Comparisons between Josef Koudelka & Will Guy “Gypsies” and Joakim Eskildsen & Cia Rinne “The Roma Journeys”
An initial cursory glance would suggest a big difference in the respective aesthetic approaches between these two projects. B&W and colour will evoke very different viewer responses so cannot be reasonably compared. As I say, this is a keen-jerk response from a cursory glance – and also quite wrong.
For both projects the writer and photographer pairs took great care to as much as possible to embed themselves within the communities they visited. In both cases they were keen to avoid the idea of outsiders viewing the people as merely anthropological subjects. Both projects took great trouble to gain acceptance from the communities – across several different countries – so that they could try to depict the Roma as they saw themselves. In both works many photographs depict the same primary concerns of the Roma; family, self-sufficiency, pride, music, and also separation from the rest of the world. Both projects did their best to circumvent language problems, to make sure the people themselves understood the photographers’ aims. Cia Rinne explains how they had to make sure the Roma understood that she and Eskildsen were only artists and could not offer any help with their living conditions. Will Guy explains how his position as an Englishman in communist Czechoslovakia gave Koudelka and him an outsider status that helped gain understanding from the Roma.
Koudelka’s B&W photographs are often quite dark, giving a mournful quality and perhaps accentuating a sense of poverty and misery. This however contrasts with the facial expressions and body language of the people, showing that life may be hard but is by no means unbearable. Some are reminiscent of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’, and others of the FSA work of Walker Evans. The sombre tone does not negate any sense of a viable thriving community, albeit one that is very different from the life of Koudelka himself. However the structure of the book and lack of captions means that Roma from different countries are not differentiated; the effect is to treat them as a single community, which is likely not to be the case.
Eskildsen’s work mixes B&W and colour photographs; the presentation on his own website is structured to show B&W moving into colour for each separate country that he and Rinne visited. As Rinne points out, Roma people in one country have no connection to those in other places and do not see themselves as a single entity. Colour here does help to punctuate the images, so that individuals become more visible than they do in Koudelka’s work. There is a more static quality to Eskildsen’s photographs than Koudelka’s. Not staged exactly, but they do add more emphasis to the photographer over the subject than those of Koudelka. Eskildsen’s careful choice of lighting and colour, which does deliberately vary more than that of Koudelka, also accentuates his vision more than Koudelka’s.
Although both (highly successful) projects do their utmost to provide an insider’s view of these communities, we the viewer can still only see this as experiential tourists. That’s a fact and, apart from visiting these communities ourselves and repeating the efforts of the artists, nothing can be done about it. Since both projects do evoke such an empathic response from us as viewers is further proof of how successful they both are.
Josef Koudelka – “Gypsies” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ltPZd9EeQyo
Will Guy interviewed about “Gypsies” at https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/roma-travelers-gypsies-josef-koudelka-will-guy-society/
Joakim Eskildsen – “The Roma Journeys” at http://www.joakimeskildsen.com/default.asp?Action=Menu&Item=113
Interview with Cia Rinne on “The Roma Journeys” at http://www.joakimeskildsen.com/files/texts%20pdf/04slabon.pdf