Give us and them a chance

19 tammikuun, 2012  |  Published in UP-TO-DATE

The small, one-column news story is the gourmet of a newspaper,

which I have enjoyed as long as I have been reading newspapers. It was this kind of attractive treat that caught my eye in the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper on 26 September: a story by Tommi Nieminen with the headline The Bronx Romanies are thriving. This
short media commentary said that according to the The Economist magazine, the middle class Romanies from the Bronx enjoy life when they are given the opportunity to be successful. The story was illustrated by a photo of Anna, a Romani dancer from New York. A success story from the world of American Romanies.

Although there is a touch of optimism in The Economist’s story, its humane approach remains weak and still cannot detach itself from the old stereotypes. Even the illustration is very clichéd: a Romani man driving a Romani horse cart in front of Romani palaces. I was wondering about the illustration in Helsingin Sanomat because I couldn’t find the picture of the dancer anywhere in The Economist. The online discussion about the story gives a revealing picture of the way the American and European media and the dominant politics deal with the Romanies. There too lives the idea about us and those others.

Is a photo about a Romani person inevitably an image about threatening difference? It need not be so. Josef Koudelka’s photographs about the Romanies of Slovakia and Romania made a lasting impression on me at the time. With the rugged images of his photography book Gypsies (1975), Koudelka raised the Romanies into representatives of their own community and as citizens of the world. So do Pentti Sammallahti (1985) ja Joakim Eskildsen (2007) with their travel photos from Europe, in an infinitely empathetic and aesthetic way. Mikko Savolainen’s book Raportti Suomen mustalaisista (A Report about the Gypsies of Finland, 1972) is example of the harsh, grainy and reformist social documentary of its time. Does this kind of humanism no longer belong to photojournalism and is the time where the photograph respects its subject now over? The photojournalism that takes sides is based too much on self-evident juxtapositioning and an over-critical approach.

My hopes for something better were raised when I received the Aamulehti newspaper’s Sunday supplement (12.9.2010). It had an extensive photoreportage about the Romanies. Great, absolutely great. After my initial enthusiasm, I started thinking about what I liked and disliked in the story.

Aamulehti had sent Ossi Ahola and Tuomo Björkstein to Romania, near Bucharest. The politicians and local experts were cropped outside the frame. The reportage started and ended in an engaging way, but there was something wrong about the story as a whole. Although the cover image fits the text well, it becomes sickly sweet, an advert-like disaster relief poster for the Red Cross. The engaging direct eye contact is mannered.

The photo on the opening spread of the reportage is stunning. Backlight and stares. Almost half of the photo’s surface area is covered by a big back turned towards us – the strangers – the photographers and readers. People’s expressions are normal. I don’t like the headline of the story, however: The Hated. It stigmatizes and underlines. Are these Romanies also hated? The headline makes the interpretation on behalf of the reader and makes the Romanies into victims – those others. Ossi Ahola’s photographs have potential, but the reportage doesn’t work as a whole. It fumbles from its sense of proportion to forced contrasts. In the final image Romani boys are sitting on a bridge that does not end anywhere. It could have potential as a headline for the story.

Although many Romanies beg and steal, I have seen too many press images this year where a Romani is shown as a depressed and idle victim. The beggar sitting on the street corner and the Romani in a shanty camp seem like they are just an essential part of our problem. If the dominant politics that discriminates against the Romanies relies on clichés, then why do the press photos still reinforce them?

It’s necessary to go deeper than the surface for the pictures to tell about the experiences of the Romanies’ own world. Producers of the photoreportages: Dig out the old magazines and photography books. Learn from them.


Hannu Vanhanen

Docent of Visual Communication


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