Artur Conka moved to the UK from Slovakia as a child, and recently graduated from university with a photography degree. He has turned his camera onto Lunik IX, the notorious Košice neighbourhood where he spent his early years and still has relatives. Once almost bohemian, Lunik IX has been neglected by the authorities since the fall of communism and is now a ghetto – home to 12,000 Roma who struggle to survive from one day to the next. Artur is one of a tiny handful of Roma photographers that I know of who has documented his own culture visually.
“Lunik IX was quite a bohemian, modern complex of houses – it was still quite new back when we lived there, in the early 90s. My parents remember it being quite a progressive place. Under communism, there were Slovaks and Roma living there together, but when I returned age 18 it had turned into a Roma ghetto, where there’s no work and it’s hard to survive. I really wanted to return to Slovakia and document this.
“I’ve often been asked if I see differently because I am Roma, and it’s hard to answer. I have experienced my own culture, I think I know what they are going through, and because I speak the Roma language and know and understand the customs it’s easy for me to communicate with individuals. I think maybe this gives me a different perspective about my work and their lives from other photographers.
“Statistically there’s a very small minority of Roma who are middle class. There are more in the UK I think, as the minute you arrive in a western country your situation improves because of jobs and the welfare system. But in countries where there is no support for Roma and where there is segregation, they are forced to breadline and poverty status. So I think it is important to focus on the fact there are two different types of Roma if you like – lots in poverty but a minority who are not. I prefer to focus on the people in poverty, and show that something needs to be done about it.
“I’d describe myself as Roma British. I don’t deny my roots because they’re important. I’ve read about my culture and find it fascinating, the level of history it has, and because I live in a multicultural society the Roma part is important to me. The Slovakian part is less important for me – I don’t call myself Slovak because I’m ashamed of everything that has happened to Roma there” – Artur Conka