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Portraits - Roma family - 1993


In the summer of 1993 I set out to take portraits of nomadic Romani children living in camps located just outside my home town of Cagliari, in the Italian island of Sardinia, along a major thoroughfare to the city's main port.

Camps were made of makeshift huts built on a strip of baron land with scraps of metal, glass and wood, with no access to electricity, heating and sewage treatment while running water was made available in large tanks by the local authority.

Romani families lived in extreme poverty at the edge of the city and earned their living at the margins, through street begging and petty crime. Foreign-looking, largely illiterate and with poor command of Italian they were effectively barred from accessing any type of respectably paid job, however menial; their ethnicity itself a red line for local employers.
Romani children were regularly seen in the city centre begging for whatever cash they could secure by testing the kindness of passers-by.

Fully armed with preconceptions about Roma's exploitation of their own children's labour, I spent a week at the camp earning their trust and gaining unrestricted access to their extended family life.
I discovered proud and surprisingly happy people, their family ties seemingly as solid as their unique cultural heritage. They shared a resolute will to belong and to please each other, the love for their children was strikingly manifest; they worked as a tight unit.

I had to accept that their cultural practices and this version of precarious daily survival called for all family members including children to earn their living, starkly beyond the boundaries of responsible parenting's received notions. In Roma's nomadic universe the transactional nature of money is stripped down to its essential function, they procure to feed themselves, not to accumulate or self-aggrandise but to progress and justify their own existence as a free, roaming community; very little else - lack of basic sanitation, education and welfare of children - matters.

To their mind their huts looked like castles and I was ushered indoors to photograph interior walls plastered with magazine cuttings and floors busy with reclaimed random household objects, toys and dishevelled rugs. Never they showed any sign of shame for their improvised dwellings or acknowledged the neglect they were all immersed in.
They sometimes modelled their best outfits for the camera and in fact they took control and guided me in composing the shot, seemingly aware of the limitations imposed on me by the film's thirty six frames. They took most pleasure on being photographed together and smiling on cue, eagerly holding on for the camera's trigger sound.

As it went on my project reshaped itself into a recognition of 'this' Roma family and all its components, while - against a backdrop of age-old discrimination and neglect - they survived, lived on and played with one other like any family of that first world clearly visible from the camp.

As the number of Roma registered to live in Italy today nears the one hundred thousand the same narratives of race, immigration, nationhood, stereotypes, integration and exclusion, have become front line topics concerning the management at local level of legal and illegal mass immigration.
A quarter of a century later the arrival and treatment of the Roma nomads in Italy and the botched attempts by city councils to integrate them into the Italian's social fabric should serve as a blueprint for assured failure and a template to ignore.

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