Moldova: The children left behind

Valentino and Nikita with their grandmother in Miclesti Image copyright Other

The idea of willingly leaving your children is something that most parents will find hard to imagine. Yet in parts of the world it's a route that many are forced to take as they struggle to provide for their families and invest in their children's future.

A project that recently came across my desk by Carmine Flamminio tackles that very subject and looks at migration in Europe, with a focus on Moldova, a country that in recent years may have seen as many as one million people leave to find work.

Figures from the Migration Policy Institute suggest remittances to Moldova peaked in 2008 at more than $1,500m and though the flow of money can strengthen the economy it also creates what Carmine calls social orphans, children who may only see their parents once or twice a year if they are lucky, and this is the central focus of Carmine's work.

Image copyright Other
Image caption Valentin and Nikita, 10 and 5-years-old, live with their grandmother and keep in touch with their mother who works in sochi in Russia by phone or Skype.

Many of the children left behind live with relatives and according to the Information and Documentation Center on Child Rights in Moldova the number of children without parental care is growing steadily.

Looking at Carmine's work you can see he takes a quiet approach and uses his discretion to ensure he records without intruding.

I asked Carmine to tell me more about the project and to to outline the way he approached the story?

"Starting a new photo-narrative is difficult for me. I have to spend the respectful time needed to get that first shot that unlocks the rest. I have to calmly imagine how everything will turn out and quietly let my inspirations wash over me, calling particularly to heart artists I have met personally. For example, the words of Francesco Zizola might resonate: 'A photo-reporter must be ethically correct and respectful of the pain which he narrates.'

"It is not enough to just choose when to photograph, but also whether to do so at all. I am not snap-happy. For my Left Behind project many shots passed through my mind's eye that I decided not to make. There has to be a clear line between respect for photographic subjects and the exigencies of the free-press.

"Maybe my work is too iconic, trying simply and with too much humility to tell the story of what is happening around me, yet I believe that gradually my language is taking shape and maturity will come."

Image copyright Other

This project requires your subjects to open their lives to you, how did you gain their trust?

"Despite all the adversity they face, the Moldovan people are very hospitable. It is not difficult to be accepted as a photographer and often they will choose a spot and pose for you.

"Sometimes I make contact with the families through NGOs, or other charitable organisations such as the Terres des Hommes International Federation, or the Italo-Moldovan Association of Varese. But before meeting with the families I contact them by phone and carefully explain what I would like to do.

"Having arrived on their doorstep, I let them welcome me in at their own pace. Besides taking photos I film interviews and through this language they are able to understand better my intentions. I use their answers then to write the photo captions.

"Usually, I spend at least half a day with the families and some I meet several times, but generally I do not decide beforehand how much time I am going to be with them. I prefer to let them dictate my day.

"Perhaps, just as I am leaving, I will notice something new and will stop to shoot again. Very often the best pictures are taken when I have finished the interview and they are offering me something such as a cup of tea."

Image copyright Other
Image caption Many young people who decide to remain in Moldova move to the capital

What drew you to the story and the angle focusing on the children left behind?

"I am a father of two daughters and children are to me like water is to the sea. In my experience as a photojournalist, meeting the protagonists of my stories, I have got to the point where I firmly believe that each person is affected for better or for worse by the experiences of their childhood. For this reason we must do everything we can to ensure children grow up in peace and serenity.

"One day, I met a young guy from Senegal selling socks in the streets of my home town Anzio, near Rome. He told me that his only dream was to bring his family over, but not having a job or regular stay permit he knew that it could never come true. Looking into his eyes while he spoke made me realize how much pain and suffering he had in his heart.

"My mind then came to think about his children. Within a child's heart, growing up without one or both parents must be even more difficult to carry, and so I decided to try to tell the story of immigration from the viewpoint of those children left behind.

"I chose the Republic of Moldova because, other than it being one of the poorest nations in Europe, it has a shocking level of emigration, some illegally and without visas, so returning home is at best arduous. But if young Moldovans want any kind of future at all for their children they have to go abroad to work.

"The average monthly pay of a teacher in Moldova is about $150. In Italy, a good bricklayer will earn that sum in two days' work. A caregiver will send home over $1,000 a month. Sadly faced with such inequality, many choose to give up what we might consider a normal family life to give hope for a better life to their children. However, in the meantime, Moldova and its abandoned children seem to be caught in an inescapably downward spiral."

Image copyright Other
Image caption Lylia lives with her grandfather and his sons in the village of Puhoi while her father is away in Russia and her mother in the capital Chisinau.

Do you intend to follow their progress and continue coverage as the children grow up?

"I intend to follow these children in the future during their adolescence. But I have also met many young people who have already reached that age without their parents. They are a separate chapter; yet part of the same story, as are the elderly who often live in unimaginable conditions alone in villages.

"The project has only just started and may never end. But my plans now involve collecting other testimonies in different regions of Moldova such as the separatist Trans-Dniester which unilaterally declared independence from Moldova in 1990.

"The situation in Moldova makes me question what the real difference is between the developed and undeveloped worlds. Moldova is located only two hours by plane from the heart of Europe and yet it seems to be light years away."

You can follow Carmine's project on his website and the Left Behind blog.