Exercise: Gypsies and The Roma Journeys

Brief

Read the interview with Cia Rinne on The Roma Journeys.

Research and compare Koudelka’s Gypsies and Eskildsen’s The Roma Journeys. Discuss aspects to do with the photographer’s intention and the distinctive aesthetics and approach of each body of work.

Response

I’m going to answer the question in a slightly different order if that’s OK: the distinctive aesthetics, then the intention and approach.

Aesthetics: Gypsies

Koudelka’s overall body of work is typified by a distinctive style: B&W, grainy, high contrast. It has some visual similarities to the likes of Robert Frank, especially The Americans (1958), with its disregard for the ‘technical excellence’ norms of photography. Skewed angles, underexposure and a general looseness of composition recur as visual motifs in the Gypsies work. The mood is of slightly surreal melancholy, occasionally undercut with the threat of violence.

This use of B&W, combined with the lack of topical visual cues such as clothing, lends the images a timeless feeling. Though taken in the 1960s/70s, almost all of them could have been from any time since the 1930s. This in itself communicates an important aspect of the Roma lifestyle: how little it changed, how it stayed close to its traditional roots, how self-contained it was, defying influence from the outside world (although the extent to which this is true has diminished in the last four decades, as evidenced by Eskildsen’s work).

Aesthetics: The Roma Journeys

There’s a fascinating visual aspect to The Roma Journeys that I can’t ignore. Each of the seven country sets begins with three B&W (slightly sepia-tinted) panoramic shots before moving to full colour. To me this acknowledges, then separates itself from, the Koudelka work; it presents a handful of timeless B&W shots, in a cinematic ratio (connoting ‘fiction’?) before a jump-cut to the modern day. The juxtaposition with the B&W ‘prologue’ images and the main set is to say this: Colour = Contemporary.

The palette is well-suited to the societies that the images capture, as they are very colourful communities – something that Koudelka’s work inherently could not depict. Interestingly, the colour palette subtly changes with the different countries: India is more vibrant than the European sets, for example.

The other notable visual comparison is that while Koudelka’s compositions could often be loose and dynamic, Eskildsen’s are mostly more calm and still, almost deadpan in some cases. This may be a result of the differences in intention and approach that I will come onto in a moment.

Intention and approach: Gypsies

A little biographical research on Koudelka paints him as something of a free spirit, shooting what he wanted and spending several years living a nomadic existence alongside his subjects. His intention seems to have been based mainly on a personal curiosity and a desire to capture the interesting lifestyle in which he found himself, and there are no discernible ‘social documentary’ motives in his work. It seems as though he just found the gypsies to be an interesting set of people to hang out with and photograph.

He could be argued that he treats the gypsies as a homogenous community rather than a set of individuals (he doesn’t use anyone’s name, for example) and emphasises their isolation from the surrounding societies.

With the above in mind, his images are often quite ‘theatrical’ or what you might even call ‘romanticised’ – he demonstrates something like the Tourist Gaze, despite the fact that he was more of an insider than an outsider. He is just more aloof and detached than Eskildsen – not saying this is a bad thing per se, as the pictures themselves are genuinely striking and (for me at least) more interesting to look at than The Roma Journeys.

Intention and approach: The Roma Journeys

Eskildsen and his partner Cia Rinne had a very different objective than Koudelka. Theirs was a much more respectful, earnest attempt to portray the Roma communities as real people. Although they describe themselves as artists more than documentarians, there’s a clear social documentary photography intent in their work.

The resulting work is more focused on (named) individuals and families in the context of their communities. Eskildsen and Rinne dig deeper, get to know the subjects as people. For me, its insistence on always being respectful makes for a slightly po-faced, overly reverential feel, as though self-censorship got the better of them.

It tries to highlight the differences both between Roma life and mainstream societies and between seven different variants of Roma life. The comparisons across countries make this a deeper and more intellectually engaging set than Gypsies; one of the interesting messages surfaced in The Roma Journeys is the fact that the Roma are outsiders wherever they are; they have no homeland. The (limited) integration with their host nation neighbours is more apparent in this work than in Gypsies. It’s a more complex work that prompts more questions than it answers.

Summary

I found this to be an excellent example of how different practitioners can mine the same subject matter in quite different ways, both aesthetically and in terms of the approach taken. They are equally valid and maybe also equally problematic, just in different ways.

My personal opinion: Koudelka’s pictures are visually much more interesting, but Eskildsen’s are more thought-provoking. This may be down to the aesthetic, or may simply be because one is 40-odd years old and one is contemporary.

Sources

Josef Koudelka at Magnum https://pro.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYD1KHF54 (accessed 08/06/2016)

Art of Photography on Josef Koudelka https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CVNZNi8gXp8 (accessed 08/06/2016)

Cia Rinne interview http://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/ciarinne.pdf (accessed 08/06/2016)

Joakim Enskildsen http://www.joakimeskildsen.com/default.asp?Action=Menu&Item=113 (accessed 08/06/2016)

Joakim Enskildsen https://www.lensculture.com/articles/joakim-eskildsen-the-roma-journeys (accessed 08/06/2016)

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