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The dignity of Gypsies

Roma people are subjected to prejudice, treated by some as unwelcome immigrants in their own countries, but their dignity is celebrated in a superb new book from the German publisher Hatje Cantz.

 

Sean Sheehan

 

The life of the photographer Christine Turnauer has been as nomadic as that traditionally associated with gypsies: educated in Austria and England, lived in Paris, emigrated to Canada (becoming a farmer and art history student) and later moved back to Europe. For her portraits of gypsies, she travelled to India, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Kosovo.

The ancestors of the Roma migrated from the Indian subcontinent over a millennium ago and have been settled for centuries in many countries. They tend to be concentrated in Eastern Europe and are known popularly as gypsies. Irish Travellers, who may be descended from the Roma, are treated as second-class citizens and, like gypsies across Europe, suffer discrimination and are called by various pejorative names. The Roma movement struggles to defend their identity and their dignity.

Christine Turnauer’s portraits of gypsies focus on faces and bring to mind the philosophy and moral thought of Emmanuel Levinas.

The ethics of compassion, for Levinas, are based on an awareness of the body, its vulnerability, and the demand of the Other that is registered in the face, the flesh and blood of the other person. There is an obligation to be human, based on sensibility not cognition, and the face of the other calls on us to see our nakedness in their eyes.

For Levinas, the Other remains unknown and unpossessable but also overpoweringly close and confronts us with an unconditional demand, a responsibility, and this unsettles our own selfhood. The ‘face’ is achingly present.

The father of the poet W.B. Yeats was a painter and if he liked someone he made a sketch of them or a portrait.

He said he could only paint what he called ‘friendship portraits’ and the term aptly describes Christine Turnauer’s photographs because what comes across is a clear sense that she likes each one of the individual gypsies she turns her camera towards.

“The dignity of Gypsies” begins in those northern regions of India which genetic and linguistic evidence indicates was where the Roma migrated from, first to Iran and then westwards towards Europe. The photographs in the second part of the book are of gypsies in various parts of Eastern Europe. An association with certain occupations – metalwork, basket weaving, woodwork, begging – is common to the Roma in India and Europe.

Nowadays, with European integration and immigration from the east of Europe to the west, many gypsies have chosen to identify themselves by the countries where they have settled. Bigotry and hostility remains: some people associate them with low-level criminality and untrustworthiness just as once people believed the myth that they would steal young children and bring them up as their own.

Old prejudices die hard but Christine Turnauer’s photographs help deconstruct images inherited from the past.

“The dignity of Gypsies”, by Christine Turnauer, is published by Hatje Cantz.

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