Åke Ericson spent years following and photographing Roma in different parts of Europe. He found a people weighed down by oppression, without rights, left to create their own society outside society.
Photo: Åke Ericson
In the summer of 2009, Åke Ericson was on a job in Breclav, a city in the Czech Republic. He witnessed the mayor casually forcing two Roma families to move to a freezing barn that reeked of urine. Why? To build a new shopping mall where they had been living.
– I didn’t think you could do that to people. That someone would be that lacking in empathy, in humanity.
That was the moment that set off a six-year project, where he would illuminate the situation of Europe’s Roma. It took him to France, Serbia, Kosovo, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Switzerland, Spain, and Sweden, and resulted in the exhibition Non Grata.
Åke Ericson was a photographer at news giant Aftonbladet until 1999, when he turned to freelancing. Among other adventures, he spent many years following the rebuilding of Kosovo after the Yugoslavian conflicts, which led to the book Kosovo in progress. He had sort of decided that he was done with that kind of vast and time-consuming project, but after witnessing the events in Breclav, he couldn’t turn a blind eye to the plight of the Roma.
“I don’t want to just take pictures of horse-drawn carriages.”
– In Eastern Europe, a Roma name is a one way ticket to the ghetto. Take Lunik IX in Slovakia, a community built for 2500 people that in fact houses three times that many, and with no gas, electricity, or running water. These are stories that need to be told, that need to be brought to the politicians who make policy decisions.
Another event that convinced him even further that the Roma in Europe needed more visibility and attention was when Romania’s minister for social affairs, Rovana Plumb, visited Sweden in 2015.
– She stood up and said that there is no discrimination against Roma in Romania. And then she didn’t seem to feel she had time to go out and meet any of her countrymen who sit begging on every street corner in Stockholm.
When Åke was a boy in Strängnäs, the Roma were seen mostly as an exotic element. Their exclusion and alienation from society wasn’t on any agenda.
– It’s been important for me to stay away from exoticizing these people. I don’t want to just take pictures of horse-drawn carriages.
When he started following Roma throughout Europe in 2009, there were hardly any Roma panhandlers on Sweden’s streets.
– When they started coming a few years ago, my project took on another meaning. I wanted to show why they come here. How a life of begging and sleeping rough in a freezing Sweden is still better than what they go through in their home countries.
Åke Ericson thinks that public opinion on Swedish Roma, the ones who lived here before the large influx of panhandlers, has changed for the worse since the Eastern European Roma started showing up.
– And when the refugees from Syria starting coming, the Roma found themselves even worse off. They get less money, they’re forgotten once again, and they can’t get any help since they’re EU citizens and don’t get refugee status.
Hard to stay neutral
One of the most important aspects of being a documentary photographer and photo journalist is showing reality as it is, and being objective. No interfering with events or telling the audience what to think. But with this project, Åke Ericson found it next to impossible to stay neutral.
– I definitely take a political stance with this. We have to put pressure on politicians in these Eastern European countries. But to show the whole picture, give a fair portrayal, I chose to not just show misery and poverty. I also included shots of wedding festivities, and some of Europe’s richest Roma, so that the viewer can decide on their own what to think.
Estimates say that there are 12 million Roma in Europe, about half of whom are EU citizens. Still, only two of 751 elected officials in the European Parliament come from Roma origins.
– In the long run, the Roma are in an untenable situation. You have to create opportunities for consistent education for the children, so they can be part of society. Lack of education is probably the single greatest problem here.
Despite all the misery Åke Ericson has seen in his travels, he still maintains a small glimmer of hope that things can improve.
– Their alienation is so deeply rooted. A change will have to be slow and steady, maybe over many generations. But there’s hope. In Spain, for instance, the Roma are an integrated part of society. So there’s always hope.