by Jonathan Lee
I am probably not the image most people have in their mind when they think of a Gypsy.
My mother is of mostly Irish-American stock – which gives me a few ginger wisps in my beard, and a smattering of freckles across my nose and cheeks. My hair is dark brown, not black. I don’t wear a lolo diklo (red scarf) around my neck, or a staddi kali (black trilby hat) on my head. Most of the time I wear jeans and t-shirt, I rarely ever dance on tables, and I have no piercings or tattoos. I live in an apartment in the centre of a European capital with a woman whom I am not married to, and I travel only about 20 minutes maximum by foot every day to go to work.
If I ask you to close your eyes and picture a Gypsy in your mind’s eye you probably see someone with bangles and gold hoop earrings, floral patterned clothing, long hair, and dark flashing eyes. They may or may not have a tambourine, and may or may not be wearing a turban with a little gem in the centre holding it up. Maybe you see a fortune teller, or a travelling metalsmith? Perhaps a musician? If you are European, more likely you also see a beggar, a thief, a criminal.
This isn’t entirely your fault. Images of Gypsies – or as most throughout Europe call themselves, Roma – have always been controlled by the stereotypes of the majority society. I don’t just mean the literary or cultural idea of Romani people as perceived by society. I mean that quite literally, the vast majority of images made of Roma, whether they are made using paint, lithograph, photograph or film, have historically always been made by non-Roma, and therefore subject to their fantasies, fetishes, and fears.
When non-Romani artists set out to depict images of Roma, they inevitably do so with some preconceived notion of ‘the Gypsy’ that they expect to find. This varies by country and region of course, but also according to the dichotomous image of the Gypsy which most people hold in the heads.
In the UK for example, there are the ‘real Gypsies’ and the ‘so-called Travellers’. The ‘real Gypsies’ are exclusively Romani (as opposed to Irish or Scottish Travellers), and they travel in big wooden vardos (wagons) with piebald shire horses pulling them. They whittle pegs out of wood, collect wildflowers to sell at market, and are a constituent part of the pastoral idyll of days-gone-by. Simultaneously there are the ‘so-called Travellers’. These scoundrels don’t even travel, they might be Irish or Romani or Indian or something – they’re certainly not English – and it’s a well known fact they have loads of money but don’t pay any tax, secretly hoarding it to spend on weddings and cocaine. They are aggressive by nature, have no respect for the law, and they’ll steal anything that isn’t nailed down.
When non-Romani artists set out to depict images of Roma, they inevitably do so with some preconceived notion of ‘the Gypsy’ that they expect to find
Artists tend to be a little more open minded than to believe these very extreme stereotypes (though some are less open minded than others), but the societal notions of how a Gypsy is supposed to look and act are still there somewhere in their subconscious. It can be very difficult to ignore these and not to search for this elusive Gypsy in the real-life subjects they encounter, and depict the Gypsy trope whether it exists or not.
This is true of photography too. Despite the adage that the ‘camera cannot lie’, it sometimes does when the person behind it is searching for a specific picture. Sometimes, even in spite of the best intentions of the photographer, the implicit bias towards finding something that you recognise as the Gypsy means the photographs you take reflect this. In the UK you can see this to lesser and greater degrees in My Big Fat Gypsy Weddings, Gypsy Kids: Our Secret World, or the recent Channel 5 production, The Gypsies Next Door.
In cases where the people being photographed are also in a position of vulnerability and low power relative to the photographer, as in very poor Romani communities, the people being photographed or filmed lose almost all control of their own image to the outsider photographer. The practicalities and logistical difficulties of working in very marginalised Romani communities, often in rural areas, mean that ethical considerations are sometimes left by the wayside.
This relationship between ethics, representation, and vulnerable communities becomes all the more fraught
This is something to be aware for people of Romani origin too. When we go in to communities of people with whom we are linked only by some vague notion of ethnic unity and language, it can be tempting to assume that we have the right to represent these people, or that our agenda matches that of the people we are representing. This relationship between ethics, representation, and vulnerable communities becomes all the more fraught when we bring Gadje (non-Roma) into communities with us.
I recently finished editing a special issue of ZEKE Documentary Photography Magazine focussing on Roma and Travellers. The main issues that came up time and time again, both for the editors and the photographers, were of representation – who has the right to represent who, what stereotypes are present, and which photographs confirm or challenge the implicit biases of society in depicting the Gypsy in images of Romani and Traveller people.
We live in the age of the image. It is how people consume their news, their politics, their entertainment. It is how we conceive of groups of people and how we other them. The power of the ‘Gypsy image’ in the mind of the majority society is intrinsically linked to antigypsyism – the specific form of structural racism against Roma, that is so pervasive in everyday life in Europe. The crystallized idea of what the Gypsy looks like and what the Gypsy encompasses is used throughout Europe to devastating effect by politicians and media outlets who wish to ethnically divide society for political point scoring.
In a decade when anti-Roma rhetoric is more prevalent, more political, and more mainstreamed than probably any other time since the Holocaust – the image of the Gypsy has become a human rights issue. Far-right parties and politicians are increasingly mobilising along anti-Roma platforms, using hate-filled language to demonise and scapegoat Romani people for cheap gains at the ballot box. As in the 1930s, Roma are once again being cast as a policy issue, a demographic problem which needs to be solved, and to which the solutions are increasingly severe. The fight for Roma to control how we are depicted, in terms of image, language and politics, is crucial to countering the politics of populism and nativism. A politics which is already costing Romani lives, and if left unchecked has the potential to result in disastrous consequences for Europe’s largest ethnic minority.
All images © Jennifer Lee