An interview with Mari Harsan, a Romanian-American photographer from Washington
Hi Mari, Please introduce yourself to our readers.
Mari: I was born and raised in a small town in Romania. I moved to the USA when I was 21 years old. My English vocabulary was an impressive 10 words, but after about six months of attending English as a second language at a learning center for foreign students in Washington DC, living and working for an American family, my English improved significantly. Once I became fluent enough and passed the necessary exams I enrolled as a student at NOVA College in the Business Administration department with a minor in accounting. After about 1.5 years in school, I discovered photography and quickly changed my major. While I never finished either the Business or Arts Degrees, I am forever grateful for those years spent learning. For the past 8-9 years, I became a full-time wedding and portrait photographer. My husband George joined shortly after as a cinematographer. Our work is mainly done around the Washington D.C. area, but we also get to travel a bit around the world and capture many happy and important moments for our clients.
What did you expect to find in America?
Mari: I am sure I had some sort of preconceived notion about what I could find in America. One thing that I clearly remember was that I was ready for the unexpected. When I made the decision to move was because I was desperately looking for a change, almost for a way out. I knew there is a whole wide world to explore and I was searching to find a way to travel, to have different experiences, to learn about different cultures, and to enjoy life the way it feels good to me. My initial plan was to stay one to two years in the USA, master the language, submerge myself, and experience the culture and move to a different country. While my plan took a different turn and I found much happiness here, I am still looking forward to traveling and one day moving to a different country.
How difficult was it for you to adjust to a different culture?
Mari: The hardest thing for me was the language barrier and of course I was missing my family and friends. However, once I became fluent in understanding and conversing in English I started to feel at home.
How did you discover your passion for photography?
Mari: In Romania, I never had the chance to explore my interests much. I was always told that I need to pursue an education that will yield me a good career, financially speaking. This is the reason why, once I came here, I first pursued a business degree. After I moved to the USA, and my life was somewhat financially stable, I started to explore. While giving more interest in interior design, fashion, sewing and others, I also became interested in photography. My birthday was approaching and all I wanted to be it was a professional camera. I discussed it with my husband and the very next day I was holding my first camera ever, a 5D Canon DSLR. From that evening my camera and I gradually became really good friends, and I finally felt that my search for “what I am supposed to be” can take a rest.
In the last three months, we have experienced a significant social challenge, inflicted by the pandemic that “arrested” all the world at home. How did you cope with it?
Mari: Our world, no doubt, took a very sharp turn because of Covid-19. The pandemic brought a lot of uncertainty and grief for many. I feel lucky to have not lost anyone close to me. There was and still is much uncertainty in regard to my career as a wedding photographer. Most of my events and projects were postponed or canceled and there is no clear answer to what the future holds for my industry. While my world as I knew it changed, I also changed. This pandemic, in a way for me, was a blessing in disguise. I am once again exploring and figuring out a new way of living. I started painting, mainly abstracts and that has been keeping my mind busy and happy. I have been excited to learn more about the art and business part of it. I am always learning and thankfully that there is so much easily accessible information online these days. Either improving something I know or picking up a new skill, learning is usually a click away. Needless to say, this pandemic taught me a lot, and I look forward to embracing what will arise out of the unexpected.
I know that you like to travel. All of your cultural expeditions had to stop once the pandemic surprised us, but what is the most attractive destination for a photographer?
Mari: I think it would be impossible for me to answer this question for myself, let alone answer it for other photographers. There are so many beautiful places on our planet. But what I can confidently say is that there is beauty all around us. While at times, as photographers, we may think that we need to be in an amazing location, far away from home to be able to produce amazing work I realized, thanks to one of my great friends and amazing photographers Kristi Odom, that as long as I stay curious, push myself to explore and think outside the box that beauty and opportunities are right next to me. I, of course, love traveling and capturing my travels; is a given. There are still many places for me to explore and I am now more ready than ever to do so.
We can not ignore the last events that took a lot of Americans to the streets. The murder of George Floyd caused riots, protests, and debates all over the world. It is a sensitive subject, and it came out in this anyway tensioned time. Did you go out to photo-document these days, or you were afraid to leave the house?
Mari: A sensitive subject, yet extremely important. I was not born and raised in the USA, and there is much for me to understand and educate myself on, but I do know that treating a human being differently because of the color of their skin is wrong. Applying force and abusing power just because you can is wrong. Black lives matter just as much as white lives. It’s easy to blame and be biased in a country that was built on a broken system and continues to be governed by it, but what happened to George Floyd and many like him is extremely sad and unfortunate. Humanity needs to change and act out of love and respect for one another. Even more and very important is that the system needs to change. Without protests, there would be no change. The needle would not move. While I fully supported the protests, and I knew I will regret not being there I did not participate.
I know that you started a project before the lockdown. Could you show us some of your work and tell us more about it?
Mari: This particular project started out of my love for elderly people and a feeling of guilt for barely having any captured memories of my grandparents. I started the project with the idea of capturing “Elderly in Romania”, but the more I got to travel I realized that I am always attracted and inspired to photograph elderly people, so it became “Elderly Around the World”. It may be because I love listening to their stories whenever I understand the language, or the tenderness so visible in their eyes. It could be the fact that with a simple smile they somehow make me feel safe. Whatever the reason, my hope is that I also make a small impression on them. One lady that made a big impression on me was a beautiful, full of energy, strong elderly lady from Haiti. We were not able to speak, but in a matter of seconds, we hugged and danced. Our connection was powerful and magical and many times I think of her. Whenever possible I like to get their address, print the photos and send them back to them. I am hoping that going forward I will be able to do that for every elderly person I get to photograph.
What are the next steps in your career?
Mari: Photography wise I am looking forward to when events and travel will be allowed to resume. In the meantime, I am slowly starting to schedule portrait sessions and explore my backyard and neighborhoods for personal projects. I am not sure where the new endeavor, painting, will take me, but for now, I am having fun. Currently, I am working on a commissioned two-piece for a client and I feel honored and humbled for the opportunity.
I know your husband is a cinematographer and Romanian, as well. Sharing the love for image and the native language, you could understand each other even without words. However, what do you prefer to speak, at home, Romanian or English and why?
Mari: It is for sure a combination of English and Romanian. However, at work, we mainly speak English. I guess it really depends on the situation. Some situations will call for more English and some for more Romanian.
The last question is: What keeps you motivated and inspired?
Mari: There are so many things that keep me inspired. From films to old photographs, light, and shadows, simple and busy scenes, nature and people, etc. The possibilities for inspiration are endless. Motivation comes mainly from loving what I do and the need to be able to fund my travels, as well as to help those close to me and those in need.
Laura Bandila Goldberger
Credit photos: Mari Harsan