Elusive nomads, veiled fortunetellers, pickpocket thieves—these are just a few deeply rooted identities that people often associate with the Roma, commonly known as “Gypsies.” Decades of rumors and pop-culture depictions of the Roma as free-spirited criminals and kidnappers have led to fear, contempt, and unsavory images of their culture in Europe and beyond. Who really are the Roma—Europe’s largest and most marginalized minority group?
As a photojournalist for the Prague Post, Julie Denesha was frequently warned to “watch out for the Gypsies.” Aware of the stereotypes, general resentment, and incidents of violence against the Roma, she set out on a mission to learn the truth about the Roma who were residing in Slovakia of Central Europe. Through a selection of thirty photographs, Roma in Focus: Dispelling the “Gypsy” Myth presents an intimate look at how tight-knit families and communities maintain their values and lifestyle amid daily challenges of violence, poverty, discrimination, and social exclusion.
Denesha lived with both urban and rural Roma families in 2000, 2003, and 2007, documenting daily life in crowded, isolated settlements. She formed close relationships with the families she photographed, and believed that if people could see the reality of the Roma, and understand their way of life, then perhaps the prevailing stereotypes and misconceptions could be dispelled.
In some instances, the Roma have integrated into mainstream societies, working and achieving higher levels of education. More often, they live apart from local populations, lacking indoor plumbing or electricity. Of the estimated 350,000 to 400,000 Roma living in Slovakia, approximately half live in Romani settlements.
Roma in Focus challenges what we think we know about the Roma by providing a personal perspective inside these primitive villages. We witness a small boy’s journey to collect water with a dirty jug, the arduous process of chopping wood for the village’s wood-burning stoves, and a funeral procession for a woman—the victim of a violent hate crime.
Other images capture simple, everyday moments—moments that are not so different than our own: a mother and daughter preparing a meal, children laughing with friends, and a family grieving the loss of a loved one.
The exhibition inspires us to consider other marginalized groups whose cultural norms may be perceived as different. In the twenty-first century, people continue to respond to rumors with exclusion or violence, simply because others speak a different language, dress differently, or follow cultural beliefs that are not the same as their own. Roma in Focus provides a window into an intriguing and unfamiliar world; it encourages us to take a second look at our own preconceptions and cultural notions.
In conjunction with Denesha’s photographs, Roma in Focus features a video component that highlights the Roma’s fascinating cultural traditions, including music and dance. The exhibition is curated and organized by Denise Smith of ExhibitsUSA, with consultation from Ian Hancock, Ph.D., Harold C. and Alice T. Nowlin Regents Professor in Liberal Arts at The University of Texas at Austin.