Strength and Courage through the eyes and lens of Lavinia Cernau
Inspired by The Leone Medallion, one of the first pieces founder, Rosh Mahtani, made for herself as a secret reminder to be strong in moments of self-doubt, The Leone Series documents strength and courage through the eyes and lens of people who inspire us.

Here, Romanian photographer, Lavinia Cernau, sits down with Rosh to talk about chasing the sun, the call of the ocean and following her intuition.

RM: Thank you for being a part of the series and for making time to chat. I’m such a huge fan of your work, so it’s lovely to be talking to you.

LC: Likewise, thank you for having me. I love what you do, too - the aesthetic, the story behind everything… it’s amazing.

RM: Thank you, that really means a lot. Your photography is just absolutely beautiful. Where are you from originally?

LC: I’m from Romania, super close to Ukraine. I am actually based here, I haven’t left. Ifeel like being by the sea is my absolute dream.

RM: I know what you mean. It’s like the call of the ocean. I really believe in the cathartic powers of the water. You can really feel that pull to the ocean in your work. When did you start taking photographs?

LC: It all started with Instagram, believe it or not. In the beginning I would post the pictures of my homeland, because in Romania we have it all – the sea, mountains, rivers – I trained my eye by following other photographers on Instagram. I would photograph my personal holidays, by the sea in Italy, then brands started to ask me to shoot for them in those locations.

RM: I definitely think the best things in life happen by accident and by chance.

LC: Definitely, me too.

RM: How did you learn? Did you study or did you just pick up the camera and work by instinct?

LC: I shoot based on intuition. I always find myself looking for the light, where it falls. Catching the moment.

RM: I know what you mean and I think you can really see that pursuit of magical light in your work. All of your photographs have this really soft, warm light to them, and you can really feel that there’s always a traveller behind them.

When I started Alighieri I was in a really kind of dark place in my life. I kept reading Dante’s “Divine Comedy” - a story of being lost in a dark wood and trying to find a way through. It’s very much a pursuit of light. The Lion medallion was one of the first pieces that I made - I actually made it just for myself when I was traveling in Italy. I found an old coin and I made the Lion as a reminder to myself to be strong in moments of self-doubt. How do you remember to be strong when you have those moments of self-doubt? If you have moments of self-doubt?

LC: Yes of course - as everyone does. More often than I would like to. I think I rely more than I would want to on the people next to me. I’m not sure if that’s a mistake or not. Essentially, I always find strength in myself if I dig deep enough. I think it works like that for me. The first layer would be the people close to me, ones I love and find comfort in. But actually, if I think about it, it’s really within me.

RM: It’s strange how one day you can feel great about yourself and the next day, nothing has changed in your life, but for some reason you don’t feel good about yourself anymore. My mum always says to me ‘It’s still in you, you haven’t changed. That strength is still in you, it’s just deeper, you have to fish it out!’
Do you find that in those moments of feeling down you look to the camera and use photography to get yourself through, or do you actually find it harder to shoot when you’re feeling like that?

LC: My first instinct is to go to nature and observe all the things around me, the seasons and how they’re changing. That would bring me back to the camera somehow.

RM: I love that. Allowing the journey to bring you home, I guess. You seem like you have a very spiritual attitude towards life. Have you always been like that?

LC: I think so, although I’m not manifesting it enough. I think it’s very personal to each of us.

RM: Dante’s journey was not linear. That’s why I think the “Divine Comedy” is a story that celebrates the beauty of human imperfection. At Alighieri, we always try to remind people that is okay to be vulnerable and that we come together through sharing those stories of vulnerability. I wondered if there are any challenges that you are facing in your life at the moment that you wouldn’t mind sharing with us?

LC: Being away from home so much, I always miss my cats! I have two cats and I miss them so much when travelling. This year has been filled with projects and I’ve not seen them much.

RM: Ah I can understand that. So, you’ve been traveling a lot this year for so many beautiful projects and I’m wondering - how do you choose the people that you want to work with?

LC: I base my choice on my feelings. I know deep down if it’s for me or not.

RM: I think we’re quite kindred spirits in how we shoot. That desire to explore the world is very present in your work.

LC: Yes, I feel very blessed to be able to do this and to make a living off it.

RM: You also seem to really gravitate towards the skin. I really love the way you explore that very raw and almost vulnerable part of being human somehow through the skin. There is something beautiful about the connection that you forge with your subject especially in such raw way, when they are so stripped back and exposed. It’s such a powerful connection when someone is really putting that trust in your hands and saying – show me how you see me. How do you want people to feel when they see your images?

LC: I want to tell a story and transport people to that moment. We are so subjective as human beings and a picture speaks to us through the lens of one’s experiences at the time.

RM: What will you do in the winter? Will you continue to chase the sun or will you try to show it in a different context?

LC: I think both. We live an hour from the countryside and I’m there a lot. It’s magical to see the seasons change. I love spring and summer of course, but autumn and winter have their magic too – you just have to embrace them! Especially as I live here in eastern Europe.

RM: Lastly, if you were to offer the Leone medallion to anyone that might need strength and courage tight now, who would you offer it to?

LC: Sarah, a friend I met at one of the retreats that I was documenting. We connected on such a deep level although we only saw each other twice.

Photography by Lavinia Cernau