Recently, I was lucky enough to have one of my photographs selected for one of the most viewed exhibitions in global history. ‘Portrait of Humanity™ is an international portraiture award that endeavours to show us that there is more that unites us than sets us apart.’
In the age of Instagram, where many of us look at photography for only mere seconds, the art of seeing and reading a photograph has drastically lost its meaning. With the reprogramming of viewing behaviours on a global and cultural scale, exhibitions play an important role in shifting awareness and bringing back the element of time to sit with an image.
A photograph is more than just the sum of its parts but without time to take in the image, we struggle to extract the full weight of the photograph. What’s a photograph worth to us, if we don’t allow it to tell us its story; if we don’t give it the means to express itself? Who is the subject that was photographed and why? What’s their story? What was the intention of the photographer? What is the photographer’s story? Why is it important that this story is told and how does it relate to my life? How does it relate to everyone’s experience? All of these questions cannot be answered in a scroll of a feed.
I posted this winning image on Instagram about two years ago, shortly after it was taken. It received 200 likes and a handful of comments, which arguably, is not much on the cosmic scale of the internet. And as a photographer, the number of likes can also be a dangerous game. Do we let it validate our work? Did anyone read the caption and take in the heart-wrenching story? I don’t know if anyone did but I do know that without time to study the image, it will seem like a fleeting image of 9 children.
That’s why, I would like to take the time to share the story behind the image because I feel I owe it to the children who placed their youthful trust in me to tell their story to the world. Authentically.
The photograph was taken in Slovakia, in the city of Košice where 2% of the population are Roma. Typically, they live in overcrowded settlements where they are segregated from the rest of the Slovakian population. Lunik IX is a settlement notoriously known for its extremely poor living conditions, unparalleled in the rest of Europe. The cultural divide and lack of integration, which was later enforced further by the construction of a wall around the settlement, has led to an extreme inequality of opportunities. Education and employment are greatly inaccessible for Roma people, especially those living in Lunik IX, which helps to further reconfirm the preconception that goes along with the stigma of the settlement.
But this isn’t a new issue – the Romani people, originally from India, have historically been expelled from many European countries. Many were ordered to death, simply due to their heritage, which later led to the deportations of Romanies to their own colonies.
Today, with Roma people living in wide parts of Europe and the Americas, the association with poverty and crime remains.
In 2018, I was travelling from Germany all the way to Kazakhstan by car, passing through Slovakia and many other countries with a great number of Romani settlements, especially in the rural areas. It struck me that to an overwhelming amount, they seemed neglected and depraved. I wanted to learn more about the history of the Romani people.
Oftentimes, they approached us to ask for food, money or valuables. Equally, when I met Slovakian people, oftentimes they spoke with disregard of Roma people. So I decided to see for myself. I decided to try and make contact with people in Lunik IX. If you believe the many negative media reports, then you probably want to stay away from this place, that most of the city is trying so hard to separate from. The humanist that I am, I believed that by showing them respect and meeting them on eye level, a connection and togetherness must be possible. So on I went. Greeted with juvenile curiosity by the teenagers and children, I spent some time simply going along with their lead. After all, I was entering their world, their space. It was an overwhelming mix of feelings. On the one hand, I felt that beautiful feeling of one human experience, that I always sense when travelling to areas of the world that are so different from my own and where language serves as a barrier to communication. In these instances, we reduce the exchange to its most basic and intrinsic form, one in which each of us can encounter each other without words – joy, laughter, respect and care. On the other hand I was struck by the extreme poverty all around the children, the unhygienic conditions, lack of safe housing and basic needs like running water or electricity for many.
I believe that whether we like it or not, due to the globalisation of the media, constant stream of images and reports of disaster, we have all become slightly immune to such imagery. At least, as far as viewing those images from the comfort of your home, is concerned. But seeing such atrocities first hand, and speaking to people who live it on a daily basis, living and breathing it on a deep level… I don’t know if I will ever develop immunity to that.
And children play a special role in how we perceive and evaluate. Simply by virtue of being children, their naivety underscores the lack of opportunity to an unspeakable extent. While from the point of adulthood, we seem to expect responsibility and the power of foresight that will make change possible. It’s easy to feel anger and disappointment when we see adults tipping the bins out the window onto a growing mountain of rotting waste at the bottom of the building. Imagine the outrage when we see young children smoking in front of their parents and staying back from the only school in Lunik. But what if we remind ourselves that those adults were children once as well? These are the children who grew up witnessing their parents tipping rubbish out the window, never having seen a school from the inside and being looked down upon, wherever they go, outside of their settlement.
Then, I think it becomes an easier task to empathize and see that the real enemy is inequality. I’m referring to children with lack of access to opportunity, who grow into adults without a proper education. And so their children follow in their footsteps, resembling the painful truth of repeating cycles.
And yet, this is the stunning beauty of children: they possess an uncanny ability to dream, to wish, hope, laugh despite the despair and anguish that encompasses their livelihood. Children have the power to spark joy, despite living in a world manifested out of misery. And this is precisely what I tried to capture in this portrait of the children of Lunik IX.
The joy of youth. The human care for one another. The pains of growing up. The hope. The despair. The opportunity and lack thereof… I see it all – in the toddler’s stained dress, the boy and the girl looking at her. She is barely in her teens, carrying her younger sibling. The windowless apartments. The concrete and the expressionless faces. Yet the normality of their daily experience, the childlike play, the posing, the longing: The humanity.
‘Portrait of Humanity 2021 tells a vast breadth of stories from around the globe. In this year of unprecedented struggle, the message of hope, courage, reflection and resilience is now more important than ever. The images will be exhibited in the Portrait of Humanity Global Tour.’