Documentary & Travel Photographer Szabolcs Ivan is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this social documentary photography. These images are from his project ‘Shepherds Of Transylvania‘. To see Szabolcs’ body of work click on any image.
We entered a dimly lit local pub in Csíkszereda, deep in Transylvania, Romania, sat down at a large wooden table and ordered drinks. The waitress brought us two “palinkas”(a strong fruit brandy favored by the locals, incredibly potent at between 40% and 70% proof!). Albin was the son of a vet, also named Albin, my main contact, who regularly visited a nearby flock of sheep to check up on them. The younger Albin was a guy well known for his untamed temper in many local circles, rough around the edges, just like most of the locals around the area. He talked in short, straight-to-the point sentences, never holding back.
“It’s not easy for anyone. Hard to make ends meet. Hard to make money. And the shepherds have to be tough. It’s a very tough way to make a living. But you’ll see tomorrow morning, when you go out with my father.”
Albin went on to explain:
“The wolves are unbelievably strong and there is normally more than one of them when they attack, they hunt in a pack and are very cunning. They always come in the worst weather, for cover. One of them runs away creating a diversion, tricking the dogs, making them run after him, while the others steal a sheep and escape. The wolves have such a strong neck and jaws meaning they can carry a sheep for kilometers. By the morning nothing is left of the poor sheep! Absolutely nothing but scattered wool all over the ground.” I was quickly sobering with every word. “When the dogs can’t scare them away and there is a fight.” he paused. “The collars of the dogs do have nails poking out like spikes, to deter the wolves when they attack and grab at the dogs’ necks. It’s not much of a deterrent. They often don’t have a chance. These are wild animals and they’re very hungry and combined with an intense instinct for survival.
“The bears can carry one sheep, sometimes two, eating them while running from the dogs”.
The next morning a little foggy from the previous night’s palinka drinking experience, I felt slightly more prepared for what lay ahead. We picked up Ignác, one of the owners of the sheep that the shepherds look after and we started our shaky journey to the esztenas( little dwellings that the shepherds live in), by four wheel drive.
I was then taken down to the sheep enclosure, which the shepherds call the ’cage’ to watch them milk the sheep. This small shepherding community consisted of a family of four and two other workers. Three of the men were milking the sheep, while the fourth was encouraging the flock into the milking pen with a whip. There were roughly three hundred sheep to milk, a process repeated three times daily.
When the shepherds were finished with their job of milking, they took the milk to the esztena, poured it into a wooden tub and covered it with a white cloth. I now had the chance to study and capture the hut. The little dwelling had two separate spaces. The first one was a small room with a wooden table, a bench, a stove and the tub filled with milk. Slightly above head height, there was a wide shelf with large round cheese lined up.
The other room was even smaller and very sparsely furnished. This was where most of the community slept and this room contained only two tiny beds, one of which the family shared. The community stays at the esztena until the weather turns warmer. Travelling further into the mountains later in the season, arriving there in early spring after the snow has melted, they don’t return to their original dwelling until mid-autumn.
They deemed it only necessary to talk when they had something worthwhile to say. “Let God give us good health, a lot of stronger dogs and stronger ones still,” said one of the Shepherds.
“Egeszsegere!” they cheered and then finished their drink with a single swig. We sat down at the table inside the esztena to eat dinner and I was thankful for the heat from the iron stove. An torchlight hung from a rope overhead was the only source of light. The dinner consisted of bread, cheese, onion, lard and soup,
their typical diet. Only on a special occasion would they slaughter a sheep. I definitely can’t recall seeing them drinking any water either, only palinka and beer!
I was now getting quite friendly with the dogs, to the point that I could even stroke them. I often scratched my palm on the three inch rusty nails that they had around their neck under the dense fur.
Next day, after we returned from the grazing land, the milking started all over again and when they were finished, they poured all the milk together and started to make cheese.
Some sort of clotting agent was sprinkled into the wooden tub and it was stirred by hand while it formed into clotted lumps. To complete the process they took the lump of partially formed cheese out of the liquid with cloth, before pressing it between a stone and a plank of wood to remove the left over moisture. This left over liquid wasn’t wasted either, it was boiled on a fire, skimming off the milk product that floated to the top. Not a drop was wasted. Any other left over liquid, the dogs ate. When the cheese finally matured and was ready. The family prepared the horses, got the cart ready and put most of the cheese wrapped up in a blanket ready to sell in the nearest village. This was their main income. The milking process was repeated three times a day and grazing in the fields with the sheep twice every day.