‘We are all here to heal’: Transylvania’s mud bathers

From the Middle Ages until the early 20th century, the town of Turda in Transylvania, Romania, was famous for its salt mining industry. In 1932 the salt mines closed, leaving much of the community unemployed and the quarries derelict. In 2009 the European Union funded renovations to the salt quarries, with health spas opening soon after.

During the summer, elderly people in Turda can be found swimming in the water-filled quarries or bathing on the mudflats that surround them. The clay treatments are used to ease the effects of degenerative rheumatic conditions in preparation for the bitterly cold winter. Family members smooth mud across their relatives’ backs, and groups of women plaster themselves across the cracked earth as their muddy skin dries under the hot sun. Mud-encrusted wrinkles and body hair take on the same chocolatey texture, and despite the lack of colour there’s an incredible vibrancy in everyone’s sludgy grins.

I spent two weeks in the town in 2015, volunteering for a charity. When I wasn’t working I would go for walks around the town. The first time I saw the mudflats, I returned to my accommodation and had a friend help translate a sign that read “My name is Emily. I’m from London. I would like to photograph you. And I promise to make you laugh!” It instantly sparked amusement among the elderly bathers, and within moments they were all posing. After a couple of days, I returned to the mudflats and I was greeted by mud-caked strangers who had heard of an English woman photographing them. They requested I photograph them, too.

Nikolai, an 80-year-old Turda resident, told me: “[Communist dictator Nicolae] Ceaușescu removed the bars and theatres. He removed our community. Then we were suddenly free [after his regime was toppled]. We didn’t know what to do, so we went to the mudflats.”

Another bather, Andrei, said: “It’s a free space for Romanians, Romas, whoever. We are all covered in clay, and we are all here to heal.”

The woman in this shot came to the mudflats almost every day, sometimes with her husband, sometimes with her friends. She was proudly bare-breasted for much of the day – but liked to bathe in the hot mud with her bikini on. She was wild, and could be heard laughing across the plains. Of all the people I photographed, she seemed to love it the most. I reviewed the photographs with her under the shade of a tree, and soon she was leading me back to the mudflats. The heat of the earth hurt the soles of my feet, and a group of elderly women were soon plastering mud across my body and blue bikini.

Body confidence is something learned and to be celebrated. For many, especially young adults, their relationship with their body is fraught, fuelled by social media and pressure from advertising. Here, on the mudflats, everyone was unaffected – they were free. And there I was, aged 21, feeling empowered too. That’s the joy that photography can bring.

Emily Garthwaite is a photojournalist focusing on humanitarian and environmental issues

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