Read the interview with Cia Rinne on ‘The Roma Journeys’.
Research and compare Koudelka’s ‘Gypsies’ and Eskildsen’s ‘The Roma Journeys’. Discuss aspects to do with the photographer’s intention and the distinctive aesthetics and approach of each body of work.
Koudelka produced the body of work that was eventually published as a photobook in 1975 as ‘Gypsies’ between 1962-71. The work is identifiable as being from a classic documentary/photo essay tradition – the hallmark of the Magnum agency which Koudelka became a member of in 1971. Koudelka left his home in Prague in 1966 following the revolution and lived a meagre existence, travelling lightly with few possessions. This way of living could explain why he was accepted by the Roma able to photograph them freely, something that is demonstrated by the relaxed nature of his subjects who he showed as “people who, while possessing very little, are experiencing life and all its dreadfulness in grim abundance.” (Dyer, 2006)
Eskildsen made ‘The Roma Journeys’ between 2000-06 in collaboration with the writer Cia Rinne who is credited as joint author. As well as contributing the writing which accompanies the extensive 400 page photobook which is the culmination of the project, the presence of Rinne and her skill as a communicator enabled Eskildsen to capture visual content he would not have had access to alone. For example, portraits of women and domestic interiors.
Although both works feature images from various countries (Koudelka: Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, France and Spain; Eskildsen: Hungary, Romania, India, Finland, Greece, Russia and France.) there is significant difference between the way both projects are presented. Koudelka’s photographs give the impression that they could be from a single encampment at a particular time, although the time frame of his project was longer and geographical reach nearly as far as that of ‘The Roma Journeys’. Eskildsen on the other hand, clearly signposts that his images are from different areas – one of the aims of ‘The Roma Journeys’ being to challenge the notion that there is such a thing as a heterogeneous ‘gypsy soul’. Although the Roma people have historical, cultural and linguistic links in common, they differ greatly and it is misleading to speak of the Roma as a group.
Both photographers talk of their projects coming about organically and being drawn to photograph the Romani people although neither is able to articulate how this came about. Koudelka comments, “I just began to photograph them, and when I started I couldn’t stop.” (Hagen, 1993) While Rinne identifies an experience of being introduced to a Hungarian Romani group when they stayed with a friend in 2000. Both she and Eskildsen became more interested in the Roma, their situation and history the more they learned and the realisation that there was a severe lack of knowledge about them was the catalyst to develop the project.
Both works are driven by the desire to challenge negative representations of the Roma who both photographers see as marginalised and oppressed. The main difference is that Koudelka’s work was brought together as a body after the event, the role of editor Robert Delpire is held as a significant aspect of the works success as a coherent whole. After the initial catalyst of interest, ‘The Roma Journeys’ developed with the clear end aim of being published as an extensive photo book with the conscious aim of increasing knowledge of the Roma which Eskildsen and Rinne felt was a significant reason for the survival of old and unfounded prejudices.
Both projects are immediately recognisable as documentary works as they are clearly based in the real world and the majority of images are portraits which shows a shared focus on the people encountered. The main and most obvious aesthetic difference is the use of black and white in Koudelka’s series and colour in Eskildsen’s. (Although there are some black and white panoramic images used which appears to be a deliberate stylistic choice – the romantic atmosphere is perhaps a comment on how black and white can significantly affect the mood of an image.) Koudelka’s images are darkly romantic and sometimes stark in nature – the gritty black reportage style emphasises the poverty and clannishness of the gypsies. I would hesitate to describe the subjects of his photographs as shown as ‘other’, but there is certainly a depiction of the gypsies as outsiders. There appears to be an identification with the gypsies in Koudelka’s images which given his own world view and way of working could explain why he felt kinship with them. There is also a great deal of ambiguity in Koudelka’s work, a deliberate strategy on his part given this quote from him about his view of what makes a good photograph: “If a picture is good, it tells many different stories.” (Hagan, 1993) An example of this is his photograph of a gypsy accused of murder – an image that both challenges and refutes the idea that gypsies are inherently dangerous criminals because of the multiple ways it can be read.
Geoff Dyer (2006) sees the development of Koudelka’s visual style as having developed from his unusual approach of photographing theatre productions in his native Prague. Rather than taking images from in front of the stage, Koudelka insisted on being amongst the actors as they performed, which combined with his use of a wide-angle lens, results in a feeling of immersion and has “the effect of prising open the action, of ushering the viewer into its midst.” Koudelka himself makes this comment on this approach:
“I photographed gypsies and theatre at the same time. With the gypsies, it was theatre, too. The difference was that the play had not been written and there was no director – there were only actors. It was real, it was life. It was a different kind of theatre – it was the theatre of life. I didn’t need to do anything with it. Everything was there. All I had to know was how to react.” (Lardinois, 2007: 258)
Eskildsen’s images are rich and highly saturated, the use of colour adds a modernity to the photographs which makes them easier to identify with than Koudelka’s. There are subtle colour changes across the regions photographed that both emphasises the view that the Roma are not one heterogeneous group and gives a separate feel to each part of the project. Where Koudelka appears to emphasise the separateness of his subjects, there is a warmth and intimacy in ‘The Roma Journeys’ that translates as tender and poignant observation. There is a strong feeling through the images alone that Eskildsen is photographing as someone welcomed into the community and that there is mutual trust from both parties.
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