use photography as a form of communication due to the language barrier?

Joost Vandebrug: Well, I mean, that’s all I had. I took pictures and in return I printed them and gave them back to them. This gave me a reason to be there and they accepted me there because of it. This sequence of me taking pictures and giving them back every time created a bond, the type of bond language creates, I guess.

DD: Tell us a bit about Bruce Lee, the leader of the Lost Boys?

Joost Vandebrug: Bruce is one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. When I’m in Bucharest, I always make lots of time to spend with him. He not only lives in the tunnels but he is creating proper accommodation there, with TVs, beds, doors, lights, sound-system, ceiling fans and so on - most recently he was building a pool! It’s crazy! He is really great with the kids - very protective. He must have been around nine himself when he landed on the street (he is 39 now).

DD: You’re also extremely close with another of the lost boys – Nico, what about him?

Joost Vandebrug: I met Nico very early on, just days after I had met Costel. He’s a very witty, chatty young boy but in June this year things took a radical turn for him. He became dangerously ill and I had to take him to hospital where we found out he has AIDS - it was a mirace he was still breathing let alone able to stand. It was hard to visit Nico in hospital but with some negotiation I managed to see him on a daily basis where I was able to convince him he had to stay in bed, although I can understand why he would want to run away, I knew he wouldn't survive if he did

I also managed to get the other boys in for a visit too. Nico had no idea and when I arrived at the hospital I got the boys to wait outside. When he saw me we hugged and he asked to go for a cigarette outside with me, when I lead him out and he saw his friends were all waiting for him he let go of my hand and ran to them, although he could hardly stand. 

DD: Have you witnessed a lot of prejudice against the boys - with people assuming they operate like a gang?

Joost Vandebrug: As Bruce is also a leader of the area, they all know me and Bruce is quite protective over me, which is particularly helpful when it come to dealing with some gypsies. Actually, the people I do have to worry about are always the random people on the street going to work - they'll stop me, push me, yell at me for giving "attention" to "these people" and giving Romania a bad name. This is especially the case with the kids, they all scream that they have to go to school, but when it comes down to it there's no one taking responsibility, and in fact there are no schools that will accept them without the proper documentation. These kids live on the street and don't have any 'documentation', of course.

DD: You say you've also been present with their run-ins with the law? Can you elaborate on that?

Joost Vandebrug: I was arrested once and taken into a police van with six others to the police station. Halfway through someone thought it would be funny to set fire to the Aurolac (the paint that they inhale to get stoned). Within two seconds the van was full of thick black smoke while we were on the fast lane of the motorway – pretty scary. They eventually held me in the station for a few hours and released me in the middle of nowhere. 

DD: What was the most difficult moment for you to shoot?

Joost Vandebrug: When Nico was very sick - that was one of the most difficult things I've ever gone through. But he has recovered well and, last week when I was in Bucharest, he went to school for the very first time! He was so proud, and so was I, it's incredible how he bounced back like that.

DD: Do you have a favourite photo from the collection? Which is the most powerful image?

Joost Vandebrug: This one (below) sums up quite a lot. You see Costel and Bruce, the tunnel in the back and a romanian family behind that. Bruce completely covered himself in the Aurolac here (silver paint that they inhale to get stoned), jeans, jacket, hair, beard, etc. Back then he also painted everything in the tunnels silver. It was really crazy, it's like he not only took the drugs he was the drugs.

DD: How do you manage to keep a track of the boys and their ever-shifting living arrangements?

Joost Vandebrug: Nico has a phone now, but not only that, they now stay most days in a room that I got them and which we all fixed up a few weeks ago. It’s in the local dog shelter. This might sound a bit odd, but its actually really good. The lady who runs it is very dedicated towards them and they feel safe there.

DD: Tell us a bit more about DUST and their involvement with the project?

Joost Vandebrug: DUST is a biannual photography magazine about youth related existential themes. It's produced in Berlin and distributed worldwide, and puts emphasis on the awareness of the new generation. Luca and Luigi who run the magazine are very dedicated towards this project and are putting all their strength into it. I’m very happy to be working with them on Cinci Lei.

Cinci Lei is now available to buy online.