Friday, October 2, 2009

Two Gypsies

This is an article I wrote to accompany a photograph that appeared in an online exhibition for a class I took in my final semester at university. The photo and the text were submitted for an assignment in the 4th year seminar called "Photography and the City". Students were asked to submit a photograph, either of their own or that someone else had produced, and write a short description of the photo to accompany it in the exhibition. The photograph was to somehow relate to themes addressed in the course such as the city as a system, history and the documentary function of the photograph, the photograph as innovation or progress. Here are my original photograph and commentary from that exhibition.

Two gypsies stand frozen amid the ever-rushing current
of the city.
In a city like Florence, even the beggars are picturesque. “Signore, signore! Tre bambini, signore!” they moan after tourists as they enter the Duomo. Dressed in colourful skirts with long, stringy hair, the Romani women look as though they’ve stepped out of a Victor Hugo period novel. Their normally vigilant attention is currently transfixed upon the take-away dish of spaghetti they devour together. Savouring each strand, the dark haired woman pulls each noodle apart with her fingers, raises it in the air and it quickly disappears. The fair-haired woman is so advanced in her pregnancy one imagines her baby in her belly delighting in this treat as much as the mother.
The modern tourist gaze seeks out the picturesque through street photography. This is not just any picnic. In this image, like a modern, twisted Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, the women dine on a simple meal amid other figures. But, unlike Manet’s painting, this picnic occurs on their tired feet, amid the past and present reverberations in the moving, modern city. The buggy in motion and the horse’s ears nearly out of view lead the viewer back to an older, quieter time, or at least an earlier method of locomotion. These objects act as an anchor, holding the Romani in Florence and corroborating their way of life. This photograph was taken in a series shot on the steps of the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore. I was waiting for a friend who never arrived and looking out at the people on the square in front of the Baptistery. The Hare Krishna were chanting and playing instruments on bicycles. Other Romani women and children were walking through the square, asking people for money. Then time slowed down and I spied these two women sharing a meal off to the side. Sunny breaks in the clouds made the jewel tones of their skirts sparkle all the more. By digitally increasing the exposure and dramatically heightening the colour contrast the beauty of the Romani clothing becomes the focal point. It is an exciting feeling, to capture a moment that was secret but that you can share. I think this is a precious moment, as worthy of aesthetic appreciation as an oil painting with posed models.
Their bursting, pregnant bellies and high-heeled feet are incredibly disjunctive with the image of the urban yoga mom we are most familiar with. As Ariadne Van de Ven has described, “both the making and the viewing of photographs can challenge our responses to ‘otherness’”. These women are fierce, and yet they relish in this delicious meal like two young children. The image is indeed picturesque, and the intense colours and patterns in the subjects’ clothing create a stark contrast to the blue denim appearance of the transient figure out of focus.
The majority of European citizens view the Romani people as a menace and many others still imagine the Romani as an archaic culture that no longer exists in modern society. But since the 14th century, when the Romani presence in Europe was first recorded, the Romani people have struggled to maintain their vibrant culture. Once synonymous with fortunetellers and caravan-riders, gypsies, or Romani have their own musical as well as other traditions. In this image, though, the viewer is drawn to the kinship bond that unites these women. In the fast moving city, where all others are dressed in contemporary clothing, these two women are emplaced within the larger Italo-cultural paradigm. They maneuver system of the city at large. No doubt, these two women were married very young and have likely already had several children. The more children you bear, the higher your status in the community. But they are not confined to the home. These women are out in the city, with little care for their outward perception by others.
But their lives are not so idyllic, as the tourist photographer has surely noted. The Italian government has at times referred to the Romani population in Italy as a “Roma emergency” harkening back to earlier times of persecution and violence. There are instances of prejudice and violence against the Romani even today. Perceptions of the Romani as thieves and beggars are grossly out of touch with the face of modern Romani communities. Ought the Romani women to be regarded as any more anachronistic than the horse and buggy in the background of this very image?

Check out the whole photo exhibition at

Works Cited
Povoledo, Elisabetta. “Italy assailed over plan to fingerprint Gypsies.” International Herald Tribune, July 3, 2008, Europe section.

Van de Ven, Ariadne. “Photographing People is Wrong,” City12:3 (1 December 2008), p. 388.

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