The Roma People
I have spent most of the past year or so photographing gypsies in a dozen Eastern European countries. An editorial grant by Getty Images allowed me the freedom to decide what kind of people to shoot and where.
In Hungary, where I grew up, as well as in most countries around Eastern Europe, the prejudice against gypsies, or Roma, is extreme and goes back for centuries. It stems from an ignorance that most prejudiced people aren't even aware of: they don't know what they don't know. The people from childhood are taught mocking rhymes, folk songs, everyday sayings, common tales, myths and even popular racist jokes.
According to the most accepted theory, the origin of the Roma people was in India and over the past few centuries, they have moved to different parts of the world. Approximately 8 million Roma live in widely dispersed communities across Europe. Historically, the largest communities are to be found in the countries on the Balkan peninsula and in Eastern Europe. Fortunately, I have been able to work in nearly all of these countries in the past year to complete my project.
That's exactly how I began work in St. Petersburg, Russia. An assistant attorney who works with the Memorial NGO took me to a village, Peri, about 100 kilometers (65 miles) from the city. Half the population is Russian and the other half is Roma. My guide introduced me to the village chief, who promised that I could stick around and work when I returned a few days later.
Three days on he was nowhere to be found. Unsure about what to do next, I began wandering around the village. A group of men sat on a nearby porch and called me over. My Russian vocabulary is limited at best but the 50 words I remembered from my studies proved enough. One of them invited me to spend time with his family. He told his sons to watch my luggage and squeezed me into his crumbling old Lada. We were off to celebrate Midsummer Night, Russian-style, out in the woods with plenty of vodka, grilled pork and singing.
His brother tried to keep him out of his car by locking himself inside, but my host knocked the windows out with his bare hands, and dragged his brother out. I began to walk home with another guy – a 10-mile hike. A few minutes later, though, my host, with car tires screeching, pulled over next to us and demanded we join him in the Lada. He gunned the engine and zipped down the potholed dirt road at 50 miles an hour in second gear until the exhaust pipe cracked and the coolant boiled off. Dawn broke before we got home and after the others headed home, my host began to cry on my shoulder.
The next day, as if nothing had happened, he asked me giddily to tell his family how he had injured his hand and nearly wrecked his car.
This might have been an extraordinary story, but it is by no means a typical one. I've gone through a lot during the past year I spent with the Roma, and I've seen more normal, even mundane stories, than crazy ones – and they were overwhelmingly positive. These experiences have reinforced my faith in what I do. Of course, there are extreme situations, but it is only against the background of everyday life. My true interest in this project is that we can understand the Roma for whom they really are.
© Balazs Gardi
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