Roma Rising: portrait of a community (part 2)|
"Roma Rising/Romske Obrozeni" is a collection of portraits by the
American photographer Chad Evans Wyatt of over 100 Czech Romani people,
working professionals "of great intelligence, integrity and
accomplishment." In today's edition of Panorama (the second half of a
series), Brian Kenety speaks to some young Romani people portrayed in that
project -- among them a medical student, a public relations specialist,
and a computer programmer who heads the Romani students' organisation
It was while shooting portraits for what was to become the award-winning
book "101: Artists in the Post-Revolution Czech Republic" that
the idea for Roma Rising/Romske Obrozeni was born.
"I photographed some Roma as part of the  artists series and
they said, 'you know, there is a middle class' - all you see in the press
is just poverty, sorrow, failure, hopelessness -- and there really is
The idea behind the "Roma Rising" project, says photographer
Chad Evans Wyatt, is to show that "other story".
"In order to start a conversation, I hoped, I would photograph people
who were part of this middle class and professional class, and say, 'If
your stereotype about the Roma is correct, then who are these hundred
people I photographed?' How do you explain them? And I photographed that
many, in order to push aside the argument that, well, I 'found two or
three special people' but the rest of them are terrible."
Martina Pokutova is an Account Manager for a leading public relations firm
"I dreamed of becoming a hairdresser - like all little girls, I
suppose. But my mother and father were always telling me that education is
important - and they didn't want me to become a hairdresser. And then when
I was older, I also found that education for me means a lot, and that I
wanted to reach something."
"So then I decided to study at secondary grammar school and I studied
at university - biology and chemistry. Originally I am a teacher, but now I
work in a different field. But, as I said, for my parents education was
very important because ... you have more 'ways' to go."
RP: Let's talk a little about the project Roma Rising: The photographer
-his idea was to present Romani people that, maybe, people don't know are
out there because media coverage tends to focus on the negative. How did
you feel when you were asked to be photographed?
"Well, I felt that... I said, 'why not', frankly, 'why not' because
it's not against anything; it's a positive thing, he's presenting, let's
say, positive examples, and if he thinks it will contribute to something,
then, why not?. And I agreed."
"I think people should see -- I like the idea that there will be Roma
people with different professions. Usually, what I can see are 'Roma
professionals' - like, professionals in the Roma field, but not working in
civic... 'normal' jobs. So I liked the idea; it was a little bit different,
that there would be different people presented to the media and the wider
public: I think this is what we need."
RP: You said earlier, also, that you are a little bit tired of being a
sort of example? Or that people seek you out?
"No, I wouldn't say I'm tired of being an example: I'm tired of
proving -- always proving to somebody -- that I'm... I'm not dirty, I'm
not stealing and that I'm a normal person, I'm a human being, and it
doesn't mean that if I'm Roma, this is something wrong, something bad. So
this is something I am tired of, and I have to say, I have to prove it all
the time When I meet new people, it often happens in the beginning they are
surprised seeing me in this position, in this job."
RP: You work in public relations, so you are making contacts with clients
over the phone, setting up appointments: then you turn up, and...?
"And, well, usually it's not a problem. Our agency works for
international companies so... I, frankly, I haven't met with any of our
clients having a problem with me, that I am a Roma, because they are
international. But... talking to the Czech journalists, for example,
sometimes I see they are surprised but then--because my job is about
relationships--I see that it can work. When we meet in person and they
come to know me, I have a very good relationship with them. So, I think
this is also my contribution to the Roma community - I am influencing
RP: Okay, I'll take notes...
"My name is Vladimir Cervenak. It was my dream to study medicine and
now I'm studying in Prague at the [Charles University's] faculty of
medicine. [and] I think it's necessary to show the majority people that I
am Roma and that I am not bad, like the others think."
"My mother is Roma, my father is Gadzo - is Czech, and maybe I don't
look like Roma - 'real Roma' - and maybe that's why I haven't any problems
in my school. But I believe that other people can have some problems and
it's really, really bad for them."
Indeed, as a group, "the Roma minority suffer disproportionately from
poverty, unemployment, interethnic violence, discrimination, illiteracy,
and disease" - to quote from the U.S. State Department's most recent
report on human rights in the Czech Republic.
"I am Gypsy but... maybe I was a little bit ashamed. When I came to
Athinganoi for the first time, my life took a new direction because I
stopped to be ashamed that I am Gypsy .It was really, really, really good
for me and I am so happy that I can be a part of Athinganoi because it did
so much in my life."
Like medical student Vladimir Cervenak and PR account manager Martina
Pokutova, many of the younger people portrayed in the "Roma
Rising" project are members or alumni of Athinganoi, a Romani
students organisation founded by Monika Horakova, which is aimed at
helping Roma to study -- and excel -- at the college and university level,
while working towards the common good of the community at large.
Computer programmer Gabriella Hrabanova is the current chairperson of
"Life for Roma is really hard here; really hard... I am half Roma and
I'm very white. My mother, she is Roma; my father, he is Czech. So, to my
Czech schoolmates I was always saying 'I am Roma' - but no one can see
it... So, when I said that, they were surprised and they'd say, 'Oh, your
family is an exception. It's not like this; it cannot be like this. You
are an exception: your family is good, but the others... they are
"Monika Horakova-Mihailickova, she got the idea to bring together
Romani students from high school and universities, to motivate them to
become involved in civil society.
RP: She was a Member of Parliament already at that time?
"Yes, she was and our first meeting was in the Parliament. It was
amazing for us. We were 30 young people -30 young Roma people - and this
experience I cannot forget. We were all so happy to see that we are not
alone because usually these kids [pursuing higher education] didn't have
schoolmates who were Roma as well - they were these 'exceptions'. We saw
that we were not alone and we can share the identity and we can work
together and together to do something. And so then Athinganoi was
"I was very fortunate to meet former deputy Monika Horakova and she
sent me to Brno to photograph people she knows - it was her district - she
gave me a list of people..."
Photographer Chad Evans Wyatt had read of a pending lawsuit against a
restaurant for discrimination. It was launched by Ms Horakova, a trained
psychologist, and then a Member of Parliament -- and the only Romani MP in
office. She had been refused service on the basis of her skin colour.
"[The] point is that I started at a very high level, ad it was very
inspiring because it made me think that my idea was correct. And I asked
these people, who were very informed, 'Okay, I've photographed you, now
can you give me some other suggestions, of other people' - so what's very
important to say ... is that the project is 'inner informed' - that is to
say, the Romani community informed me who to photograph."
In the Roma Rising project, which is due to come out in book form this
year, Mr Wyatt portrays numerous Czech Romani professionals, including the
noted activist Karel Holomek, the director of the Museum of Romani Culture,
Dr Jana Horvathova, and her husband, Vladimir Horvath, who is a surgeon.
"I got the sense that the Romani group was taking on the project as
their own. And I really insist that this is true: it's not my project;
this is their project. And I am quite anxious that media outlets use the
photographs for this purpose; to create a discussion. So you see that [the
Romani newspaper] Romano Hangos, for example, every issue has a photograph.
They call up the person and do a little interview - it's wonderful."
Also portrayed are well-known journalists like Richard Samko and Jarmila
Balazova, and scores of people in professions outside of the limelight:
police officers and judges, teachers and social workers.
Chad Evans Wyatt again:
"The Czechs have quite often ignored the Roma, or been annoyed by the
Roma, but these people, despite all the difficulties, have succeeded on
society's own terms; they serve as models for those who would follow, and
it's a solid, although small, core of people in the Czech Republic."
For more information on the project, please go to www.romarising.com. Roma
Rising will be exhibited in Czech Centres throughout Europe this year and
at the Czech embassy in Washington, DC this autumn. Select photographs
from the series are travelling now internationally as part of a group
show. "Roma Rising" will be available in book form later this