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

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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.

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