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Travelling with the Roma people

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Travelling with the Roma people

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The exhibition “Voyages Pendulaires, des Roms au cœur de l’Europe” is taking place at Lyon’s Resistance and Deportation History Centre. It puts the spotlight on the daily lives of several Roma families, as captured by the French photographer Bruno Amsellem over a three-year period. Making return trips between France and Romania, Amsellem took part in the repeated voyages of this stigmatised population. We caught up with the photographer. 

How did you come up with the idea for this exhibition?
The idea for this exhibition came out of the expulsion of the shanty town of Puisot in Vénissieux in 2007. At the site, I saw these Roma people crossing fields with bundles of their possessions on their backs, then getting on a bus bound for Romania. I worked for Le Monde, with Sophie Landrin. We decided to go to Romania to understand what pushed these people to come to France.

How did you get in touch with these families?
Since 2002 I went several times to the squats and the shanty towns in the region of Lyon. Then, in 2007, when I decided to devote more time to this project, I started to get closer to the families, initially without a camera. These exchanges could last ten days. Little by little, they understood what I was aiming to do, and a relationship of trust was established. In addition, I got help from third parties, such as the anthropologist Thomas Ott, who introduced me to the family that I travelled with to Romania.

Tarzan, Crijma et Izabela Covaci. Rabagani, Roumanie, 04-09 © Bruno Amsellem/Signatures
Bruno Amsellem est représenté par la maison de photographes Signatures.

In terms of how rough life can be, what are the differences between France and Romania?
One cannot make generalisations about this population. In Romania, certain Roma people live correctly. But these people are not the same as those found in the shanty towns in our regions. Those who flee Romania do so because they don’t have access to medical services. There is no social security like in France. They do not have access to running water, nor electricity. But, above all, they do not have enough to eat every day. The other important point, as told to me by Tarzan, the father of one of the families I followed, they do not dare send their children to the school for fear of being targeted. What they come to seek in France are solutions for these problems: to provide an education for their children, since the school is obligatory for all in France; to be able to ease their hunger by putting out their hands, which they cannot do in Romania. Indeed, over there, the majority live in the countryside and those who live in the city are rejected by most of the Romanian population.

During all of these return trips, what touched you the most?
What touched me a lot, in terms of the families, was their interest in others. On the telephone, they always said to me: “And your children? How are they? How is your job going?” They have a great desire to be informed and to fit in with the population in which they live. I saw it for example with Tarzan, when he went begging. He had special relationships, as he was always at the same place, and he always had a small joke to share. Most of the time, he knew a little bit of the background of the person who gave him some money.

To finish, would you say that you are a political artist?
Political artist, I don’t know. I regard myself as a photoreporter; the word artist disturbs me. This work is a testimony. I want to humanise this population and show real human stories. I want to go beyond the stereotypes of robbers, views I myself might have had before getting to know this population. There is perhaps a little more crime where they live, but it is also a question of survival. It’s mostly only minor crime, which is not widespread among all Roma people. The families I followed are very law-abiding.

The exhibition, which opened on June 17, runs until December 24 at Lyon’s Resistance and Deportation History

Bruno Amsellem, Signatures,

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