I’ve not been great at updating this site lately but there’s only a few weeks left of my Arts Council-funded Roma exhibition at Salford Museum and Art Gallery, Turn Sideways in the Wind. This tells the stories of three young Roma migrants to Greater Manchester and ends on 24 April. Editing the work and putting together the show was a huge learning experience and I feel lucky to have been given this opportunity. It was also really great to see the project participants look at the work on the walls. If anyone is in the Greater Manchester area over the coming weeks and fancies a look, more information about the gallery can be found here. It’s right next to Salford Crescent train station, just a few minutes from Manchester city centre.
I’ve neglected this site over the past nine months – but there’s a good reason for it. I’ve been on maternity leave and enjoying some time out, getting to know my son Lukas. Plus the small matter of buying and moving into a new house. While I have been taking a break from shooting new work for this project it is by no means finished with. I have been keeping in touch with my project participants and have visited those who live locally – with baby in tow. I wouldn’t be forgiven if I left him at home.
I used some of my return to work days to design a newspaper to display some work produced for the Roma Matrix project that I was involved in last year. And I’ve just learned that I’ve been given funding by Arts Council England towards a small exhibition of my Greater Manchester Roma work at Salford Art Gallery from December. More about that later.
Some good news regarding the London Roma exhibition some of my work appeared in recently. The Roma – from Extra to Ordinary was picked up by the United Nations in Geneva and parts of it (including the photographs of Artur Conka and myself) will be on show during the 27th Human Rights Council meeting next month.
I’ve also recently been selected to show some of my Roma work in a small solo exhibition in Greater Manchester late in 2015, which is exciting since so much of the project was shot in and around Manchester and Salford. More info on this in due course.
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.
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 (click on ELVIRA gallery in the menu on the left hand side) 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 don’t really want much to do with this current media storm – there are good Romani voices out there who are better placed than me to voice their views and I’m not into profiting from other people’s misfortunes, especially those I count as friends - but I wrote a little something about this nonsense and my current Side Gallery exhibition here (it was written before the Sheffield coverage).
For a more nuanced and less generalising view of Roma communities in the UK, check out the stories elsewhere on this website.
And read Ramona’s story in her own words here.
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!