Roma: Slovakia's 'Beautiful People'

AN OLD, well-dressed couple is sitting in front of an elaborately decorated window while posing for a photographer. The old man is holding his wife’s hand while she stares at the ceiling. She is blind. The old-fashioned interior of the room is clean and tidy. The couple in this photograph, taken by Šymon Kliman, are a Roma couple living in a settlement in Slovakia.

Madonna and child.Madonna and child. (Source: Courtesy of Š. Kliman)

AN OLD, well-dressed couple is sitting in front of an elaborately decorated window while posing for a photographer. The old man is holding his wife’s hand while she stares at the ceiling. She is blind. The old-fashioned interior of the room is clean and tidy. The couple in this photograph, taken by Šymon Kliman, are a Roma couple living in a settlement in Slovakia.

Kliman recently exhibited a series of photographs, named Beautiful People, which he took between 2008 and 2011 of Roma in their own environment after he had asked them to wear their best clothing and posed them in their nicest room. Kliman’s exhibition, dedicated to International Roma Day, had a prominent place on Hviezdoslavovo Square beginning on May 4 and stayed there until the end of the month. The exhibition also opened Gypsy Spirit, a project awarding prizes to those working with the Roma community.

The project originally started as Kliman’s diploma work as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design. The photographer has received several photographic awards in Slovakia. He sensed there was a stereotype in depicting Roma in photographs and wanted to take a different approach.

The Slovak Spectator spoke to Kliman about his work and his experiences photographing and observing Roma life during this three-year period.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why does a college student go to Roma settlements and take photos of residents?
Šymon Kliman (ŠK):
It was a theme for my diploma work but I had also been thinking about depictions of Roma in society and the way they are photographed.
As a photographer I sensed that they are being photographed all the time in the same way, like a black-and-white document. It has been done by many people before and I told myself that it should be done differently. It became completely clear to me that they will have some nice clothes and even if they live in hovels they might have arranged the interior of their homes beautifully.

TSS: Had you been thinking about this for a long time or was it just because of your diploma work?
I had been thinking about it for some time. I started working on a theoretical paper on depictions of Roma and found some old pictures from the 1960s taken by [Josef] Koudelka who spent considerable time with Roma and created a set of images which then were repeated by other photographers again and again: a Roma with a violin, a Roma with a horse, a funeral, a wedding and similar scenes.

Roma are good subjects for the camera. They have something in their eyes which white people do not have; there is a different, stronger expression. Therefore it is really easy to do nice pictures when photographing them. But those photos are beautiful not because of their content. The content is important for me and this is why I stylised my Roma photographs to various old-fashioned pictures. They almost duplicate portraits of kings and Madonna scenes made by simple light and technique.

I noticed that Roma grow up more quickly than we do and also grow older faster. Emotions are extremely important, along with family bonds and relationships. For example, if there is a 15-year-old boy who has been taking drugs since he was nine and he does not even know how to communicate, he is not rejected by his family; they still take care of him.

TSS: But Roma differ from each other and are not homogeneous?
I tried to photograph those who endeavoured to do something with their lives and I show their beauty. I was able to take some intense pictures, for instance of drug-addicted children, but then I did not use them.
I wanted to show Roma in a different light; that many are not dirty and do not cause problems.

TSS: Did you have the aim of changing stereotyped views about Roma?
Artists cannot change someone’s view; we only can show something that might break people’s stereotypes.

TSS: Do you have critics?
I attended Pecha Kucha Night, a format when you have 20 slides and 20 seconds to present each of them. I stood there looking at 400 faces speaking about Roma and suddenly one Italian man stood up and started to yell at me that I am racist and we are all making fun of Roma. I did not know what to say. When it was over I spoke to him and he told me that I present them [Roma] like monkeys and I make fun of them. I responded that this is exactly the opposite of what I want to do. I want to present them in a different light. But it is possible that I seemed like I was making fun of them and that is why other people were laughing. Maybe the reason is that nobody in Slovakia has seen them in this way before.

TSS: What was it like visiting Roma settlements? Do you have an experience you will never forget?
I was lucky with some pictures: for instance, the image of a doll [little girl] in clothes. I really wanted to take a picture of her mother. She was a beautiful big Romani woman and I kneeled before her asking for a picture. She said no and sent me to her daughter. When I came for a second time and showed the picture of the girl to her she agreed to be photographed. Even more, I persuaded her to do the photo with a naked breast. I do not know how I managed to achieve it because nudity is absolutely taboo for them.

Yet one is always laughing with Roma and some of their stories are positive. There is a woman of the same age as me and she has four children. Her husband died and she raises not only her four children but three others as well. One of them lost his parents and two others are from her cousin.
Something that touched me deeply is the story of a boy in one of my pictures; the one with a violet background. He is a beautiful boy and a great artist; he finished elementary school with good marks and he was accepted in a special school in Kremnica. I felt that he had a chance to get out and start again somewhere else. He was living in a hovel at the end of a settlement. And I do not know how to say it but he was picked up by a woman who was 24 years old and alone so she attracted 16-year-old Janko so he did not go anywhere and I knew that he was lost. I did not know what I should do. Should I smack his face or what? He simply fell in love.

Šymon Kliman's photographs and series have won the VÚB Photo of the Year 2008 award, the Rector’s prize AFAD 2008, first prize at the Czech Photo Annual Awards 2012 and he has been a been finalist at the Grandprix Fotofestiwal Łódź.

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