Printed 28.05.2023 18:52
21-04-2005 Brian Kenety
"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 called Athinganoi.
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 another story'."
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 in Prague.
"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 journalists [laughs].
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 Athinganoi.
"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 bad."
"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 created."
"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 year.
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