When I was a boy living in a small town in the northeast of Scotland, every so often Gypsies would come to our door looking for work. They didn’t live in our town; they were just passing through. Mostly they would mend things: pots and pans, garden tools and the like; and they would sharpen knives and scissors too. We called them Tinkers, because that was the sound they made as they did their work: metal on metal, tink tink tink.
I was aware of a certain distrust of them in the town; but as a boy I saw them only as exotic and romantic, although I doubt that I had those words in my vocabulary at the time. But those are the words that describe how I felt about them: free-spirited nomads, wandering the countryside, doing only that which needed to be done for them to stay alive. In those days, they still travelled in their traditional horse-drawn caravans; clopping and clanking along the country roads at a leisurely pace; seemingly without a care in the world…the perfect life.
Years later, now living and working in Sydney, I made the acquaintance of a young Irishwoman. We caught the same train home from the city each day, at first by chance then later, by arrangement. We never became more than train buddies; she was a few years older than me and in a committed relationship; but we seemed to get on well together and the conversations we had always made the hour-long journey seem to pass more quickly.
Eventually, and I cannot recall now how it came up in conversation, she disclosed to me that her background was Romany. I’m not sure if it was because a trust had developed between us; or perhaps it was a test; but it was clearly not a disclosure she made lightly; and happily, having been disclosed, it did nothing to damage our relationship. Had she not told me, I would never have known. She wore the same clothes as other women of her age – not the typical Gypsy garb. She lived in a regular house – not a caravan. And she worked in an office – not mending pots and pans. But the significance of the moment was that it required her to build up a certain amount of courage to tell me of her background.
She told me how difficult it had been growing up a Romany girl in Ireland; and the one incident she described, which has burned itself so deeply into my memory that I may never forget the picture it conjured, was when the nuns ripped her earrings from her ears in an act of ignorance and prejudice by those who should have been wise and compassionate.
To a large extent, my impression of the Romany people is derived from these contacts; the only direct contacts I have ever had. When I started to travel in Europe I saw more Gypsies but never met any of them (to the best of my knowledge). I was aware that entertainers I liked such as Charlie Chaplin, Django Reinhardt and Manitas de Plata came from Roma stock; I was familiar with Gypsy music in its various forms from the orchestras of Hungary to the Flamenco of Spain; and on one of my European trips, I visited the town of Les-Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue region of France where Gypsies from all over Europe gather each May to celebrate the Festival of Saint Sarah, their patron saint. But despite all that, my knowledge of the Romany remains sadly inadequate.
Before I travelled to Spain this year (2010), I made use of the Internet to find out about Barcelona. As I navigated round the various pages of information, I kept stumbling upon warnings about pickpockets and scam artists operating in the areas of the city frequented by tourists. When I arrived in Barcelona, local people I met were at pains to alert me to the dangers awaiting those who were not vigilant and wandered into certain parts of the city at inopportune times. I even had one occasion where a complete stranger came up to me in the street, on the Rambla de Catalunya to be exact, and warned me about gangs of Romanian pickpockets operating in the nearby Plaça de Catalunya. It gave me a scare and I confess that I suspected that he might be one of a gang himself; but there was no one else around and it transpired that his concern for my safety was genuine.
Shortly after I returned to Australia, I watched a BBC documentary program on television called Gypsy Child Thieves, about gangs of thieves operating in Madrid and Milan; and they were not only Romanian but also Romany. Encamped on the outskirts of the city, they would commute to work in the centre like any office worker; only their work was begging and stealing. Those interviewed stated openly that they could earn 10 times as much stealing as they could begging; and the work assignments seemed to be divided along the lines of age and gender: women, with their babies if they had them, begged; while young children (who appeared to be immune from prosecution), preyed on tourists, people withdrawing money from automatic teller machines, and anyone else who appeared not to have their wits about them. The men, of course, didn’t “work”.
Did these women have no other recourse than to beg? It appears, according to the journalist who made the documentary, that begging was a choice rather than a necessity. In Milan, a group had set itself up to help the Romany assimilate into Italian society. They were helped to find housing and jobs and the only conditions were that they stay within the law and that the children had to go to school. But according to the documentary, only a very small percentage of the Romany community availed themselves of this opportunity. And in the final segment of the documentary, the scene shifted to a town in Romania where street after street was lined with mansions, each of which had been built on the proceeds of crime and mendicancy in Western Europe. The journalist was given a tour of this “success story” by the leader of a Gypsy tribe whose name, translated into English, was The Thieves; and he appeared rather proud of their achievements although he stated, somewhat ironically, that it had all gotten out of hand!
Did this documentary paint a fair and balanced picture of Romany society? I’m sure it didn’t because that wasn’t the purpose of the documentary. It was trying to bring to public attention a problem that exists, not just in Madrid and Milan but also in many other European cities. Is there a corresponding documentary then that shows the Romany people in a positive light; that tells the story of those Romany who are more like the Irishwoman I knew in Sydney all those years ago; that provides a counterpoint to the Gypsy Child Thieves subculture? I don’t know. If it exists, I haven’t seen it.
Why will these Romany families, portrayed in the documentary, not assimilate into the culture and behaviour of their host country? Being a migrant country, Australia faces similar issues. Those who come to Australia from abroad are encouraged to preserve their culture in its “harmless” forms: the national costumes, the folk music, the cuisine, the festivals and all the other activities that colour the Australian landscape without threatening to destabilise it. There is freedom of religion in Australia; although public holidays tend to follow the Christian traditions. But when it comes to social order, everyone is expected to obey the same law; and when it comes to social services, everyone is expected to meet the same conditions.
In response to the image of the Gypsy woman I photographed, begging in the street (“Put a little sunshine in my life”), I was asked if I put something in her cup. The answer is that I didn’t. I was mindful of the warnings I’d read about on the tourist websites; those describing the scams where a “decoy” approaches you, making an apparently innocent request (e.g. begging or wanting to sell you something). You get out some cash to give or to pay and you inadvertently show the accomplices, waiting nearby, where you keep your money. Transaction concluded, you walk on, and within a few yards, you are bumped or jostled and before you realise it, your wallet or purse is stolen. Even if the woman in my photograph was an innocent beggar, working alone, she was, in this case, a victim of the reputation earned by those before her who have not been content with simple charity. And it had nothing to do with the fact that she was a Gypsy. After reading about the scams, I was wary of anyone approaching me on the street.
Besides, does giving money to beggars help solve the problem? I don’t believe it does. It’s just like giving a man a fish. Giving money to beggars who beg from choice rather than necessity simply legitimises what they do. Not in a legal sense, but in a social one. They become a burden that society accepts and therefore nothing is really done to help, nothing ever changes.
Another comment questioned the ethics of photographing the needy. I don’t know if I can speak for others in saying this but usually, I photograph whatever catches my eye. For people living in Barcelona, the sight of a Gypsy woman begging in the streets may be unremarkable; but for a visitor from Australia, where I have never, ever, seen a Gypsy begging in the streets, it was something out of the ordinary. I reacted. And took a photograph. In fact, I took several photographs of different women begging at different times and in different locations. Again, it was not specifically because they were Gypsies but because they were exotic (for me); and because of the plaintiff expression they effected as part of the role they play: the downtrodden unfortunate whose survival depends on your charity. Their begging seemed as much a piece of theatre as if they were juggling or conjuring or performing a song.
So, that explains why I took the photograph in the first place. But I had another choice to make: whether or not to publish it.
When I was much younger, I had no compunction about what I photographed. In 1973, I walked the length of Manhattan’s Bowery, photographing down-and-outs on the street, whether they were panhandling or just passed out. As I saw it, they were part of the reality; part of the fabric of New York City life at that time; as much a part of it as the bohemians of the Village, the wheeler-dealers on Wall Street or the upper crust on Park Avenue. As far as I was concerned, if it could be seen, it could be photographed.
As I grew older, however, I became concerned that by photographing these hapless individuals, I was exploiting them; I was profiting from their misfortune and giving nothing in return. Today, I rarely take photographs of those who are down on their luck and I often give to them without asking anything in return. But the Gypsy women of Barcelona present a more complex problem. In their case, who is exploiting whom? Are they being exploited by the men of their tribe, or by the leaders of the society or organization to which they belong? If that’s the case, maybe their story should be told…for their own sake. Or, if their begging is a choice rather than a necessity, perhaps it is they who are exploiting the hapless public who have to work for the change being begged from them; and if that is the case, maybe the beggars should be exposed for the frauds they are. I don’t have the answers to these questions; but by taking and publishing these photographs, I have at least opened the discussion.
At the end of the day, however, this is just a photograph and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. I saw it, I took it and that’s all there is to it. I’m no Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist with the power to influence a mass audience; and I don’t have the power of a photo agency like Magnum at my back to syndicate this image in publications around the world. In fact, I’d be surprised if more than a couple of hundred people ever see it. So it is highly unlikely that the plight of the Romany will be improved as a result of its publication. In truth, there was no noble motive; no grand design behind the capture of this shot. I simply took it to record what I saw on the street that day: honestly, factually and hopefully in a way that is visually engaging. But whatever else was going through my mind as I pressed the shutter, I did not take it to entertain, I did not take it to judge and I did not take it to mock or ridicule the subject. I just took it. And it wasn’t until later, much later, that I remembered my train-buddy and I realised that in so much as the image I’d taken reinforced the stereotype of the Gypsy beggar, I had to write this companion piece to challenge that stereotype.
Thank you for listening.
 From the saying: “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will eat for the rest of his life.”