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University of Missouri

Tough Journey

Mizzou alumnus wins a Pictures of the Year award for telling a family’s difficult story.


Luca, 5, is autistic. Every morning at 5:30, his mother, Mirela, wakes him up so he won’t miss the train for Bucharest, Romania, 62 miles away. There, Luca attends an applied behavior analysis center run by a nongovernmental organization that covers three‐fourths of the cost of his treatment. The rest of the cost is paid for by donations.

The above photo by Andrei Pungovschi, who received a Fulbright scholarship to study at MU in 2006, won a 2013 Pictures of the Year International competition Award of Excellence in February.


The long trip is difficult for Luca. But the center is run by an nongovernmental organization that covers three‐quarters of the cost. For the rest, the family relies on donations.

MIZZOU magazine asked Pungovschi about his work:

Q: How do you describe yourself as a photographer?

A: I’d hate to take myself too seriously. I’m just a freelance photojournalist who enjoys doing stories and getting close to people. In order to afford to do those stories, I photograph whatever pays the bills on the side. Some photographers find it easy to find a specific topic that their work revolves around for long periods of time. We are not all that lucky. I can’t really say I have found my focus; that is something I have been struggling with for quite some time.

Q: What was the most important thing you learned during your time at Mizzou­­­?

Luca and Mirela

Mirela shares a moment with her son Luca.

A: The experience at Mizzou was quite a milestone for me. One of the most important lessons, though it might sound cliché, was to learn how to find my own answers and be open to anything that might seem different from what I might think at one particular point in time.

Q: Describe your experience as an international student at Mizzou.

A: For school and assignment purposes, it was an advantage to be from a very different country and have this fresh vision on the place. Missourians in general are really warm people. I have lived in other parts of the U.S. before and after going to Mizzou, so I can confirm that.

occupy gezi

The transformation of Gezi Park into an Ottoman‐style mall in Turkey provoked a large protest in May 2013.

Q: How long did you spend with Luca and his family telling their story? Were they immediately comfortable with you being there taking pictures, or did that take time?

A: I had only spent a couple of days with Luca and his family, who were really great and open and granted me all the access I could have wanted. But that is not my merit. Oana Sandu, the writer who found their story, had been working with them for many months before I was asked to photograph them. It was her great personality that got me the access.

occupy gezi

What started as a small, peaceful protest against the destruction of Gezi Park turned into several strikes throughout Turkey protesting concerns including freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

Q: You have spent a lot of time the last couple years photographing protests in Egypt, Turkey and Romania. A protest seems like a performance in a way. Do you find it difficult to make photographs of real genuine moments in a situation like that?

A: Genuine moments happen when people react honestly. Even though there are some predictable gestures and expressions that come with every protest, people will often drop this mask and react naturally. It is obviously not difficult to photograph, as long as you keep observing and look for something other than the angry protester thrusting his fist in the air. Perhaps even that can be genuine sometimes.

occupy gezi

These protests have been the biggest political crisis facing Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the past decade.

Q: Almost everybody has a camera all the time and people are constantly aware that they are being photographed. Do you think that changes people’s demeanor in public and how they react to a camera?

A: People will react differently in front of a camera — for a while. If you stay there long enough, as any photographer will tell you, they will get used to you and ignore you. It depends on how much time you are willing to invest and what kind of images you are looking for.

Q: Where do you see yourself in five years?

A: If I could predict the future, I would be in the gambling business. I have no idea.

Bucharest fashion week

Bucharest Fashion Week takes place once a year in Romania’s capital. During the festival, designers and models try to stand out.