The Misunderstood

Living with and learning from the Roma, who still endure gypsy stereotypes

| September-October 2008

  • Roma

    Copyright Joakim Eskildsen. The Roma Journeys by Joakim Eskildsen published by Steidl. (www.steidlville.com)

  • Roma

For more on Roma culture, including links to articles, interviews, organizations, and other Roma resources, visit  www.utne.com/Roma .

Telling the entire story of the Roma people would be an epic undertaking. The saga would span centuries and continents, with a splintered narrative tracing a group of nomads as they flee India and spin off into a constellation of distinct communities across Europe and beyond, each one forming its own folkways and lifestyles, all the while hounded by stereo­types, suspicions, and other connotations of the “Gypsy” label so often applied to them. It would involve persecution, discrimination, and genocide, as well as music, acrobatics, and distinctive clothing and handcrafts.

Danish-born photographer Joakim Eskildsen knew little of this sprawling backdrop when in 2000 he decided to photograph Roma communities for the book The Roma Journeys (Steidl, 2008). In fact, he professes knowing “absolutely nothing” about the Roma beyond the “horrible, terrible, unhuman” stereotypes he’d absorbed while he was growing up in Denmark. Once he began living among Hungarian Roma with writer Cia Rinne, though, he became engrossed in the Roma people’s “never-ending story.”

“We became so fascinated, so interested” by the Roma world, he says, “and also surprised by all the ignorance” of the non-Roma. “Even our highly educated friends had all kinds of strange stereotypes and funny ideas. It somehow felt that it was impossible to do something superficial.”



He and Rinne ended up working on the project for seven years—“the shortest possible time we could even think about”—living in Roma communities in seven countries in a remarkable feat of immersive documentary journalism. Rinne’s linguistic skills helped them forge personal connections and secure revelatory accommodations like a four-month stint sleeping on a grandmother’s sofabed in Hungary. The resulting volume is a color-drenched, vivid depiction of a wildly diverse culture that, viewed in full, can’t help but change the way an observer regards the Roma people.

That’s not an insubstantial accomplishment in a world where the Roma are largely regarded with hostility. The eastward expansion of the European Union has brought several million more of Europe’s 8 to 12 million Roma people into the EU fold, and xenophobia is running high in many of the continent’s “old” and “new” countries.

Gary Ashcraft
9/19/2008 5:27:45 PM

I have a rent house that seemed to fall into long string of successive Roma families here in Houston. They are a most interesting outsider culture. I am positive they will never assimilate into any society, anywhere. In fact those I was in contact with displayed a sly disdain for cultural norms of any kind other than thier own. It was facinating to watch the ebb and flow of them through and across this country.


Pilar Saavedra-Vela
9/19/2008 2:46:18 PM

I commend the authors for this book on the Roma. It is interesting that they should say they found no Rom in India. There is a wonderful movie called Latcho Drom, which follows the Rom music and dance from India's Rajastan west through Egypt to France and Spain. This film was directed by Tony Gatlif, himself a Rom descendant. The Rom have communities in the US and Latin America as well.