When Ramona – now a close friend as well as being a participant in my Roma documentary project – told me she was going to be appearing on Channel 4 News I had serious reservations. She wasn’t keen either – not because she has any feelings about the news show itself, which is the only decent TV news show in my personal opinion – but because she knew full well that it was a Channel 4 News report which kicked off the tabloid monstering of the Slovakian Roma community in Sheffield a fortnight ago. That report was okay in itself but did make a lot of simmering tensions in Page Hall and that is what the rest of the media seized on and did their best to exacerbate. So when I heard Ch4’s next target was my own neighbourhood of Levenshulme I was worried about what might happen – I feared the whipping up of resentments in certain sections of the community which have improved after much hard work by the council, the Big Life Company/ Big Issue in the North, the police and others such as certain folks at Manchester Uni. I am also protective of my Roma friends and worried about Ramona if that media attention did follow. Anyway the final report turned out to be fine, and as there was no sensationalism within it it didn’t lead to any follow ups, which was a relief. As someone who’s lived here for 10 years I am acutely aware what the long-term impact of poor reporting could be on for community cohesion. But Ramona did herself proud, as did her colleagues. My single minor disappointment with the piece was that Manchester University claimed pretty much all the credit for the improvements in this area – I found this a little disingenuous since The Big Life Company and the council were major partners in the work which created such fine role models as Ramona and the young men she works with. I nitpick but it jarred.
In a week where all sections of the UK media have piled into a neighbourhood of Sheffield which has seen a large influx of Slovakian Roma and stirred the pot, doing their bit to incite the riots predicted by MP David Blunkett, I have been left feeling profoundly depressed to be part of this industry.
The tabloids may have led the charge but those from which I would hope for better – ie the Guardian and BBC – did their bit to add to the hype and sensationalism in my opinion, while ostensibly maintaining a somewhat loftier position. I genuinely fear – although I hope I’m just being melodramatic – that this onslaught may have set some of the great work done to integrate Roma newcomers in the UK back significantly.
In my corner of Manchester we had some tensions not dissimilar to those being fanned in Sheffield in 2009-10 but much has improved through a lot of hard work by council staff, agencies such as the Big Life Company (which owns the Big Issue in the North), local residents and by involving members of the Roma community – of which Ramona was one.
I fear the unintended consequence (or the consequence very much intended by some newspapers ) of this kind of reporting may be to reignite issues in other similar communities in the UK, including mine. I hope not, but every action tends to have a reaction and mistrust of Roma runs deep in many people.
This all makes my kind of work even more relevant but it also makes my work harder, since access and trust becomes more difficult to build as families withdraw for safety. This was my experience with indigenous Gypsy and Traveller communities following the whole Big Fat Gypsy Weddings fallout.
I took Zaneta and Jiri, Andrea and Roman – ie some of the stars of my Middlesbrough project – to Side Gallery to see the work on the walls, and they loved it. The only downer was being invited to photograph her sister giving birth last night, only for her to be sent away from the hospital for not being sufficiently in labour…with the midwife saying it could take another few days. I had an appointment in Manchester first thing this morning so took the executive decision that I had to drive home.. and of course sod’s law meant she ended up having it first thing this morning. To be invited to something so intimate and then to muck it up.. I think I’ll always regret that photo I didn’t take. Arghh!
It’s no exaggeration to say that Saturday was the best day of my professional life so far. Thanks to everyone who made the effort to join us, and hope other friends will get a chance to see the show if they are in Newcastle between now and 21 Dec. I am utterly buzzing. Thanks so much to the folks at Side for giving me this wonderful opportunity, for all their support and for making the show look so brilliant. And the biggest thanks of all go to Zaneta and her lovely family for being themselves and allowing a nosy stranger and her camera into their personal lives.
To see the full edit of the work on show at Side Gallery, click here
I have a lovely big feature on Roma migration in this month’s Al Jazeera magazine, which is available free of charge as an app for the iPad and iPhone from here. It was great to be given so much space to cover the issues and I think they’ve done a lovely job with the design. The whole magazine is really strong, definitely worth spending some time with.
For those without access to a tablet I’ve uploaded a PDF, which you can download by clicking on the page below.
The prints are done, the texts are written and a title has finally been found. The title, Stay where there are songs, is borrowed from a Romani saying. The show opens four weeks today, Oct 19th, in Newcastle. More info here
I’m one of five photographers who are forming a kind of warm-up act of short talks on Wed 2 October at White Cloth Gallery in Leeds, where Tom Stoddart‘s exhibition opens that very same day. Tom will also be talking – looks like a fun evening. More information is available here.
It’s funny really but I met and had had a few chats with Tom Stoddart four summers ago, when I was really new to photography and had no idea who he was, in fact I’d never heard his name…I then kept confusing him in my mind with the playwright Tom Stoppard. It was the first day of Appleby Horse Fair in Cumbria and I was determined to find my way into a Gypsy family for the event, but had not yet got anywhere. He said he was shooting photos for an exhibition of British culture he was preparing for the London Olympics year. It was cold for June, was quite early in the morning and was grey and drizzling. I had just grown bored of taking rather clichéd photos of men washing and grooming horses in the river in the centre of the village, when a quietly spoken man in a black fleece – with three cameras around his neck (one of which I later learned was a Rolliflex) – started talking to me. There was something different about him to the army of geeky and intense prosumer photographers with massive lenses and huge back packs who were elbowing each other in the shallows. I recall I wasn’t really in the mood for chatting with other photographers – I woudn’t even have taken the liberty of calling myself a photographer back then and felt I’d be found out as a fraud at any moment – but he was really sweet and encouraging and it turned out he knew John Easterby, the lecturer from London College of Communication who was shortly due to interview me for my MA course. I recall him being really humble about his own achievements, so it was quite a surprise when I looked him up online. If you don’t know his work you should definitely look here. Appleby ended up going quite well for me and was definitely instrumental in giving me the confidence to work more with photography and to focus first on the English Romani community and later the European Roma…a nice little circle for me. Wonder if Tom would recall this meeting, I guess probably not.