Chad Evans Wyatt - portraits of Roma rising above discrimination

Chad Evans Wyatt

Rob Cameron's guest in this week's One on One is the American photographer Chad Evans Wyatt, whose collection of portraits of middle-class Czech Roma is currently on display at Prague Castle. Chad, who grew up in New York and is now based in Washington, was driven by a desire to challenge traditional stereotypes of the country's large Roma minority, showing Romanies who have battled discrimination to become "regular" members of Czech society.

Chad Evans Wyatt
Chad, how did you become involved in photography?

"I was born in New York City, of parents who were musicians, both of them professionals. One working classically in voice and the other a jazz musician to become a classical organist later on in his life. I dearly wanted to be a jazz clarinettist, the next big thing in jazz clarinet. But at the age of 16 my mother sat me down and said - You really don't have the talent to continue as a musician, you have to be absolutely top notch to do such a thing. Coming from my mother, a professional musician, this was not welcome news, but it was believable. And I eventually wandered towards a career in international economics but discovered I was kind of bored of that. One Christmas my mother gave me a camera, and I said to myself - Wow, this is music with light! And immediately set about reading 50 books and eventually stumbled into being a photographer, self-made."

How did you become involved in the Czech Roma community?

"I became involved in a very nice way. I photographed a project in the 1990s called 101 Artists of the Czech Republic, a survey of artists in the Czech Republic, during the 90s, post-revolution. Among them of course were Roma artists, including the very famous Vera Bila and her group Kale. But a lesser known one, Veruska Gondolanova, told me over lunch one day that in her opinion the media assiduously avoided discussing the fact that there was a middle class and a professional class among the Roma. And this rang a bell in me because when I grew up in New York City, quite often people came to our apartment who were professionals - doctors, lawyers, and they were black and were preparing what became the civil rights era of the 1950s. I was a very young guy but there it was. I'd always wanted to go back retrospectively and photograph the civil rights era, and here was an opportunity with the Roma to try this, obviously a different place and different kind."

So that's how the Roma Rising project came about - to show a different image of Roma people than the usual stereotype of a minority living in poverty and discriminated against.

"Those stereotypes resonated so well with me, because blacks in the US were subject to very similar stereotypes. I emphasise here that the black experience in the US and the Roma experience in Europe are very, very different, so I'm not confused in that. But there are similarities, and the stereotypes are one very important aspect of that."

The photographs include Romany journalists, Romany doctors even a Romany policewoman. How did you find them?

"I first sought out Monika Horakova, who at the time was the sole Romany deputy in the House of Deputies, and asked her the very question that was in my mind - are there such people. And she said - of course there are, and here is a list of people you might seek out. Among them were some leaders and I thought at the time it was probably good to pursue leaders so that I might get introductions to other people. In fact the way it happened was that I photographed leaders at the very beginning, and then no more. After that I was pursuing the people I really wanted, who were cab drivers, small businessmen, people who lead ordinary middle-class lives. Also, of course, the more impressive, doctors, lawyers, that sort of thing. But I was interested in finding the unknown who lived in plain sight. And I found them. And I can tell you also that just because I came away with 86 portraits, a total of 100 portraits or so, there are many, many more. There was not enough time to find them all."

You quote Abraham Lincoln to describe the people in the photographs, calling them "better angels of our nature." What were they like to work with?

Milan Kotlar,  photo: Chad Evans Wyatt
"There was a great deal of caution, because these people - all of them - had been approached by numerous photographers over decades, who seem always to come away with the same image repeated over and over, in Xerox quality. In the end, bearing none of the essence of the great and seminal Czech photographer Josef Koudelka's series Gypsies which went to the core of the gypsy experience. Now you see these photographers doing emulations of a guy they probably don't even know about. And I wanted to bring to the table a different kind of picture, a portrait of respect within a kind of studio context, black and white rather than garish colour, in order to allow a contemplation. All of this was observable by the people involved. They in turn talked to one another and said - You know, this guy is serious, I think you should co-operate with him. So it was a kind of snowball. It started slowly. I had to prove myself. It didn't hurt that I'm half black. I didn't mention that before but my father was black and my mother white. And it certainly didn't hurt that I had a musician's background. But I think the approach was what really persuaded people that I was serious and not intending to take advantage of anyone."

Olga Rostasova,  photo: Chad Evans Wyatt
You say on your website that "the human spirit can, despite prejudice and denial, rise to its level of ambition and excellence". I think I'd be right in saying that very few ordinary Czechs would agree with that sentiment when applied to their Romany neighbours. Do you think your photos can change that?

"I accept the notion that the photographs I did are of people who are exceptional, in the sense that they have had to labour against not only the colour of their skin, the prejudice of neighbours, but also the consideration even among those in the educational field who believe that Romani cannot absorb education. They have observed, they feel, over time, that there is little sense of responsibility, of tomorrow, among the Romani. This again is analogous to a view held among whites in the US 100 years ago. The blacks who danced and sang and played music could not become doctors and lawyers. They have laboured because they felt they must succeed. They laboured against danger, against prejudice, and against even the prejudice in their own community. Let us not forget that if you rise above your group in some fashion, you're thought of as suspect as well. Imagine these people out there, alone. I find them extraordinary. Yes, better angels of our nature' in that we all wish to succeed, we all wish to strive. And these people did it."