Be-Longing: Traveller’s stories, Traveller’s lives, 2010
Be-Longing is the result of project work with Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities living in Slovenia, England and Italy.
The work started as a reaction to the pogrom against the Roma community in Northern Ireland in 2009 and the rise of parties in European elections campaigning on anti-Roma manifestos. Traveller communities are the largest ethnic minority group in Europe numbering over 12 million people. For centuries travellers have suffered extreme levels of prejudice and rejection and for some it has been necessary to hide their identity to survive.
The resulting exhibition at 198 Contemporary Arts and Learning was an attempt to promote an understanding of traveller communities and counter the unspoken prejudices about such people. In order to take the experience of working with these communities further, to invite dialogue and debate through making public some of the conversations Sajovic has been having with the people she has photographed and the people who have supported her research, the exhibition has been surrounded by a programme of events: workshop with Delaine LeBas, seminar The role of photography and other artistic media in challenging stereotypes and prejudice, The Future of Travelling Communities, Film night and a Closing event with a Romani DJ.
There are about 10,000 Roma living in my home country of Slovenia. Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia, and you might imagine witnesses to Yugoslavia’s wars would have had their fill of ethnic cleansing for a generation or so.
In 2005 in the space of a few days there were two bombs dropped into two Roma houses in Slovenia. One claimed the lives of a 46 years old mother (who left behind three sons) and of 21 year old girl, a school assistant.
The other targeted the window of a bedroom, hit the windowpane and bounced back, exploding in front of the house. Lucija Brajdic suffered cuts in her belly from the glass that exploded. I met and photographed Lucija and her family.
On 28 October 2007 the Strojans, an extended family of 31 Roma,
14 of them children, fled their property in Ambrus, Slovenija, after it was surrounded by a mob from Ambrus and nearby villages, threatening to kill them and demanding their eviction. While the police kept the crowd back, Slovenian government officials negotiated the family’s removal to a former army barracks in my home town of Postojna, about 30 miles away. I have also met and photographed members of the Strojan family.
If these events seem remote, closer in time and space was the pogrom like episode in Belfast last June, when 20 Roma families, including many young children, were forced to flee their homes. They had come under sustained attack over a number of nights from a crowd chanting racist slogans, smashing windows and kicking in doors.
London must be one of the most liberal, cosmopolitan cities in the world, but I have spoken to Roma in Southwark, running a fruit and veg stall, who wanted their identity concealed, believing they will lose business if their ethnicity becomes known.
Not far away, near Basildon in Essex is Dale Farm, the largest traveler site in the UK housing over 1,000 people. The land is part of the green- belt, but owned by the Sheridan clan of Irish travelers. Planning permission was granted to 40 families in the 1970s. The 1968 Caravan Sites Act had imposed an obligation on local authorities to provide sites for travelers, but this was removed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, leading to insufficient sites and numerous evictions. 60 further families established themselves on Dale Farm but were unable to obtain planning permission. 90% of planning permission requests from travelers are rejected compared to 20% for the rest of the population. In 2005 Basildon Council decided
to bulldoze the greater part of this site on the basis of lack of planning permission. Basildon’s decision making process was found at fault by the High Court, but in January 2009 the Court of Appeal ruled that Basildon could proceed to enforce the order. I have photographed families from Dale Farm, including some taken in the course of a spectacular family wedding.
The situation is reminiscent of a Sinti encampment I visited on the outskirts of Trieste, Pietraferrata. The families were moved here by
the Council 30 years ago, after the Council sold their previous site for development of a sports ground. In 2004 the Council sold Pietraferrata, immediately making the encampment illegal. Only this time, despite financial provision for a new site, they failed to identify an alternative location. This hasn’t stopped the Sinti being charged with illegal habitation. Although they have so far been supported by the Courts, under persistent pressure the number of people living here has fallen from 50 in 2005 to 15 today.
Although all the communities I worked with have had reason to be suspicious of outsiders, the hospitality I received has invariably been warm and generous. Sites and encampments allow generations, and families to
live alongside one another, parents, grandparents, cousins and aunts - and this as well has made me feel at home, as it’s close to the way my family lives in Slovenia. On an encampment a family growing up just means a new caravan. In communist Yugoslavia, where the land was shared, when it was time to branch out you could build a house next door to your parents. Given the long history of discrimination and oppression against Gypsy and Roma across Europe communal living functions not only as an anchor of belonging, but as a basic survival strategy. The choice of submitting to ‘assimilation’ in the form of a Council flat, in a tenement block, even where such a choice exists, may mean leaving behind that which is valued above all else.
There are a number of explanations for why prejudice and negative stereotyping against Roma, travellers and Gypsies remains widely acceptable. There is the tendency for groups to react against prejudice by keeping to themselves; there’s the fact that although there an increasing number of talented Gypsy artists and academics representing their culture through printed media, for a long time the culture has been primarily oral; and there is confusion about differences between different groups. These are all conditions that make it challenging to displace ignorance and prejudice.
I hope this exhibition plays a part (however modest) in making things better.
(Eva Sajovic, 2010)