I don’t often get really excited about stories these days but when I was asked this summer to attend the Light and Life Gypsy church convention I definitely did. The rise of Evangelical Christianity among both English Gypsies and migrant Roma communities has not escaped my notice – I even attended a Romanian Romani Pentecostal church service near my home when I was first trying to make contacts within this community in 2009/10. To be handed access to this event as a photographer made this a dream commission for me. I was also excited to be working with the writer Katharine Quarmby, who published a cracking book on the eviction of Dale Farm last year, and to be asked to work for Newsweek was also fantastic. Thanks to Katharine for putting in a special request that I do the photos. Please click through to read her fascinating article and to see my photo gallery or download the PDF here.
I took a short trip to London this week to check out an exhibition which is displaying a few of my Roma images – From Extra to Ordinary, at the Romanian Cultural Centre. Also shown was work by talented young Roma photographer and filmmaker Artur Conka, as well as family photos and images produced during participatory projects. The show – which ends this weekend – also included some very interesting archive materials, including receipts for Romani slaves from late 19th century Romania. The kind of thing we see a lot from the US slave trade, but rarely from the dark years when Roma found themselves in a similar position in parts of Europe. The show looked great: thanks to all for their hard work putting it together and thanks for including my work.
It was one of those throwaway kind of comments which comes back at you like a boomerang. In June 2012 I was invited to a event in Manchester where the life stories of some local Irish Travellers had been turned into a small spoken-word piece of theatre. The tales had been collected by Sister Carmel, a Manchester nun who works with Gypsy and Traveller communities, and I told her I thought they deserved to be collected in one place after the play – a book or an ebook. I thought nothing more of it but a few months later Carmel came back to me and since then we’ve been working on turning her stories into a book. She collected a few more to get a better balance between men and women and a broader range of ages, and I then edited them, designed a book, contributed photos, came up with ideas and research, asked organisations for advice, applied for some funding, got turned down, wrote a more successful proposal, arranged printing, designed a flyer, printed the flyer, drew up an email mailing list and a list for promo copies and posted these all out. At times we both lost faith that we’d ever get this thing finished but thankfully it’s now out there. The ultimate aim is simply to challenge some stereotypes. Carmel was keen to get copies into prisons and police stations so we targeted various figures within Greater Manchester Police (including the diversity team, who were very grateful and promised to share) and 40 copies have been ordered already – two days after launch – to go into prisons. Other copies were sent to figures within councils who may come into contact with Gypsies and Travellers. And the response from within the community too has been great so far. Hard copies cost £2.50 each plus postage and it is also available online for free using the link below. Please email me at email@example.com if you’d like to order one.
I was given the chance to write something about the motivations behind my Roma photo project and the Side Gallery exhibition (just over two weeks left!) for the BBC website’s photo blog earlier this week. I’m interested in trying to challenge the prevailing stereotypes of Roma – or the ‘single story’ of poverty and hopelessness – by working with willing individuals and families to document their experiences over long periods. It’s a collaboration but of course an uneven one – I am in ultimate control and that responsibility is something I take quite seriously. If you’re interested you can read the full piece by clicking on the image above.
I got mostly very positive reactions on social media but was certainly quite relieved when I saw the piece had gone up without a comments facility underneath, as I don’t always have the stomach for the nature of feedback which tends to be left under stories on Roma. I received two direct responses by email though, which illustrate the polarised nature of any debate over Roma and underline my point that we desperately need to challenge the stereotyping of these communities.
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