scenes from the courtyard of housing occupied by roma families in bucharest. these families have been squatting here for years, unofficially tolerated by the municipal government.
i can’t do a series on romania without discussing the roma. there is a sensitivity around photographing roma. first, the relationship is exploitative on both sides: we photograph them because they are “exotic,” and they know it; and they are going to ask us for money at some point, and we know it. second, according to our translator (who is roma himself) the legacy of roma slavery in the romanian territories from the 14th to the 19th century – yes, the roma were slaves throughout the balkans for centuries – is something that neither broader society nor the roma themselves have adequately addressed. this accounts for some of the exoticism, which in addition to bright clothing and distinctive cultural customs, is a reflection of the poverty that many of them face. this circles back to another issue of photographing the roma: when we photograph roma, it’s partly poverty tourism, which is uncomfortably voyeuristic, and many of the roma don’t want to participate in that, and also they know that our taking their photos to show our friends isn’t going to do much to change their situation. this isn’t to say that it can’t be done, or that it can’t be an opportunity for meaningful human interaction, but you have to be aware of the issues and address the situation the right way.
for example, we stopped at a roma community outside the village of iscroni (below) because we were driving by and it looked interesting. we split up, and i found a few people who spoke english. only one of them was willing to have his photo taken, but i didn’t shoot until after we’d talked a bit about who i was and why i was there. some of the other people in our party faced a little resistance, however, and at least one request for money.
that said, the people we met were friendly enough. between our translator, the few of them that spoke english, and the one who spoke greek, we were able to have a number of conversations; and once we all just started talking, we started taking snapshots of the pets, and then of the children (who were thrilled to pose and then look at the camera backs). after that, we could shoot freely.
however, let’s turn back to those issues … anti-roma attitudes seems to be casually held among some of the population. the jolly sheep shearer we met during our travels was the epitome of hospitality, but when we expressed our appreciation for inviting us in, he joked “i’d even invite in a roma!” it wasn’t said to be vicious; it’s just something the people say. our translator told us that many roma try to hide their heritage and even deny that they are roma, and that when one popular rapper, who had claimed to be latin american, “came out” as a roma, he lost endorsement deals. on the other hand, there are roma identity politics, so social attitudes between the roma and other romanians are multilayered.
children dancing with us during a community party in the housing courtyard. the puddles of green ooze are behind us (no joke).
the government’s attitude toward the roma, on the other hand, seems to be more pointed, at least at the local level. in bucharest situation depicted above, the neglect is benign, but the roma can’t expect any help, either. at the other end of the spectrum, in baia mare, the city had moved a group of roma into the housing units of an abandoned factory where there were no working toilets. the community used a corner of a field for their needs, and the waste had leached through the soil and into the center courtyard where the children played.
we walked into that complex during a community party, and had just begun to shoot using our tested methods when a team of security guards, who keep an eye on the abandoned factory grounds, came over and told us to stop shooting and leave. they said it was “out of respect for the residents,” but the roma began to argue with the guards, telling them (graphically) to go away and that they wanted us there. the guards’ concern was not for the residents’ well-being: it seemed to be a policy to keep “regular” people from seeing the conditions of the housing.
the next day, we went to the affiliated housing complex across the street. the complex had one nicely-painted façade facing the street, but the rest of the units were behind a wall. our translator told us that the city had built the wall ostensibly to keep the children from running into the street but really so that passers-by wouldn’t be able to (or have to) see the housing conditions. our translator is an activist so he might have been biased, and the wall might have been there already, but as the below (unretouched) photos show, the difference between the two sides of the wall is so stark, i thought i was looking at the “wizard of oz” scene when dorothy travels between kansas and oz:
we were there to meet one of the local activists, but to talk about matters totally unrelated to roma housing or social conditions. the light was good, so here are some interior shots. (this is the point in the blog at which my photos get self-consciously “arty.”)
next: a family