CNN Photos

The children of Moldova’s ghost towns

In April, while the Ukraine crisis nearly reached a boiling point, Swedish photographer Asa Sjöström traveled to neighboring Moldova, where a different kind of turmoil quietly simmered.

“I have been interested in Moldova for several years because it is Europe’s poorest country and no one knows much about it,” she said. “Some of it reminded me of what was happening in Crimea.”

Moldova’s economic crisis and political strife have created an emigration phenomena of alarming proportions. With one of the world’s largest diaspora, entire towns and villages are disappearing, creating a landscape of ghost towns, desolate fields and parentless children.

“When I was there in 2005, the population was about 4.5 million. Now, it is only 3.5 million,” Sjöström said of Moldova, which is sandwiched between Ukraine and Romania. “People have left because of the poverty and left their children with relatives.” According to European Union reports, Moldova’s gross domestic product is strongly supported by emigrant remittances.

It was the incalculable toll on Moldova’s children that drove Sjöström to photograph their world, their emptiness and their vulnerability in this terrain.

In her new series “Children of the Borderland,” Sjöström intimately documents this melancholy existence without sensationalism or an alarmist approach.

With a penchant for naturalism and softness in lighting, Sjöström’s photography allows her subjects to retain their own natural aura. But the underlying melancholy of this nation is ever present.

Sjöström — who prefers to work after daylight — almost never uses a flash, constantly using a 1.4 aperture that trades depth of field for close-up portraiture. She compares photography to painting.

 “I am not the kind of photographer who is looking for exciting angles,” she said. “I am a very quiet photographer. I don’t talk much and don’t take that many shots. ... I am much more interested in people the way they are, how they stand, how they look at me. I like my pictures to be soft.”

Sjöström’s soft approach to harsh subjects is also present in her previous work on human trafficking in Moldova, which she slightly references in her recent work.

Moldova is notoriously a hotbed for human traffickers, according to the U.S. State Department, and child predators who take advantage of hundreds of thousands of parentless children that have been left behind in the care of the state or a relative. Especially in theunruly region of Transnistria and northern villages where Sjöström recently anchored down for a week.

In every community, the story was the same. Most children were deprived of a basic human need: the love of a mother or father.

“Many of the children we met had never heard of their parents,” she said. “Some died abroad. Some never got back home. Some come home every six months.”

Sjöström zeroed in on the children’s universe, which includes Soviet-style derelict buildings, tired stuffed animals and live rodents that they raise for consumption.

The underlying issue of abandonment has defined their existence, Sjöström said — so much so that they are often heard soothing themselves with a popular lullaby about parental loss.

“They want to grow up with their parents, and that is what this song is about,” she said. “It is about the fact that they don’t need extra things. They just want to be with their parents.”

- Helena Cavendish de Moura, Special to CNN