• February 20, 2015

For These Hungarians, Home Is Where the Farm Is

At the beginning of the 20th century, agriculture was thriving in Hungary. And by the end of the 1940s over a million people lived on Hungary’s farms—people were poor, but they managed to get by. But during the Communist regime the farms were sucked into collectives, and individual landowners lost their private farms. By the early 1990s, only 200,000 farmers remained, and their ranks are now fading fast.

Hungarian photographer Akos Stiller’s project on some of those old world farmers just won a first place award in the prestigious POYi photo competition and was featured in National Geographic’s Hungarian edition last year. I talked with Stiller recently over email to find out more about this rich photographic project and the people who still live on Hungary’s farms.

Picture of a farm in Hungary.
A farm in the middle of the woods near Csemo

COBURN DUKEHART: How did you first become interested in this project?

AKOS STILLER: The first time I went to the farmlands was in the winter of 2011 because of a daily photo assignment. I took pictures of a government project that brought solar panels to farms that lack electricity and were far off the grid. I had huge luck finding a very helpful farm caretaker, Pal Bimbo, who introduced me to a lot of families. I had a great time talking to these people and I knew that there was much more to their stories than I could cover in one day.

Picture of Aunt Kató and Uncle Jani use a flashlight and their TV is plugged into a battery, as their farm near Bicere lacks electricity.
Aunt Kató and Uncle Jani use a flashlight in want of lighting, and their TV is plugged into a battery, as their farm near Bicere lacks electricity.
Picture of Jani storing his insulin in the well.
Having no refrigerator, Jani stores insulin for his diabetes in the well.

COBURN: Tell me about the people you photographed. Who are they and what are their lives like?

AKOS: There are lot of elderly people who have grown up on their farms—they saw regime changes and their land taken away by collective farms. Now they own their land again, but most of the time it is too small to sustain a family, so lots of families have moved into a village or a nearby town.

Those who remain have different reasons for staying—either they cannot afford to buy a house in the village or cannot give up their freedom, their closeness to nature. You could see it as an end to an era, but I would rather look on it as a change, as there are newcomers to the farmlands—families moving away from the noise of the cities, renovating old farmhouses in search of a more silent lifestyle to raise their kids, and organic farmers bring a fresh vibe into some communities.

Picture of organic farming families.
Organic farming families meet for a birthday party at a farm near Rontószél. In addition to the natives and primary producers, the population of Hungarian farms is diversified by those who retreat to the countryside, entrepreneurs, and foreigners.

COBURN: What were you trying to show about the farmers’ lives?

AKOS: I feel that the farmlands represent a part of the roots of Hungarian society. I see more and more empty farms each year, and I think there is an obligation to capture these people’s lives while you still can. These are people who are used to getting by on their own and who possess a huge ancient knowledge—how to raise animals, traditional craftsmanship, and herbal healing, which was passed down from generation to generation. Now it costs more to raise a chicken at home than to buy one at the supermarket in the village. With these changes there is nearly nobody to continue these traditions, and there is a knowledge that will disappear.

Picture of teens transporting wood by horse and carriage.
Janos Kiss, Pal Szabo, and Janos Nagy transport wood with their horse and carriage to the village of Nyársapát, in southern Hungary. Since a normal truck would get stuck in the high snow or water, horses are still very useful in the farmlands.

COBURN: What sort of a reception did you get? Were people happy to let you into their lives or were they suspicious of outsiders?

AKOS: It would have been hard to just knock on doors and start photographing. Most of the times I relied on farm caretakers or friends to introduce me. But after I explained why I felt it was important to take pictures, everybody was very friendly. I still have a couple of invitations for pig slaughtering events and have drunk an uncountable amount of homemade pálinka, a Hungarian fruit spirit, with the people I have photographed.

Picture of Tamara Kiss in Hungary.
Tamara Kiss washes the dishes at her family’s farm, which lacks electricity, in Nyársapát. She said she wouldn’t move to a village for all the money in the world. She once went to school but couldn’t stand the four walls of her distant dormitory, where, locked away from nature, she wanted to commit suicide.

COBURN: Many of your photos show people doing “without” things, like heat, electricity, refrigerators, or bathrooms. Do people seem content with their lives, or do they wish their lives were different?

AKOS: Many people face hardships, but they find ways to succeed on their own. Janó is diabetic and just turned 80. Without electricity and a refrigerator he stores his insulin in the well. Just recently he and his partner, Kató, gave up raising pigs, but they still wake up with the sunrise and start working around the farm. For them and for many elderly people living in the farmlands, moving into a village and leaving their daily work on the farm would be the end.

It may seem that the people I photographed may not possess as many material goods—cars, electric household equipment, large televisions, etc.—as people living in towns, and it may seem that they are dependent on money to buy things they cannot grow or make. But as someone who is dependent on the gas that heats my apartment, the electricity that provides light in my home, and money to buy food at the store, I see these people’s independence and it never stops fascinating me.

Picture of the Peter family.
With no electricity or refrigerator, the Péter family cook only as much as they can eat each day on their farm near Nyársapát.
Picture of With no bathroom to speak of, Sanyi Székely takes a bath each night in a basin. As their farm near Nyársapát lacks electricity, he does his homework by candlelight.
With no bathroom to speak of, Sanyi Székely takes a bath each night in a basin. As their farm near Nyársapát lacks electricity, he does his homework by candlelight.

COBURN: Did you learn anything about their way of life that surprised you?

AKOS: It was very surprising how much neighbors keep in contact and help each other out. Even though the farms are quite far from each other in Bicere, the families know all the details about each other. What happened at the doctor with Jani? Are Pali and Mari going to dance salsa tonight in Bekescsaba? What was on the shopping list of Kató? There are no secrets in the farmlands—the gossip spreads faster than emails.

Picture of Mrs. Sándor Takács doesn’t have enough money to buy firewood, but she gets a bit of wood from the local government and neighbors, and uses it for heat  as long as it lasts.
Mrs. Sándor Takács doesn’t have enough money to buy firewood, but she gets a bit of wood from the local government and neighbors and uses it for heat as long as it lasts. “Do you know where I will be spending the winter? Beneath my duvet!” she says.

COBURN: What do you hope that people will learn from viewing your photographs?

AKOS: While the people I have taken pictures of are very fragile, their world is changing and they have very little chance to adapt to it. By taking pictures of the farmlands I hope to raise questions about our entire society’s dependence on energy and material goods. Our entire society has become very fragile.

Akos Stiller is a photojournalist based in Budapest, Hungary. He likes taking untraveled roads and talking to new people. See more of his work on his website and follow him on Instagram.

There are 44 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Aron Kurta
    May 19, 2015

    Such journeys from developed societies, neighbourhoods to differently, rurally developed ones wake us up to the truth how little is enough for happiness

  2. Sandra Geiser
    March 19, 2015

    When we visited Transylvania last May we noticed how carefully the people we met in the village used everything, recycling and using every part of their property to grow flowers, vegetables, and raise animals whom they loved and cared for thoughtfully. They were generous with what had and seemed content. It may be that this closeness to land and animals also brings them a special contentment.

  3. Rahul
    March 19, 2015

    One thing we clearly see, humanity has lost the contact with nature in search for more comfort and pleasure. when a person spent half an hour to walk for water he spent that time with himself. when people are not able to find peace outside then come back to camping and picnic, then they called it holiday. Just look at it sir, your whole life was a holiday and you were naturally peaceful.

  4. Honeylette Conol
    March 16, 2015

    These pictures show similarities to some remote areas in the Philippines. There are those kind o people who wants to remain the old culture and live a happy life full of contentment. Moving out from their places is a total dislocation of their being and shortens their life expectancy.

  5. Elizabeth Gyory
    March 16, 2015

    I fled Hungary as a child in 1948 with my family. My father worked in agriculture. My mother’s land was taken into collective. All I wish now that those people who live on that alnd have a better life.

  6. Carol
    March 16, 2015

    What these people do not understand is that people in the “civilized modern world” may have electricity and running water but they are getting sick and dying from the poor quality of the food produced by big agriculture. I may be cheaper to buy a chicken but it is laced with pesticides and chemicals. They just might have better health where they are. The new technology hidden for years is finally coming out and many new devices will produce electricity and fresh water for the farms if they hold out for a bit longer. The word needs to be sent to them that better days are coming with solar, batteries, and small food markets for their organic crops. Please spread hope to these people !!!

  7. Christina Krock
    March 16, 2015

    Melchkart – Glashutten bei Schlaining, Burgundy. Baptized in Hungary. I have hardly any info on my grandparents, but believe they probably lived this way on a farm before leaving for the USA.

  8. Laci
    March 16, 2015

    Gratulálok! Annyira jó érzés újra látni ezeket a képeket, nagyon inspirálóak! Én is falun lakom, szóval nekem ismerős ez az élet, ami itt be lett mutatva, de a barátaim nagyon elcsodálkoztak, amikor megmutattam nekik a galériát.
    További szép fényeket és csak így tovább!!

  9. Robert
    March 16, 2015

    I agree with Jjey this is not my experience of Hungary or other Central European countries People remain attached to the land and manage it by having a second home for weekends even if only a shed or piece of land.There they still grow their vegetables chickens and rabbits and keep,a connection. Unlike the UK they have a connection to the villages that the come from / or actively mix with the farmers and villagers to enter the community and learn from local farming knowledge including animal husbandry . Like every photo album the narrative has been edited to fit the picture it’s not the whole story of life in a non urban area in Hungary Croatia or the Czech Republic. As regards the comment on cardboard sleepers would he go back to having 60 Andrassy Ut.

  10. Mary
    March 16, 2015

    I grew up in rural America and we took our bath in a tub on the floor too. We raised our own food and my motner was a wonderful cook. I remember her bread…..we could smell it from the road. In those days meighbors helped each other when ever something needed to be done. I am sad that the elderly woman does not have enough wood to stay warm for the winter and must stay in her bed. I know that my father would have been certain to provide wood for her had he been her neighbor……and my mother would have insisted that he do so. I would trade my life of comforts for theirs……they are so rich in all things that matter.
    Thank You so much for this article and the beautiful pictures.

  11. Méhes József
    March 15, 2015

    Nice photos! Some of them like a Rembrandt picture ….
    Szép fotók! Néhány olyan mint egy Rembrandt kép …

  12. Harry McNicholas
    March 15, 2015

    Soon these people and their life will be gone. Maybe a few new generation organic farmers might stay but those will be few. What will be lose when we can no longer touch the dirt?

  13. Robert Vámos
    March 15, 2015

    This is truly gorgeous work – congratulations Akos! However, I think an important question remained unanswered, at least for me: do these farmers who are living without electricity, gas heating, running water, etc., WANT these things? Do they yearn for them?

  14. Cliff Love
    March 15, 2015

    I dearly thank you for telling this story. We can not loose the holistic view and practices taught by our ancestors. To do so will be devastating and will lead to our doom.

  15. tony fischer
    March 15, 2015

    Fantasztukus, gyonyoru, gratulalok a jo munkaert.

    I was born in Banat, Serbia, in a small farming village by the Danube river which was part of Austro Hungary. In the 1960 my parents and I immigrated to the USA. I can relate to this story, the photographs and life stile of these people. When I was a kid in the 1940’s and 50’s we had no electicity and running water, but had a well and an out house and lots of animals, fouls, fruits and vegetables and our mother cooked delicious food everyday and home made bread, cookies and preservatives. We took bath the same way and did our homework on candle light and went to sleep by 8 PM. every night. We walke to school 5 km. each way through rain, mud, snow, wind through the country side each day. We slept on straw and corn husk filled mattresses. Those were wonderful memories. I did go back several times to visit but of course everything has changed since for better, I think, even though, life is tough and poor still, but people manage somehow they are tough and used to it. I do miss those days once in a while but I am much more content with my new lifestile here i San Diego, CA.
    God bless Akos, you done a fantastic job, it will touch lots of people hearts, especially those that can assossiate and relate to it. Keep up the good job and sends us some more stories and beautiful pictures.

  16. Greta Wanyik MD
    March 15, 2015

    I am Hungarian from Erdely. My childhood was spent in a small town Beszterce. These wonderful people are close to my heart and soul, and philosophy what life is all about. I love your very artistic pictures. As a physician. I am very impressed about keeping insulin in the well. It shows the truth there is a solution to every problem .

  17. Ed Tomchin
    March 15, 2015

    Some of these photos remind me of my own youth, especially the one of the boy in the bathtub in front of an old cast iron wood burning stove. It was not in Europe. I grew up in 1940s Brooklyn, NY. One advantage I recall is the ice wagon that came around 2-3 times a week and deliver a 25 pound block for our icebox.

  18. Erno Gulyas
    March 15, 2015

    I yearn to return again

  19. Erno Gulyas
    March 15, 2015

    I’ve visited my ancestral homeland 6 times firstly behind the iron curtain, then later after “free enterprise” came in. It was only then did I see dumpster-diving and people sleeping on cardboard under staircases. Am I missing something in that picture?

  20. Victoria Woollen
    March 15, 2015

    I was particularly touched by your photos because I grew up in rural Illinois in the sixties. It was a small farming community. There were still people with no running water and my friends missed school to help with butchering and working the land. Most of those farms are gone now all across the midwest. It always saddens me to see the decrepit barns and the lone tree in the field where a house once stood. Thank you showing the farm life isn’t completely dead- yet.

  21. hannah newberry
    March 15, 2015

    I am touched by the people and their desire to hold on to a way of life that is not understood by many. It is a sad commentary for our civilization when we measure poverty by $’s. A human’s life should be appreciated from a wholistic spiritual perspective. To me these people are wealthy. I found for myself the true value of my life as a being by removing my family-2 children-from what US society directs as “middle class” and moved to a farm. I and my children-now early 20’s, found a fulfillment that $ can not provide and a purpose and inner peace not understood. The life portrayed is not poverty-unless one uses $ for its measure.

  22. John Lovas
    March 15, 2015

    Fabulous photographs Akos – befitting a true artist and human being.

  23. isabel Hernández Tibau
    March 1, 2015

    Muy interesante este artíulo, pero qué pena me da que estas personas pierdan sus granjas cuando ellos estarían a gustoallí i sólo se les ayudara un poco, por ejemplo con sevicios de electicidad

  24. Akos Stiller
    February 28, 2015

    I am very happy to see that the story has touched so many of you. I have just returned from a trip to the farmlands around Nyársapát, where I have met so many amazing people. There will be new pictures coming soon – I hope you will check out them as well.
    All the best to everybody:

    Akos Stiller

  25. magda
    February 26, 2015

    your presentation is amazing, a world I forgot came alive again !

  26. Drew
    February 25, 2015

    I love seeing the features of Hungarian Drew! He is so photogenic!

  27. Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead
    February 23, 2015

    I am touched by Emmerich’s story (posted above on February 22nd). I am glad that the photos have triggered positivity into his life. God Bless.

  28. steve Valentine
    February 23, 2015

    I grew up in the UK and my bath was just a tub in front of the coal fire in the front room. I live the farming life in Hungary now and I love it.

  29. Doreen Langmead
    February 22, 2015

    I guess that when everything comes from direct effort and involvement, each on behalf of the other, families would be strong and home is where the heart is.

  30. geoboy
    February 22, 2015

    I thought communism was supposed to take care of the people. Obviously it did not. Now you know what it means to be under them. This is an European country for God’s sake! They took away their land and self-esteem. What a shame!

  31. Michael Williams
    February 22, 2015

    I grew up on a farm in the US and these pictures from Hungary bring back many beautiful memories of my youth in the 1950’s. The child in the basin taking a bath is how we did it when I was young. We did have electricity but our bathroom was outside. The food from our farm was basically organic and it seems as though it was much tastier than the organic food bought today. Thanks for sharing these with the world.

  32. Yolanda Patterson
    February 22, 2015

    As city dwellers we long for the outdoors and to live a “simple” life but it reality it isn’t so simple for these people! Wonder article and pictures!

  33. AnHa
    February 22, 2015

    I can imagine the life in there! Your pictures are wonderful. Thank for sharing the farmlands. Despite lacking of electricity and technology, they always adapt to circumstances!!!

  34. Koller Imre, a.k.a. Emmerich
    February 22, 2015

    My family and I fled across the Iron Curtain in 1956. Memories of what caused us to escape from Hungary linger to this day and stand in the way of genuine homesickness for the country of my birth (1942). Akos Stiller’s beautiful and sensitive photos remind me of the lifestyle I knew intimately in my youth and childhood. They helped me to finally close a troubling chapter of my life with a much more positive perspective. Gratulálok Mr. Stiller!

  35. Sophia
    February 22, 2015

    I just Feel definetely moved about your pictures and artcles.i am a Chinese. It seems that hungary is just as same as our country. Most farmers have already stop farming.they move to cities and rely on the business.So the elders just stay at the farmland.you know i do exactly dislike this condition.

  36. mary mann
    February 22, 2015

    . The simple life captured here even with its hardships is more beautiful by far than our crazy lives with so much work noise and cars cars cars everywhere…. We have lost something essential along the way to modernity….. Great work!

  37. Erika
    February 21, 2015

    I grow up in Hungary. That time these isolated farms were owned by people who were in a way richer then most. They went to bed at sunset and got up at sunup….all the machinery was run by hand, so the lack of electricity was no problem. They had the best drinking water from the crystal clear springs and the best organic food. They had less trinkets as village and city folks but lived a less stressful life also. We used to walk miles into the forest with grandma to buy fresh cheese from them. Good old times ♥

  38. John Checkley
    February 21, 2015

    Lovely piece and the pictures are award winning. As the storyteller learned and shared – “there are no secrets in the farmlands.

  39. Jjey
    February 21, 2015

    OMG! I am hungarian but this is something out of regular. It is not usual back home just in very poor places…

  40. Thad Kacsandy
    February 21, 2015

    Thank you for sharing Akos Stiller’s project! Both enlightening and skillfull. Family farms in the USA have fallen victim to “corporate” collectives and yet, small family farms are being established by old and young alike here.

  41. Madelaine
    February 21, 2015

    I luv this article & photos from Akos. It really reminded me of my beautiful place where I grow up in this small island in Philippines. I choose to explore & expand my knowledge & education. However, deep in my heart I always missed the simplicity of life in a farm or an island setting.Congratulations Akos!

  42. William Shriner
    February 20, 2015

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful visit to a very unique part of Europe .

  43. Tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead
    February 20, 2015

    Akos Stiller has attained it all: Technique, composition and passionately living that piece of life he has captured. We, DSLR amateurs and beginners learnt a lot from such shots and interviews. Thanks once again NG and Akos Stiller.
    Cheers from Mauritius

  44. bibol
    February 20, 2015

    Poverty is really a lifestyle. When you want electricity and other the other elements that go with it. If you do not have them you will consider yourself s poor.

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