New books show humanity of California’s Roma, beauty of Colorado’s ski slopes
By Stephen Wolgast
December 2022 - As we look toward another year, I’ll end this one with a quick look at three books. Two books are from this year, and I’ll get to them shortly.
First, a note from Gene Richards about a book that’s a work in progress. He plans to publish “In This Brief Life,” a collection of mostly unseen photographs, in September 2023. The images range from his early work in the Arkansas Delta through recent projects, pictures his social media followers have seen in glimpses in his online sharing, a new medium for Richards.
“Alternately painful and joyful, the process allowed me to revisit the lives of many of the remarkable people I've had the privilege to know.” Richards’ book was well supported through Kickstarter, but you can still contribute, get a book and other pretty cool offerings as a backer.
By Cristina Salvador Klenz
Long Beach, California: Brown Paper Press, 2022
Along with afflicting the comfortable, one way to describe a journalist’s job is comforting the afflicted.
Another way would be holding up society’s prejudices to itself, showing us how our preconceived notions are pretty reliably wrong. Admitting mistakes is never easy, but like an addict admitting dependency, we have to accept that we have discriminated before we can move on.
When it comes to the Romani people, discrimination is as common as misunderstanding. We rarely encounter Romanies, who are often called Gypsies, outside their pop culture caricatures as fortunetellers, petty criminals and oversexualized women.
Overcoming the stereotype makes for quite a challenge, one that Cristina Salvador Klenz takes on in “Hidden: Life With California’s Roma Families.”
Klenz made most of the photographs in the book in the early 1990s when she was a staff photographer at the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, south of Los Angeles. More than 50,000 Romani families live in the region, but they weren’t as easy to find as they had been when she first encountered them on a trip to visit her relatives in Portugal.
Originally from Punjab, India, the Romani were driven from their home just over a thousand years ago by Turkish invaders. Migrating west over the centuries, they were ostracized everywhere they went, becoming itinerant by necessity.
In the 19th century, when the United States was a beacon for immigrants, the Romani faced special discrimination here. Pennsylvania charged $250 — a huge sum at the time — for a Romani family to live in the state. Georgia prohibited them from mercantile trades. In New Jersey, officials had the authority to segregate businesses that were owned by Roma, a law that was repealed only in 1998.
It was several years before then that a connection Klenz had at a music store led to her finding herself at a Romani wedding. It was her break into the lives of a people living in plain sight but difficult to find.
Gaining the trust of a people who had been taught over a millennium to be distrustful of outsiders, Klenz stepped into their lives to show their humanity. Her photographs are personal and intimate, revealing the joys and anxieties everyone encounters. Birthday parties, meals, neighborly visits, each of them the sort of activity people do everywhere.
That’s the magic of her book: Her method of overcoming our misunderstandings of the Roma shows them as ordinary families, not exotic visitors from another world.
They play and they gossip. They give birth, raise children and bury their dead. They go to school, combating a remarkably low literacy rate. They worship, many of them devout Christians.
Her black and white photographs show us their humanity. By letting the viewer into the Romani world, Klenz demonstrates that they have the same right to enjoy living as anyone else.
She does something equally important too. She shows that by resting comfortably in our prejudice, we risk keeping ourselves from the chance to understand a people with a thousand-year history.
“Hidden” was awarded first place for a Documentary Photography Book by International Photography Award/Lucie Awards. An exhibition is planned at Cal State University Long Beach in February through May 2023. Hidden has been purchased by all of the Long Beach public library branches and will be available in all the high school libraries in Long Beach, Calif.