Best news all month

(Ramona and Latifa with an instant photo I took of them yesterday)

MY friend and collaborator Ramona has collected her little girl from Romania, to live with her in Manchester and attend school here. If you’ve read our book Elvira and Me then you’ll understand why this makes me happy. If you haven’t, maybe you should… OVER HERE

I think I need to move to Eastern Europe…

…because for some reason I only seem to make images I’m even semi-happy with over here. Maybe it’s to do with the light, the way people (especially Roma) decorate their homes – or perhaps, although I hate to even entertain the thought, it’s down to an element of poverty tourism, with the kind of subject matter I have been working on. I really hope not but I can’t rule out that the exotic and somewhat basic may draw my eye more than the banality of home. A horrible thought but an entirely plausible one…. Anyway, I’ve travelled to Hungary this week with a group of UK teachers and educationalists who work with Travellers and Roma migrants back home, and who have been visiting schools in Budapest and beyond to learn more about the context for the situation in Britain. I’m merely documenting the trip for them but have learned a lot so far about the difficult political climate here for Roma, and the unfortunate economic situation for Roma and everybody else. I’ve taken a couple of frames I’m sort of satisfied with, which is more than I can say for the last six months of taking photographs at home. Meanwhile yet another person has dropped out of my Roma documentary project in England, for reasons unknown. Ho hum.

Peaks and troughs

“Initial excitement soon gets infected by doubt, lack of confidence, ethical concerns, issues of censorship, and ultimately, of identity -my own as simultaneously a photographer, a facilitator, and a friend but someone who must keep one foot on the sidelines, who belongs and doesn’t at the same time” – Gemma Thorpe.

If only we could plot the emotional highs and lows of the average documentary project…I’ve had some serious ups and downs over recent months with the Roma work – the highs of producing a body of work that has been appreciated, winning a couple of grants, and seeing Ramona win recognition for her continued achievements (this month she did herself proud by getting onto the NHS list of approved interpreters); followed by the frustrations of trying to make new contacts in towns I don’t know, doubts about foisting an existing project onto a new place and new people, and the collapse due to staff changes of what I thought was my one sure-fire mini project. I wish I was more patient – I blame my time spent working on daily newspapers – because I know deep down that things do get better if you ride these periods out. So just as I started feeling that hopeful high that comes when you feel your luck is beginning to turn, this blog post by my friend Gemma resonated with me very much. It’s reassuring to know it’s not just me who often feels mildly unbalanced about the whole process. Her Youzi project, in which she is partnering with an academic to photograph and collaborate with Chinese students in Sheffield, is shaping up to be fascinating.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking about the genesis of Elvira and Me to a group of anthropology students at Manchester Uni. Preparing for this got me thinking about how ridiculously control-freaky I have a tendency to be, but how no matter how much you plan this kind of project, it always turns out differently to how you envisage at the start: in this particular case, despite all my incessant list-writing and plotting and attempts to cover all bases in one project, the project evolved organically and ended up having far greater depth than I could have foreseen at the start. This is of course the magic of journalism and of photography, and is what I love about it, but that doesn’t stop me trying to over-plan and squeeze every last drop of spontaneity out things, time after time, when I really should know better. I feel the need to remind myself of this as I move into the next chapters of this project. I am visiting a really lovely family in Middlesbrough this weekend, and will also be working with a group of Slovakian kids in Newcastle for the next few months. I have an ambitious young man to work with in Peterborough. I have no idea how the work is going to end up looking – maybe this time I should just go with the flow and not try to control everything as I did last time. Maybe I’ll just write a few initial lists though just to be sure…ha.

Centrepoint Collective just kindly highlighted my work with an interview about Elvira and Me on their blog. Feels weird answering the questions instead of posing them…kind of vulnerable.

Romanian TV star

It’s been a slightly odd week so far. A post I wrote on Monday for the Guardian’s Northerner section about Ramona’s invitation to dine with the Queen generated quite a lot of attention in Romania. A steady stream of reporters has contacted me, asking to be put in touch with her, and then yesterday a TV crew doorstepped her family – ie they turned up without warning. That caused some serious panic for Ramona, thousands of miles away in Manchester – and by extension me – but ultimately it was all fine. (See the clip below)

It was quite odd to see their report online today – doubly so since it was largely made up of my content, used without permission….images and video footage I made of Ramona on our trip to Romania, which they have nicked from my multimedia pieces, and photos lifted from my Elvira and Me book pdf. Her family then showed prints I sent them from Friday’s town hall trip, a copy of the book and a copy of the Big Issue in the North with Ramona on the cover.

All quite bizarre but unlike on previous occasions when I’ve had a dealings with broadcasters, i don’t actually mind because they had the manners to at least credit my name and website. And at least this time it’s a positive story about Roma – I don’t think there are many of those in Romanian media. The photo from my Guardian piece has been reproduced all over the shop, but unlike my darker recent experiences, at least this time it is being used in the correct context. So I guess I don’t really have much to complain about. It’s just the latest chapter in the amazing journey of Elvira.

Elvira, Brenda and Me

I was a guest at a formal luncheon attended by the Queen yesterday. I’m no royalist – in fact I’m an out-and-out republican – but I went along as the guest of Ramona, who had been invited to the jubilee event in recognition of her achievements since moving to Manchester from Romania two-and-a-half years ago. It meant so much to her to be invited, a real boost to her confidence just when she needed it, and it was so nice to see.

She said: “This is the first time my mum has said she’s proud of me since I’ve moved to England. She has been telling everyone about it. Everyone has heard  of the Queen of England, so that I’ve been invited has really impressed them – it shows them that what I’m doing here is good and worthwhile. She told me that if I speak to the Queen, I should shake hands and say ‘I’m Ramona and I’m Roma’.”

She didn’t get to shake Brenda’s hand but that didn’t take the gloss off being there. Interestingly too, for me, she chose to shed the long skirts of a traditional Roma woman for one afternoon only, safe in the knowledge none of her community would be there to judge (covering is a mark of respectability).

She said: “For me it’s an adventure. I want to feel special, I didn’t want to be different to the others who were there. I want to socialise with people, I don’t want to have a long skirt and people to be asking about it. I want to be dressed properly to meet the Queen. I want to be Roma, but I also want to be English Roma.”

Roma project funding

I was excited the other day to learn the Arts Council has agreed to support the continuation/expansion of my Roma photo project, which began with my MA major project, Elvira and Me. So now I’m going to be able to do another chapter of this work in the Newcastle area thanks to my Homelands commission and a separate body (or bodies) of work elsewhere using the ACE funding. This is freedom indeed, and I am super excited about it all, but since I’m also a born worrier it is all fairly overwhelming at this point. In time there will be other blogposts and hopefully a website. For now though it’s going to be mainly research and trying to make new connections with these communities.

Stamping on abuses of my Roma work

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year or so thinking about how Gypsy and Roma people are represented and misrepresented through photography. I wrote a research paper which touched on this for my MA and my two following projects – Rethink and Elvira and Me – both attempted to challenge the prevailing visual stereotypes of these two connected but separate communities. So it feels somewhat ironic that I have spent the past two days chasing websites which have stolen and then misused my work. Or perhaps it was only a matter of time.

Yesterday I received a phone call from a pretty upset Ramona, who had found a photograph of herself on the internet while searching for stories in the Romanian media about Roma migrants in the UK. She was shocked to be confronted with a photo of herself selling the Big Issue within an article which had absolutely nothing to do with her – it was a story about a group of named Roma squatters who had moved into a woman’s home in London – and wanted to know if I had given it to the website. I knew the story she was talking about as I’d seen it in the Daily Mail, which used a portrait of the victim, but I was furious see the Romanian site had lifted a photo I had taken for a Guardian Society story and run it with their piece. Ramona, understandably, wanted the photo removed as soon as possible – she hated the idea she was being associated with criminal activity in this way.

I mentioned what had happened on Twitter while I was pondering how to proceed, and a contact with far more computer know-how than me replied to say he had found the very same image being misused elsewhere. This time it was on a British blog about deaf people, illustrating a court story which had been itself been lifted from the Manchester Evening News. This case was even more unbelievable to me – a clearly identifiable photograph of Ramona was being used to illustrate a story about a different named Roma woman from Manchester who was prosecuted for begging using faked documents which claimed she was deaf and dumb.

So now she is apparently not only a squatter but also a convicted fraudster…

This morning I searched for another similar photograph which I have only licensed to Equality, a charity which advocates for Roma migrants in the UK. I wasn’t exactly surprised to see this one had been commandeered by a different Romanian news site, again as an illustration photograph in a highly negative story about Roma migrants in Britain. This time my friend was being associated with benefits tourism and the idea which is gaining traction in some sections of the UK media that Romanian Big Issue vendors are all here to scam the benefits system.

I. am. not. impressed.

Thankfully in all three of these cases the people behind the websites took down the offending photographs promptly after I sent a complaint by email, two of them before Ramona even knew about them or had seen them.

For me this has been a real lesson. Of course it’s annoying when people lift your photos and use them without permission, ignoring your byline and infringing your copyright. But far more serious to me is what I see as the abuse of the very essence of my work and of Ramona’s image – I described it in my complaint emails as defamation through the use of photography, and I truly believe it is. I am going to have to be very attentive from now on about how my Roma work in particular is being used and abused.

I totally understand that many people who run blogs and websites are untrained in media ethics and perhaps a little naive when it comes to the politics of visual representation. But if they are going to publish online they have a responsibility to think these matters through before stealing and then posting images completely out of context.

Crucially for me though, this has underlined the very important issue about stereotyping minority communities such as the Roma through photography.

I am CONVINCED that had the criminals and/or alleged benefits tourists in these three news stories been ethnic Romanian (for example) as opposed to ethnic Roma, very few people would think to use photographs in such an ill-judged way. Nowhere I have worked would we ever have used an identifiable photograph of some random person to illustrate a story about criminality committed by someone else simply because they happen to share an ethnicity….it would be big trouble if we did. So why is it ok to do so just because someone is Roma?

Is it ignorance? Casual racism, perhaps? – the idea that all Roma people are interchangeable and/or a bit suspect? The misconception that Roma Big Issue vendors couldn’t possibly chance upon their own photograph online in the way Ramona did, and so therefore these things don’t matter? I’m not sure but it maddens me and it made Ramona furious too. I’m very fortunate that she is open minded and has colleagues who can help me explain the nature of the internet and how images can get copied and pasted in this way. Happenings like this have the potential to undermine months of hard work on a project like mine.

I really hope the people on these websites have learned something through this. Everyone makes mistakes but photographs are powerful. I will not allow my work to be abused in this way.

Good morning 2012

Roma Christmas, Manchester.

“I think it’s simply beautiful and just goes to show what can happen when people start to write their own story, both for real and on the page.” Jake Bowers, English Romani journalist and broadcaster

So, the MA is done, Christmas is over and we’re well into the new year. 2012…where did that come from? The past month or so has been the kind of hectic where you have little to show for it, plus some much needed rest, recuperation and family time. I’ve had lots of lovely feedback about Elvira and Me, my collaboration with Ramona, which has been viewed more than 1,100 times in less than two months. Many people seem to have read it cover to cover, which is amazing. I’ve been thinking hard about where to go with this work – the problem with creating a book is that mentally it feels like a project is finished, even as someone’s life and struggles go on and the desire to document them continues. Ramona has become a close friend though so I think our collaboration will continue – albeit at a more sedate pace – as long as she wants it to. Perhaps the project will be expanded to look at other Roma migrants, possibly using a different approach to the photography, or perhaps not. Time will tell and much will depend on funding. So now comes the time to start taking photos again and building up my freelance business, after two quite intense but highly worthwhile years of study. Am I more photographer or more writer? I’m still not really sure, but maybe that question doesn’t matter as much as I used to think.