• PROOF:
  • June 17, 2015

One Girl’s Tunnel Life: Under the Streets of Bucharest

Photographer and anthropologist Massimo Branca first met Catalina in 2013 when she was 17 years old.

“Her large, black eyes seemed to become more mysterious the longer I looked at them,” he said. “It took me a lot to understand just how much she had been through in her short life.”

Picture of Catalina in Romania
Catalina, 17 years old. After being abandoned at birth, she grew up in an orphanage, then lived on the street and in Bucharest’s tunnels starting at age 12.

At the time, Catalina was living with a group of homeless people in, around, and under the Gara de Nord train station in Bucharest, Romania. She was left in the hospital at birth, raised in an orphanage until age six, then was reunited with her family only to run away at age 12. At 13 she started using intravenous drugs.

Branca photographed Catalina’s life as part of a larger project called “Inside Outside Under Bucharest,” which documents the people who live in the tunnels under the city. Hot, humid, and cramped, the tunnels were part of former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s plan to centrally heat the city. Now, they are home to multiple generations of street children and adults who access them via small craters in the ground.

During winter, up to 40 people occupy the tunnel to stay warm, living together in a space of only a few square meters.
During winter, up to 40 people occupy the tunnel to stay warm, living together in a space of only a few square meters.

Branca and his friend Igor Marchesan first gained access to the tunnels in July 2013, after receiving permission from the de facto leader—a man who goes by the name of Bruce Lee—who controls all the ins and outs of tunnel life, including food and electricity. Branca had to convince Lee that they weren’t out to produce a quick exposé, but rather wanted to study the group’s social relationships from an anthropological perspective.

“I want people to understand what happens in street life and to be more tolerant and open, in case they accidentally meet these people—or meet homeless people anywhere,” said Branca. “I want to enable the audience to imagine what underground life is like, without their eyes being clouded by pity, judgment, or fear.”

Boredom is common in the tunnels, with few available activities apart from using drugs. Although she started using intravenous drugs at age 13, Catalina also liked to write.
Boredom is common in the tunnels, with few available activities apart from using drugs. Although she started using intravenous drugs at age 13, Catalina also liked to write.
Picture of dishes in tunnels underground
Washed dishes and a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “The Last Supper” are seen in the tunnel. The tunnel’s inhabitants use generators to produce electricity for lights, fans, stereos, refrigerators, and television.

According to Branca, most of the tunnel residents suffer from tuberculosis, hepatitis, or HIV, and are addicted to drugs including heroin, mephedrone, and Aurolac—a silver paint they inhale from plastic bags. He says most of the people end up in the tunnels because of a lack of a stable home life—many are former orphans, people exiled from their families after contracting HIV, or folks who ran away from poverty or abuse.

Catalina and Bruce Lee (center) are seen during a blackout. Before the arrival of Lee—the de facto leader of the tunnels—the tunnels were only lit by candle.
Catalina and Bruce Lee (center) are seen during a blackout. Before the arrival of Lee—the de facto leader of the tunnels—the tunnels were only lit by candle.

Branca says that while at first glance the environment can appear shocking to a casual observer, he doesn’t want viewers to be shocked by his work. Instead, he wants people to feel compassion and understanding for his subjects. He wants viewers to understand how the tunnel dwellers came to be there, and that people like Catalina are worthy of empathy, compassion, and love.

“I think shocking images would make an observer feel more distant from these people, and my aim is exactly the opposite,” he said. “I want to make the audience understand that they could be in the same situation, and I would like people who see my pictures to change their behavior toward these kinds of issues.”

Branca says Catalina used to smile with caution and a little shame, because a couple of years earlier she had lost her front teeth.
Branca says Catalina used to smile with caution and a little shame, because a couple of years earlier she had lost her front teeth.
For a while Catalina tried to stay off drugs. During this period she ate and slept most of the time, trying to recover and find relief from her pain.
For a while Catalina tried to stay off drugs. During this period she ate and slept most of the time, trying to recover and find relief from her pain.

Despite being an anthropological observer, Branca says he still tried to help Catalina, even while documenting her life.

In January 2014 she passed out after inhaling fumes from a faulty generator and badly burned her leg on one of the tunnel’s heating pipes. Branca took her to the hospital, and later to a safe house, where she stayed off drugs for a few weeks and swore to him she would quit for good. But she begged him to take her back to the tunnels, and shortly afterwards she began using drugs again.

“I was a human being, and was trying to think of some way to help her. I felt really close to her—like she was something between a sister and a daughter to me,” Branca said. “I knew she wasn’t in good health, but a lot of other people living in the tunnel were in worse condition. She was quite independent, and I didn’t think about the possibility of her dying.”

After a couple of weeks of abstinence, Catalina couldn’t resist using drugs any longer. She wrote: “It’s too late, I’m a drug addict and there is nothing left to do.”
After a couple of weeks of abstinence, Catalina couldn’t resist using drugs any longer. She wrote: “It’s too late, I’m a drug addict and there is nothing left to do.”

But on May 28, 2014, one month after she turned 18, Catalina died. The official cause was listed as cardiopulmonary arrest—but unofficially, it was from AIDS and an infection at a drug injection site that traveled to her brain.

Branca was in Italy when he heard the news. He rushed to Romania for her funeral—mostly paid for by her street family.

Catalina died on May 28, 2014, one month after she turned 18.  Her boyfriend, Santo (bottom right), asked to be buried near her. He is also HIV-positive.
Catalina died on May 28, 2014, one month after she turned 18. Her boyfriend, Santo (bottom right), asked to be buried near her. He is also HIV-positive.

“Many say that these people could have a different kind of life if they choose—get a job and have stability,” says Branca. “But they don’t consider that after many months or years closed to other people, they consider each other a family.”


Massimo Branca is an anthropologist and photographer living in Italy and Romania. He is a member of Collettivo Fotosocial, an Italian association of documentary photographers that uses visual storytelling to produce positive social change.

His project “Under the Surface” recently received a Magnum 30 Under 30 award for documentary photography. He is currently working on a project following Catalina’s birth family, documenting the many hardships they are facing in life.

You can view more of his images on his website.

There are 32 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. aykut
    October 30, 2016

    in one his famous don camillo tales guareschi said: there is no god…
    and its dam true..

  2. Aya mabasa
    July 8, 2016

    This story is touch my heart. And i can’t believe that there are soul living under the street of Bucharest. Bucharest is very famous i hope the government will do something about this.

  3. Ioana
    July 8, 2016

    It’s extremely tragic of course….until one of them come

    It’s extremely tragic of course…until you get off a train and one of them threatened you with a needle if you don’t hand him/her money. Obviously the moment you pull out your wallet and you’re paralyzed of fear you give away everything you have and hope for the best.

  4. Mireille
    July 8, 2016

    In a way I do agree with everyone who says these reporters should focus on the positive rather than the negative and so on. However, in yet another way, I also see a positive side in what they do, that is putting the truth out there and just by being out, in everyone’s eyes, there is a chance that it would work its magic, that we would all eventually look at the real roots of the problem. What we look at here is the result of an “institutional culture,” this what happens when a society, as a whole, oppresses the woman from speaking out, takes all the rights away from the woman and totally empowers the man, as if the man is some sort of god and the woman, just a washcloth at the man’s disposal. I know that culture very well, because I lived there for 25 years. Girls are taught from early age that everything is a girl’s job and no job really is suitable for a boy; later on, it is perfectly fine for a man to cheat on his wife (well, as long as they keep providing for their families, but even if they don’t, what are you going to do to him?); domestic violence is again, perfectly OK…no neighbor will call the police because they hear a man beating up their wife and/or children and even if they do call, they will be laughed at by police; it is also perfectly fine for a man to get a young girl pregnant, then marry another. The pregnant woman will forever be shamed by the society, while the perpetrator is looked at with… almost esteem. Wow…wasn’t he smart? Oh well. Institutional culture. You get your values reversed and that’s what this all leads to in the end. There you have it, people! Why can’t you enjoy it now?! Why can’t you enjoy looking your own children in the eye when they’re living in the underground on iv drugs? You can’t…because deep in your heart you know it’s your fault: letting yourself indoctrinated with all the wrong values ultimately lead to this. But, there’s still one last thing to do for you to carry on your “values”: well, blame the reporters! Simple. Problem solved.

  5. Sarah
    July 8, 2016

    Incredible story with a devastating outcome. So sad for these people – it is also very hard for non-Romanian citizens to adopt these children as the government put a stop to it quite a few years ago. Well done bringing Catalina & her street families story to the world.

  6. Ann
    July 8, 2016

    The homeless people I see never frightened or disgusted as they do some people. They don’t anger me because I think…”But for the grace of God”….it could be me. Thank you for Catalinas story…and her “family”

  7. Kelly Johnson
    July 8, 2016

    Thank you for this artical and pictorial. I felt connected to Catalina. I wish every snotty young person that feels entitled can see this.

  8. Kp Yi
    July 8, 2016

    Some say it is the government’s fault that these people live like this. These are not only drug addicts these are gypsies. Many “governments” tried to rehabilitate them, gave them housing, tried to enforce education and work for them (i.e. communists), all temporary. Soon the houses were in shambles, they did not show up for work but “broke camp” and were 7 countries away again living the “free” nomad crime ridden life they used to all their lives.

  9. Heidi loggins
    July 8, 2016

    What a horribly tragic story of society’s forgotten ones. It’s not often that someone portrays such a candid and heartfelt vision of poverty and hopelessness, but you have done that and I congratulate you on your humanness and love. The world has become such a sad and hopeless place for so many.

  10. Raluca
    July 8, 2016

    Most romanians will never see these children with compassion or empathy, because we are thought from a young age that the choices we make will lay out our life. It is true indeed, but people like Catalina do not have that option. What choices can you have when you’ve been abandoned as a baby? Although I have never been in this position, I can understand Catalina’s choice of doing drugs. When you have no home, no possibillity of getting a job abd doing something of yourself, it is the only thing that keep you going a bit more. I do not agree with it, but look around: no one would offer a job or a choice to any of this people living in the tunnels, because they are considered “aurolaci”, which in my opinion is something worse than to be homeless. People see them as filthy, they are afraid of them thinking that they are thiefs. There are few people than can understand that this is not something that they chose. We take everything for granted: our iarents, our home, everuthing. But we are not able to empathize with them because we can’t possibly imagine how it is to be abandoned, becaude we think that this will never happen to us.
    On another note, I love your work Mr. Branca and I am happy to see that there is someone out there trying to do something good for this people, since their own fellow patriots won’t. Thank you, sir! You are a great man, as well as Mr. Igor. You have my utmost respect.

  11. Imo
    July 8, 2016

    Complete failure of the system and no more …. Speak up guys unless it too late

  12. surya soni
    July 8, 2016

    It’s feel bad .when someone die like this there are a lots of children who are living this life .. We should help them to make their life good ..We have to join our hand to hand to make their future bright …hope u will do ..!!

  13. Nancy Boynton
    July 8, 2016

    Heartbreaking story. Thank you for sharing it with the world. I agree with another comment on here. Seal the tunnel up and get a program started through the non-profit world and begin a new chapter in the lives of the tunnel people.

  14. Mélanie
    July 8, 2016

    RIP… it’s beyond sad, terrible… and unbelievable here, in Europe!!!

  15. Maja
    July 8, 2016

    speechless…I would love to see the exhibition in Zagreb.

  16. Aimee
    December 17, 2015

    Please support organizations that are trying to give abandoned Romanian children a life and dignity. http://www.casamea.org provides a loving home for children to grow up in a family-like atmosphere. You can’t help them all, but you can help a few who can grow up to help a few, who can grow up to help a few…

  17. Jackie
    September 4, 2015

    It’s the governments fault for letting their children live like this. Have places where they can get a hot bath, good food and counseling! Seal the tunnels once and for all! This is so sad! If Cat was my daughter, I would never give her up.

  18. Massimo Branca
    August 26, 2015

    Thank you all for your appreciation and comprehension about the topic and the aim of this research project. For anybody interested, a larger selection from this work with Igor Marchesan will be exhibited from 3rd September in OrganVida Festival in Zagreb, Croatia.

  19. Ruth
    July 26, 2015

    Thank you for your words and your photos. I have read and watch other things on the issues of this. You do have a great gift in showing us this world with a heart felt to it, well done.

  20. Mohammed Haris
    July 25, 2015

    Take an oath. No more children abandoned in streets. Take them to home give life with our own childrens.

  21. Deepak
    July 1, 2015

    RIP Catalina…I feel sad for her, she wasnt born to die like this, no child / Orphan is born to die like this. RIP.

  22. Peter3Dogs
    June 28, 2015

    R.I.P. For too long nations have been run by thieves who have no concern for anyone but their families.

  23. Ramya
    June 26, 2015

    nice photos and coverage

  24. akar
    June 22, 2015

    memaknai kehidupan dengan cara yang berbeda…perjuangan, daya tahan, jalan keluar, menyentuh…..RIP

  25. kuldeep
    June 19, 2015

    RIP

  26. stefania maria
    June 19, 2015

    It’s easy to judge when you see the world above the tunnels, you almost take everything you have for granted….but if you close your eyes for a second and erase everything you know about life, then open them in the tunnel surrounded by this so called “poverty, lack of jobs, no family support, lots of drugs” it is really not a world with a lot of options like ours, it’s all they know, they were born in this world, it’s their normality, their family….it’s what you get to see, to know, to live that’s different…

  27. Cheyenne
    June 18, 2015

    It makes me feel as though there is more that we, as human beings, can do for people. Then I see the struggle that they go through to push to just survive. Just makes me hope that I can change at least 1 life for the better.

  28. Monika
    June 18, 2015

    A very interesting insight into this different world.

  29. mez
    June 18, 2015

    “We’re poor, have no jobs, no family, no nothing.. LETS DO DRUGS YAAAAAY”

  30. Joseph Zarzano
    June 18, 2015

    Heartbreaking story of young life abandoned by society and struggling against the odds.

  31. Santosh Kumar
    June 18, 2015

    Too sad. Thanks for letting this bitter truth know to the world.

  32. Amira
    June 18, 2015

    We are all humans in different paths.. Hope my life on earth would diminish our suffering one bite.

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