A Pinprick Of Light

Stories of Poland’s Roma

Photographs from the
01 November 2014
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IN 2002, the photographer Marta Kotlarska, who goes by the pseudonym Martushka Fromeast, began working on a project featuring residents of a shelter for homeless mothers in Warsaw. In her five months there, she befriended many of the women, and held a four-day workshop on pinhole photography for the shelter’s children.  Two years later, a mother who moved from the shelter to a poor Warsaw neighbourhood asked Fromeast to repeat the workshop at a community centre in the area. The project attracted private funding and significant media attention, and the children’s photographs were exhibited all over Poland.

Encouraged by this success in using art to highlight the situation of a poor community, Fromeast jumped at a friend’s suggestion that she next work with Poland’s Roma community. In the country’s latest census, just over 17,000 people self-identified as Roma, though the country’s actual Roma population is estimated to be significantly higher. As they are elsewhere in Europe, Roma in Poland are marginalised and poor, and face racism, discrimination and widespread negative stereotypes about their ways of life. Through a government department focused on national and ethnic minorities, Fromeast got in touch with Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, an artist and social activist of Roma origin who lives in the Roma settlement of Czarna Gora in the country’s south. The two met, and decided to work together on what they named the Romani Click project.

Since 2007, Fromeast and Mirga-Tas have worked in 11 different settlements, and with Roma migrants from Poland and Slovakia in London. They teach children, and occasionally women too, to build pinhole cameras from readily available objects such as shoeboxes and aluminum cans. The participants then use them to capture moments of quotidian life, and staged scenes to complement poetry and stories written for the project by the Roma storyteller Jan Mirga. They then present these illustrated poems and tales to their neighbours and friends. The results are images of basic composition but startling colour—an effect of the rudimentary cameras—by turns vibrant and eerie.

Keywords: migrants Poland Roma community Warsaw pinhole cameras
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