The lost boy found

‘With no common language, photography became a way to communicate.’ 

There is a photo in Cince Lei where two young boys stand side by side against a wall, each holding up the dogs they have chosen to look after. They are looking straight at the camera grinning from ear to ear. What the viewer does not know, is that the room in which this was taken used to be the Bucharest Dog Shelter. It is one of the last photographs in a series taken over two years that form part of the Lost Boys Project.

‘What is interesting about this picture is that out of all the dogs these boys could have chosen, they chose the dogs that needed the most help. One is missing a leg and the other has a terrible skin condition.’

Joost Vandebrug, who is better known for his fashion photography and films, develops creatively in parallel to his career, exploring and documenting youth culture. My first encounter with Vandebrug’s work was through his short film Bored, which caught my attention for its unblinking gaze on the little understood world of male adolescence. Echoed poetically with psychiatrist and writer Paolo Crepet’s words, it illustrates the disconnect so many boys to men feel with their environment. It was a Larry Clark moment, one in which he was sure enough of his craft to expose the gritty reality of a situation. However, the essential filmic quality is different – it is tinged with nostalgia.

Like the film, his photographic images capture a fundamental beauty. Whilst he follows these street children into the chaos of their netherworld, he still manages to capture the moments that transcend – compositions that stop time and invite us to look closer at what we would otherwise not see. In many ways the Lost Boys Project, and the subsequent book entitled Cince Lei (Five Lei) is the acme of his creative journey.

When this photo was taken, Joost and the Lost Boys, with the help of Raluca who runs the dog shelter, had converted this room into a base for the boys. They had tentatively decided they wanted an alternative to the tunnels; this was the first room of their own since finding themselves on the streets. In a sense this photo illustrates what Joost has done, albeit unconsciously. Joost did not set out to document or highlight the entire population of street children in Bucharest, ‘I would have been completely overwhelmed.’ He focused on one particular group and by doing so became connected with them on a very fundamental level, one that made his involvement in the story’s outcome inevitable.

Cince Lei is a coming of age story, but it is not a documentary, nor does it function like a photo journal in the traditional sense. The story began with a simple exchange: taking a picture of Costel, Joost returned the next day with the developed image and gave it to him. From that moment Joost was invited into their world. This action not only propelled the project forward, it contributed to how the boys began to perceive themselves. Rather than going down to their level beneath the streets, taking portraits and then getting out, Joost stuck to the story because he stuck with the boys. He returned over and over again to the tunnels, becoming an integral part and core member of the Lost Boys.


The group consists of Costel aged 14, Nico aged 13, Liviu aged 14 and Stefan aged 12 when Joost first meets them, and all of them on the streets from the age of about six. Bruce, aged 39, is initially the boys’ linchpin, and is from the first generation of street children and in many ways acts as guardian to this third generation of children who seek sanctuary in the tunnels. We first encounter Bruce covered from head to toe in silver, a kind of self styled guru, someone who has lived beyond the fringes of society all his life. As the project progresses he sheds his protective guise and allows Joost full access into their netherworld, where the tunnels have been reclaimed in the form of a base camp for these children and their stray dogs.

Joost was invited into their pack through the exchange of pictures, images they felt were a true portrayal of themselves. In this sense his presence profoundly altered the group dynamic. By naming them the Lost Boys they became the Lost Boys. Cince Lei is both narrated and created photographically, and Joost’s artistic process is synonymous with his connection to the subject. His tenacity to the story as it evolved is what makes this body of work so uniquely powerful. It resonates with the opening lines of Susan Sontag’s book, On Photography, ‘… photographs alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have a right to observe. They are a grammar and, even more importantly, an ethics of seeing.’ (Susan Sontag, 1971)

Further on she touches on the way we use photographs socially to describe our belonging. Photography has become central to modern family life, to such an extent that parents who fail to take pictures of their children are considered neglectful. In this context Joost’s taking and sharing of these photographs with the boys gave them their first experience of an adult seeing them positively. Seen without judgment they were free to explore who they wanted to be, in front of a benevolent lens. They not only gave him full disclosure but also often initiated the photographs taken (see Nico flexing his muscles, Costel showing off his midriff, and multiple displays of affection and bravado).

Many of the pictures are taken underground in the tunnels created during Ceaușescu’s era to carry hot water, which was centrally heated, out to the housing estates. It is an ironic re-appropriation of the infrastructure he put in place to exercise population control; now a lifeline of warmth and protection for these street children who have fallen through the system’s cracks. Metaphorically speaking, Joost was not going to come back up without them. The images he captured during the interim tell a heartbreakingly beautiful story of children who have found temporary shelter underground.

‘The group dynamic is what I was photographing and the dynamic changed when Nico got sick. By taking pictures of him and being with him in this confined empty space that was his hospital room, I gained further insight into what the others must be going through at the same time.’

There is a photo taken at the Gara de Nord, looking back from the tunnels towards a cluster of men at a bus shelter; they are glaring at the street children. The perspective is from the inside looking out: the photographer has crossed over to the other side, and brings us with him. The relationship Joost formed with the boys began with honesty, and evolved over two years into a friendship they could trust. It also coincided with the boys’ own emotional development in which the testing of new boundaries plays a central part. They began to believe that returning to society might be possible. How this happened is an exercise in patience and empathy, qualities that enabled Joost to get so close; qualities at the very heart of any adult/adolescent relationship, and why so many break down.

‘When they were ready to leave, we were there to help them through that. With Nico it was a very real physical crisis that we had to negotiate, but it was like a concentrated example of the group’s journey as a whole.’

There is a photo taken of Nico at the start of the project where he is laden down with a collection of bottles and junk, looking nevertheless delighted. Bruce has given him this task, as a condition for following them, a challenge Nico gladly accepts. The Lost Boys Project raises many questions, beginning with how did these boys find each other and what is it that made them a group? Throughout the series of photographs there is a constant presence of street dogs, which somehow reinforces the notion of a pack – safety in numbers and looking out for each other. ‘They more than anyone decide who their friends are,’ Joost acknowledges.

‘I’ve never asked them much, but there was one question I did ask – what does friendship mean? What is interesting is that once the group formed it did not change much, just like my own pack at home. You make friends and they stick with you, the longer you are together – if I answer my own question now – the more valuable that friendship is going to be. It is what this project is mainly about - friendship. It is a coming of age story - kids and their struggle to grow up - something everyone has to do only for these kids their environment is so extreme.’ By zooming in and focusing on one group, its natural progression was a friendship, and with it the responsibility that ‘friends look our for each other.’

This raises a central issue of humanity. How many relationships are we really capable of dealing with at one time, and if so how many situations do we really feel capable of doing anything about? A lot of people just walk past situations because they feel overwhelmed or powerless to help. We are only capable of so many deep and meaningful relationships and by extension our altruism works on the same basis – you can only help so many people before you expend yourself. Some of the most compelling and shocking images of the 20th century came from a group of committed and uncompromising photojournalists. The image of a young Vietnamese girl running naked away from her village sprayed with napalm is indelibly stamped on our collective consciousness. It is also like a dead end: there is nothing we can do about it.

The effect of looking at these images of horror in far-flung places is one of despair – we feel overwhelmed by the inability to do anything about what we have just seen, and eventually with repeated exposure we become desensitized. Since its inception, photography has been used to objectify its subject. Putting a lens between the world and us, we are disengaged from reality. However, Joost uses photography to relate to and get closer to a subject. He does not shoot and leave but comes back over and over again to see what has changed.

He also shares the images he is taking with his subject – there is a consensus on their ways of seeing. It is like a currency but rather than trading on the image he is investing further and further into the story. It is like an inversion of photojournalism, something that David Campbell in his essay Photojournalism in the New Media Economy calls visual journalism.

‘This move from photojournalism to visual journalism, from photography to Ritchin’s “hyperphotography” does not involve either giving up on the still image or abandoning the documentary function of photography. Success will depend on seeing oneself as … a participant in a distributed story, the form of which helps reshape the content to the story.’

There is no shock value here, Joost went underground and followed the story. Unlike the photojournalists of the 20th century who tried to remain as objective as possible, to the point of choosing to take the picture rather than save a life, Joost immerses himself in the story and takes full responsibility for it. This is why one of the most moving scenes in the whole journey is virtually undocumented. There is a paucity of footage during Nico’s heartbreaking hospital admission, and no photos of his reunion with the Lost Boys.

‘That was incredible, I still get goose bumps talking about it, I don’t have amazing footage of it because I wasn’t thinking about shooting it, I was just getting the pack back together. It seemed like such a natural thing to do – if I was ten or fifteen I would have loved my friends to come and visit me – the impact was so much greater than I expected. That endless hug that Nico gave Bruce was just so meaningful.’

Whilst the trip to the hospital was a turning point, it was also the hardest part of the process. There is a modicum of care available for abandoned children in Romania; it is nothing more than the blank walls of bare necessity, which denies the basic qualities of childhood. There were no toys, no books, and no distractions for Nico - just white walls, a two channel television and a stream of dispassionate staff that would not engage on a personal level with this boy. Having been on the streets for nearly ten years the impulse to run away was almost unbearable for Nico. This only reinforced their view that it was his fault for being on the streets. It seemed to Joost that they were blind to Nico’s perspective: the need a young boy has for freedom and play. He understood that if Nico was to recover, he would have to keep him company. By doing this Joost finally gets to the heart of what these boys were doing on the streets in the first place – they had no one to hold their hand.

‘I am just going through the footage now and I am in that moment when I took Nico to the hospital. I see him in the tunnels and try to figure out what is going on. Then we see him in the dog shelter, which is where I took him first to find out how to go about getting him into hospital. Then we see him in the car passing out constantly. Then we see him in the hospital. In between there are gaps – because I had to go into town and organize things. I would see the other boys there. The night before Nico went into hospital I told them what was going on. Now watching this over – we can see them change. Both I know and they know that things will never be the same again.’

Nico is now going to school, Stefan followed two weeks later. You could say that Joost brought about this change – but he does not see it that way, ‘I initiated options so that they would be able to choose getting off the streets. I never took them off the streets. It just happened, the dynamic changed and they were happier to go off the streets and the moment that they had that realization, we were there to help them work that out.’

According to Erikson (a 20th century German-born American developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst), the ego develops as it successfully resolves crises that are distinctly social in nature. These involve establishing a sense of trust in others, developing a sense of identity in society, and helping the next generation prepare for the future.

‘By late adolescence peer groups may resemble a close-knit, second family and may provide youth with a large portion, if not most, of their emotional support. This may be especially true if youth reside apart from their families because of school or work, or if youth have separated themselves from their biological families because of conflict or other problems.’

In Nico’s case this took the form of a physical crisis which Joost was able help him navigate by getting him into hospital and staying with him during recovery to preempt his running away – out of boredom. There is a picture in this sequence that reminds us of Joost’s short film Bored, one that explores a very different group of adolescents in another context altogether. Here again we see a young man’s face set against the white walls of boredom. There are certain aspects of youth culture that remain constant – even in the most deprived circumstances.

In time others found their own way. ‘They took themselves off the streets and I just photographed the voyage – I was just there.’ Joost’s patience and acceptance of each stage of the story is precisely what makes it such a powerful coming of age tale. So many adult/adolescent relationships break down because one or the other tries to force the situation and imposes their expectations and judgment. To let something grow and evolve naturally requires great tenacity.

Each stage in Erikson's theory is concerned with becoming competent in an area of life.

Central to this is the experience of a conflict that serves as a turning point in development. During these times, the potential for personal growth is high, but so is the potential for failure. Joost’s patience to stick with them through their highs and lows, their failures and triumphs, is what allowed them to move beyond the confines of their self-imposed exile

‘I would only wish that I could be that person and I hope I was, looking at my own youth and what parenting and teachers represent, that is fact. Someone said to me recently I was very energetic and jumpy growing up. I have learned to control it, but a part of me always wondered if having my grandparents around would have made that easier… What must it be like for the boys?’

This touches on the notion that positive attachments in early childhood significantly influence an adult’s ability to have healthy relationships and foster the capacity for self-control. Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby (1973, 1980), uses a framework in which a child’s experience with primary caregivers results in what he calls “working models” (expectations and beliefs) about the self, the world and relationships. “Attachment representations” allow these formative experiences to guide behavior “when someone stronger and wiser is not at hand.” (Bowlby, 1985) Apart from Bruce, these boys had no one but each other to rely on. This makes Joost’s acceptance into their ranks all the more significant, as it could have potentially undermined their only system of support.

Significantly all the images were shot on film with the Canon Camera Joost’s father gave him when he was a teenager. Whether this was a conscious decision or not the use of film in which every shot counts, seems to correspond with Joost’s own relationship with his subject. His good fortune at having a positive relationship with his own mother and father is perhaps how he had the strength to face the situation he found himself in. He had found his own independence and self-sufficiency through his art and craft as a photographer, and this gave him the staying power.

Tragically one of the recurring subjects in the project, a floating signifier that keeps surfacing in the photos, was ended prematurely with the 2013 summer massacre of street dogs, in which nearly 40,000 were put down. The caring and symbiotic relationships the boys had with their dogs, some for up to five years, demonstrate their innate capacity to function independently as a self-sustaining group. Happily this tragedy coincided with their move out of the tunnels and off the streets – which brings us back to the dog shelter.

Sometimes simple insights are the most powerful. Both Joost’s attitude to the boys and his photographic process have a simplicity of purpose: to tell the truth. When the boys asked for shelter he helped them to find it. Cince Lei is a significant body of work not only for its unique insight into the underworld of street children, but also because it implies how the problem could potentially be solved, one child at a time.

‘Another thing might be because I was there – when I started taking pictures of Costel, then Nico, they introduced me to Liviu. They were protective of me but also of who else I would be seeing. The group formed throughout the project. I would never have meant to make the Lost Boys, a friend of mine pointed out that because I named them the Lost Boys they became the Lost Boys.’

‘Are you one of them?’

‘Yeah I guess so…

Not in a way that I pretend to be a child, but I am a part of the group. They are just as much friends as the friends I have in the UK, and we look out for each other.’


-Nico Kos