Roma Rising: portrait of a community

Chad Evans Wyatt

While shooting portraits for what was to become an award-winning book - "101: Artists in the Post-Revolution Czech Republic" - the American photographer Chad Evans Wyatt became interested in bringing a very different kind of project to light. This autumn, he is set to publish "Roma Rising," a collection of portraits of over 100 Czech Romani people "of great intelligence, integrity and accomplishment."

Chad Evans Wyatt has worked as a portrait photographer in the Washington, DC area for nearly three decades. Born of musician parents, and growing up in New York and Paris, his career began, and continues substantially, in the portrayal of people in the arts. His work is included in the collections of the music divisions of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art, both in Washington, DC. Among his other accomplishments, he has photographed five U.S. presidents.

Chad Evans Wyatt first came to Prague in 1993. His wife and her mother are of Czech descent: they were searching for long silent relatives on the other side of the Iron Curtain. On the advice of the Czech-born writer Arnost Lustig, upon arrival, Mr Wyatt immediately set about portraying a flourishing artistic community here still largely unknown to the West. It was while shooting portraits for what was to become an award-winning book -

"My friend Arnost Lustig suggested that I do the same thing in Prague that I do in Washington, that is to say, photograph artists and musicians, writers...This was 1993, and although the Velvet Revolution already was four years in the past, you could still feel the energy... it was a time of great possibility and it was just very exciting to be here. And I said, 'Gosh, you know, why not just photograph artists of the Czech Republic - after the revolution? Probably they are going to do something important, and I would have a project which shows who they are. I became very methodical. I looked for artists from every discipline - from music, literature, architecture... sculpture, dance - everything."

>"I included three generations. People who had made the larger part of their careers before the revolution; a bridge generation, who'd started before, but were coming into fullest flower; and unknowns - young people who many people didn't know. One of them, [actress] Ana Geislerova, was not unknown, but she was very, very young at the time - eighteen years old. And there were quite a few others in that group who nobody knew, but now they do."

"I am very pleased to say that, eight years after starting the project, yes, indeed, it became a book; and it was named the best thematic photo book at the Prague Book Fair in 2001. So, I was very pleased, of course, yes"

It was while shooting portraits for what was to become that award-winning book -- "101: Artists in the Post-Revolution Czech Republic" -- that Mr Wyatt became interested in doing a portrait of the emerging Czech Romani, or "Gypsy", middle class: "Roma Rising/Romske Obrozeni" is a collection of portraits of over one hundred Roma - among them: doctors, lawyers, activists, teachers, and small business people.

"During the time that I was photographing artists... I read about a gentleman who said 'the Roma are inferior because they have smaller brains.' And I said, 'Wait a minute -- that is such an absurd statement'. You know, I just noticed it. Then, I photographed some Roma as part of the artists series and they said, 'You know, there is a middle class - all you see in the press is just poverty, sorrow, failure, hopelessness -- and there really is another story'."

One of the artists profiled in Mr Wyatt's "101 Artists" series, Veruska Gondolanova, had remarked that the Czech media, in her opinion, did not seek out the whole of the Roma community, systematically overlooking people of great intelligence, integrity, and accomplishment. Months later, Mr Wyatt read of a pending lawsuit against a restaurant for discrimination. It was launched by Monika Horakova, then a Member of Parliament and the only Romani MP in office. She had been refused service on the basis of her skin colour. It was at that time that photographer Chad Evans Wyatt's idea -- to profile a Roma professional class -- came together.

"I was very fortunate to meet former deputy Monika Horakova and she sent me to Brno to photograph people she knows - it was her district - she gave me a list of people... Anyway, the point is that I started at a very high level, ad it was very inspiring because it made me think that my idea was correct. And I asked these people, who were very informed, 'Okay, I've photographed you, now can you give me some other suggestions, of other people' - so what's very important to say ... is that the project is 'inner informed' - that is to say, the Romani community informed me who to photograph."

There was another, and more immediately personal reason, why Chad Evans Wyatt began to work on this new project, which was to be called "Roma Rising".

"Thirdly, as the son of a black man and a white woman, I'd had - even though I was an extremely young boy -- I'd had experience with the civil rights era in the U.S. During that time I witnessed doctors, lawyers, other kinds of distinguished professionals, come to our apartment and plan what to do next for the civil rights era to come. So, to me, a black professional was obvious, you know. Okay, so, how does that mix with 'smaller brain sizes,' you know? It's a foolish thing to say. But people like to believe it. Why? Because it confirms the stereotypes that they hold. It makes it easy."

Martina Pokutova, a 28-year-old Roma woman, studied biology and chemistry at university, but now works as an Account Manager for a leading public relations firm in Prague. She says she was pleased to take part in the "Roma Rising" project, which portrays Romani people from all professional walks of life.

"Originally I am a teacher, but now I work in another field of business. I think people should see -- I like the idea that there will be Roma people with different professions. Usually, what I can see are 'Roma professionals' - like, professionals in the Roma field, but not working in... 'normal' jobs. So I liked the idea; it was a little bit different, that there would be different people presented to the media and the wider public: I think this is what we need."

RP: You said earlier, also, that you are a little bit tired of being a sort of example? Or that people seek you out?

"No, I wouldn't say I'm tired of being an example: I'm tired of proving -- always proving to somebody -- that I'm not dirty, I'm not stealing and that I'm a normal person, I'm a human being, and it doesn't mean that if I'm Roma, this is something wrong, something bad. So this is something I am tired of, and I have to say, I have to prove it all the time."

In hopes of starting a "conversation," Chad Evans Wyatt decided he would photograph people "who were part of this middle class and professional class, and say, 'If your stereotype about the Roma is correct, then who are these 100 people I photographed?' How do you explain them? And I photographed that many in order to push aside the argument that, well, I found two or three special people but the rest of them are terrible."

Vladimir Cervenak grew up in Vlasim, a small town about 60 kilometres outside of Prague: "It was my dream to study medicine and now I'm studying in Prague at the faculty of medicine. I am Gypsy - I am Gypsy [and] I think it's necessary to show the majority people that I am Roma and that I am not bad, like the others think."

"Many people will see the photographs as extremely simple: that's intentional," says Mr Wyatt. "I wanted them to be extremely simple, direct, respectful of the person in the photograph, and not [full of] great big emotion. In other words, if you want to look at this person, you have to think about this person."

For more information on the project, please go to Roma Rising will be exhibited in Czech Centres throughout Europe this year and at the Czech embassy in Washington, DC this autumn. Select photographs from the series are travelling now internationally as part of a group show and are currently in Slovenia. "Roma Rising" will be available in book form later this year.