One Girl’s Tunnel Life: Under the Streets of Bucharest

Catalina, 17, lived in a series of tunnels underneath the Gara du Nord train station in Bucharest. After being abandoned after birth, she grew up in an orphanage and then lived on the street starting at age 12. ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY MASSIMO BRANCA

One Girl’s Tunnel Life: Under the Streets of Bucharest

Photographer and anthropologist Massimo Branca first met Catalina in 2013 when she was 17 years old.

“Her large, black eyes seemed to become more mysterious the longer I looked at them,” he said. “It took me a lot to understand just how much she had been through in her short life.”

At the time, Catalina was living with a group of homeless people in, around, and under the Gara de Nord train station in Bucharest, Romania. She was left in the hospital at birth, raised in an orphanage until age six, then was reunited with her family only to run away at age 12. At 13 she started using intravenous drugs.

Branca photographed Catalina’s life as part of a larger project called “Inside Outside Under Bucharest,” which documents the people who live in the tunnels under the city. Hot, humid, and cramped, the tunnels were part of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s plan to centrally heat the city. Now, they are home to multiple generations of street children and adults who access them via small craters in the ground.

Branca and his friend Igor Marchesan first gained access to the tunnels in July 2013, after receiving permission from the de facto leader—a man who goes by the name of Bruce Lee—who controls all the ins and outs of tunnel life, including food and electricity. Branca had to convince Lee that they weren’t out to produce a quick exposé, but rather wanted to study the group’s social relationships from an anthropological perspective.

“I want people to understand what happens in street life and to be more tolerant and open, in case they accidentally meet these people—or meet homeless people anywhere,” said Branca. “I want to enable the audience to imagine what underground life is like, without their eyes being clouded by pity, judgment, or fear.”

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