Gypsy in my soul

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”.

There but for the grace of God...

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.

Put a little sunshine in my life

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[1]. 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.

Studiously ignored

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.

[1] 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.”



16 thoughts on “Gypsy in my soul

  1. A well-thought out piece of writing to go with your images. The theatrical reference made me think of small children i would encounter in Mexico who would tug at you and cry, i mean really cry, these huge tears that would plummet off of their chins as those lovely brown eyes would tear at your soul. I remember telling one, honestly, over and over again that i had no money on me – nothing to give her. After five minutes or so of her chasing and clinging, she understood that there was nothing to get from me and she moved on. After only a few steps i turned back and saw her walking up to a man, also Mexican, who tusseled her head. She wasn’t crying at all anymore. A mere seconds later and her eyes were shining and laughing like a child’s eyes should. Talk about an Academy Awards performance~!!! So again, the point is not that she (and he) were Mexican – begging is universal. Although more prevalent, maybe more accepted, in some cultures than others. Anyway, this is a large issue and you touched on many facets of its complex place in society at large.
    It also made me think of the plight of the Roma in France these days.

    • Thanks emmet. Your point about the Roma in France is well made. Just like the man in my photograph, the world has been ingorning this problem, hoping that it will go away; but instead it has grown larger, more complex and more entrenched and is reaching the point when it can no longer be ignored.

  2. I find your writing engaging. have read a few this afternoon – enjoyed the ones on the mystery of explore a lot.
    This one is difficult. I am not sure how I feel. When I was younger I would always throw a few coins in beggars cups/hats. Now I do not. I feel if they have two legs and two arms they can work.
    Ireland has seen a lot of Romanian gypsies come in and just beg on the streets. It is sad.

    I, too, remember the tinkers coming to sharpen knives, fix pots and pans, repair umbrellas and the like. We paid them in bread and jam. How times have changed.

    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Brendan, thanks for your comment. Perhaps the root of the problem lies in the failure of two different cultures to find a way to respect each other and coexist in the same space.

  3. Stereotypes always kill the truth and ignorance , the chance to discover it. The history of Romany people in my country is a black legend , it is still being unfortunately.
    Fly fishing rod for everyone!
    p.s : cause you just took it , thanks .

  4. I read your article with great interest!
    I have very mixed feelings on this subject myself as I had a rather confusing experience with a begging woman, may be a Roma, she looked exotic to me anyway, but also so vulnarable, pale and weak, not healthy at all

    Almost every week I saw her at the entrance of a supermarket where I bought groceries after work.
    Every time, upon returning home, I gave her the coin I used to unlock the shopping trolley.
    From her eyes I saw she recognized me every time I drove into the parking area , and she already said “thankyou madam” before she ever had the coin in her cup!!
    It happened that I sometimes saw her, after her “shift”, when she was walking away from the supermarket and a man in a car picked her up.

    One rainy autumn evening she spoke to me, pointing to her bare feet in slippers. She explained to me in bad french she had cold feet and gestured if I could give her more money to buy shoes…Of course I was surprised, it was so unlike her to “ask” for something and I had the feeling she was doing something that was forced on her. I was pretty sure she would never buy shoes with the money, but on the other hand I felt uneasy about the fact that she must have had cold feet. So, I convinced her to come with me to the next store, a shoe discount store.
    She reluctantly followed me. When I pointed out some decent winter shoes she nodded her head and pointed to much cheaper.. slippers again…
    I persisted and bought the winter shoes for her…
    The next week when I arrived at the shop, she was not there, to my surprise, neither was she in the following 6-8 weeks.

    When I almost forgot about her, months later I saw again, begging at the entrance of another supermarket, ..barefeet, in slippers, although it was still winter and very cold…and when she saw me coming, she looked the other way…
    After that I never saw her again….

    I strongly believe she felt ashamed, but also I knew from the very first time I saw her she wasn’t just an ordinary beggar and that begging was forced on her…
    I am convinced now that somebody had been watching us several times and knew we had become “familiar” in one or other way…I was becoming involved and that was the key for asking for more…
    And now also, I am sure that the shoes have been taken from her the very moment she got in the car, and that the shoes have been sold probably..

    So, now, whenever I see a woman begging, sometimes they have their babies with them, I have the most ambivalent feelings…I really want to give… but I am sure, the women never get it really …

    • Thank you for this very interesting “case study” which I think reveals the heart of the problem: conflicting objectives. I think it will be very difficult to make progress in solving this problem as long as the two sides do not agree on what the resolution should be. Sensible shoes may have kept her feet warm but would have weakened her bargaining position.
      Thank you again for this 🙂

  5. An interesting take of the problem Keith.
    We have some beggars here, but so far hear none on pickpocketing (cross my fingers). Some of them who are disabled may worth my change but those who, sometimes, wear better clothes than me get a puzzled look from me.

    I am really interested in learning more on why the “choose” this, rather than necessity as you mentioned. Why? Is the answer simply “easier”?

    Anyway, i again found myself in tangled with your experience. I am planning on a family break with my two young kids to Barcelona this December. And yes, I heard about the pickpocket problem there, and thank you for reminding me again from your story. I hope I’ll have only good stories to tell when i got back.

    Thank you, Keith.

    • Jerry, from my own experience and that of my son and from what I have gathered from the comments made by other Flickrites who have been there, Barcelona is one of the most enjoyable cities in Europe. It’s wise to be on your guard but don’t let it spoil your enjoyment. I hope you have a great (and safe) trip. 🙂

  6. Beautifully written. These are such difficult ethical issues, Keith. I am just back from southern Africa, where money and power and the huge gap between the haves and the have-nots was in my face every moment. There are no easy answers. Susan Sontag’s REGARDING THE PAIN OF OTHERS is all about this: . I have read it several times and am no closer to seeing how to steer my way through the ethical minefields than I was before I read it the first time. I remember a very powerful movie from the 80s, ANTHONY MY LOVE , about New York gypsies. I haven’t yet seen, but want to see an intriguing film made more recently called GADJO DILO . What are people to do when they have no money, when people around them have it, when they can’t earn it legally? What are they to do? And the rest of us, who have a little money, what are we to do when others ask us for what we have? How do we know whether they genuinely need it to survive, or they’ve been exploited by others who will take it from them, or anger and need have become a way of life for them? Don’t know. Don’t know. One way of achieving balance is to examine, as you are doing, our motives and our actions, asking the questions. Even if we don’t find answers, it is important to ask the questions with compassion for ourselves and for others. Thanks for doing this.

    • Kendall, welcome back!! I started reading your blog then succumbed to a couple of ailments that were exacerbated by reading from the computer so I had to stop. I’m trying to come back slowly now (after one relapse) so I am looking forward to reading the rest of the story.
      I think that what you have articulated is a common dilemma. Many people who are genuinely compassionate and generous are disaffected by the prospect of being exploited. They are happy to give to the genuinely needy but feel that not only they themselves but also the genuinely needy are cheated by those who pretend to be needy in order to avoid more conventional ways of earning a living. The question is how can we easily and accurately make the distinction?
      I also think that the problem grows more complex when two conflicting cultures occupy the same georgraphical space and cannot find a way to respect each other. The Gypsies I remember from my youth lived their own life in a peaceful, if suspicious, coexistence with the sedentary population. If the matter of suspicion had been addressed then, and resolved, and the societies had found a way to live differently but harmoniously, then we might not be having this problem today.
      Thank you for your comment and the links 🙂

  7. the core problem, as i see it, is that there is no single answer to this question. we are, as humans, each our own separate and unique universe (as well as part of its whole) and so each story is guided by its own forces, needs, desires, actions and reactions. therefore each person asking for something is doing it for their own reasons that we may or may not ever know. just as every person giving is doing it for their own reasons. like so much in life, these things have to be judged on a case by case basis which makes life so complicated – but also so rich and varied and unrepeatable.

    • Arim2010 made this comment on Flickr: ‘They beg because they robbed from their living space, the land they walked free “sons of the wind” all now have an owner that ignores the fact that thed Earth belongs to all’.
      We have a similar problem in Australia with respect to the indigenous (aboriginal) population known as the Koori. When the first European settlers arrived, they invoked terra nullius giving them sovreignty over land which, in their opinion, was not owned by anyone. The Koori people did not “own” the land in the European sense of having Title Deeds because they believed that the land was there for all to share. This is another case of two cultures, with two very different concepts of “ownership” living in the same geographical space. Lately, some land still owned by the government has been handed back to the Koori; but a great deal of damage has already been done and it is not feasible to abolish 200+ years of history and start again.
      Perhaps the lasting solution lies in respect for the needs of both cultures, drawing a line in the sand today and looking for a solution that enables us to move forward from this point; but what you said above is the reality: there is no easy solution because each individual has his or her own story and his or her own needs to address.
      Thanks so much for adding to the discussion 🙂

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