New East Digital Archive

Antal Bánhegyesy: shooting Romania’s opulent Orthodox churches

New East Photo Prize 2018

The Romania-born Hungarian photographer opens up about Orthodoxy and Romanian national identity

20 September 2018
Interview: Liza Premiyak

After receiving a wide range of entries from 26 New East countries, the New East Photo Prize 2018 is back with a new set of 16 finalists, with projects exploring modern-day witchcraft, graduation albums, legendary cosmonauts, contested territories and more. We caught up with the photographers to find out what drives their work. Join us for the opening of an exhibition of their work on 11 October at Calvert 22 Foundation, when we will announce this year’s winner.

Antal Bánhegyesy is a Romanian-born Hungarian photographer who lives and works in Budapest. In his series Orthodoxia, Bánhegyesy explores the links between Orthodoxy and Romanian national identity, framed within the context of the ever-increasing reach of the church. Following the fall of communism, more than 7,000 Orthodox churches were built in Romania, the equivalent of two churches consecrated every day for 27 years. Today, the construction of Orthodox churches continues in a country with a strong connection between the church and the state.

How has the place where you grew up affected your work as a photographer?

Directly! I was born in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, and lived there until 2014 before moving to Budapest, Hungary. If you cross the city on Sunday afternoon, you’re bound to hear the sound of Orthodox liturgies wherever you go. As there are usually so many people in attendance, they can’t all fit into the churches, so the ceremony is broadcast to all using speakers (whether you want to hear it or not).

While I was studying, I noticed how many churches were being built year after year, and the increasing importance of the Orthodox church in the Romanian community. Later it became obvious that many of these new churches stand (almost) empty, and have gained a more symbolic role: to show the power of religion. They have played a significant role in spreading conservative values since the end of the communist era.

Nationalism is the focus of my current work. Transylvania, where I’m from, has one of the largest populations of ethnic Hungarians in Romania. I was part of this minority and this has encouraged me to explore the sources of nationalism in my photographic work.

Where do you find inspiration for the themes of your projects?

I’m drawn to social and political criticism, which is the main drive behind my projects Ceausescu, Orthodoxia, Tricolor, Exodium, I Was a Stranger and Bandi. In each case I focused on minority groups and investigated the ways they are repressed.

Pick one photograph from the project you submitted and tell us something we would have never known about it

The phenomenon of the “church in the church” is central to this spectacular picture in my series Orthodoxia. This smaller church is a Greek Catholic church built in the 18th century. When the Orthodox church bought the land, the Greek Catholic church didn’t want to demolish their building, so the two were integrated. In my series this picture represents the dominance of the Orthodox church, which continues to spread without limit.

What do you think makes a compelling photo story?

The photo series I find most compelling are those taken over an extended time period. To go beyond the surface, you have to spend time with your topic; only then can you discover the mysteries and nuances of your subject matter. By investing time in your work, you have a better chance that the audience will also pay attention to it.

What keeps you motivated as a creative person?

When I’m really involved in my personal projects I am driven by passion. Finding my way and developing my artistic language is what keeps me motivated.

If you could get a scholarship to a prestigious art school, a chance to assist your favourite photographer or a plane ticket anywhere of your choice which would you pick and why?

Ideally I would choose a school where Andreas Gursky and Boris Mikhailov could teach together. But of course, this school doesn’t exist.

Read more

Antal Bánhegyesy: shooting Romania’s opulent Orthodox churches

Lucia Sekerková: a peculiar look at 21st Century witchcraft

Antal Bánhegyesy: shooting Romania’s opulent Orthodox churches

Daria Garnik: remembering Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space

Antal Bánhegyesy: shooting Romania’s opulent Orthodox churches

Michal Solarski: whimsical photos of weird sanatorium treatments