The Swiss photographer gets inside an often impenetrable community and emerges with a portrait that both shines and confounds.
LAUSANNE — A man with a large face and drooping mustache warmly greets his children on a misty road in the Romanian countryside. He then reappears in the night, lying in the open air with his wife, on the outskirts of Lausanne, a short distance away from the city lights.
These scenes, so representative of the life of Roma, are the opening images in a new book by Swiss photographer Yves Leresche, whose work is also on display right now in an exhibition and an audiovisual installation in Lausanne.
Few immigrants embody the figure of the foreigner as much as the Roma. Not because of their Balkan origins, which have become common in these times of globalization. But because of the mystery that surrounds them, their perpetual travels and some of their habits, such as begging, the ultimate no-no in countries like Switzerland, where work is a determining integration factor and, more still, a moral value.
Leresche does a remarkable job of breaking through the barriers and shining a light into the heart of the mystery, into the privacy of this community. The intimacy he has with the Roma is dazzling. Leresche didn’t only get close to them, as some reporters or researchers try. He entered their primary group, where men, women and children live without suspicion and openly.
Yves Leresche installing his exhibition in Lausanne — Photo: Facebook page
In Romania, as in Switzerland, the two poles of their travels, he shows them both on the street and in their private lives, playing cards, eating, washing, praying, sleeping.
Various elements regularly reappear: grave faces, gestures of affection, fingers holding tight on a cigarette. And a handful of objects, always similar to each other, set the scene of a precarious life: cars with their trunks open — half means of transport, half rooms to live in on the side of the road; mattresses, which are among the rare pieces of furniture in Romanian shacks and become the ultimate marks of accommodation in Switzerland; bunches of bags that carry the indispensable elements; and hats and scarves in a mess, the vagabond’s shelter of last resort against rain and cold.
Bringing reality into the debate
These photographs are the result of hard work. Leresche has a real passion for the Roma and has photographed them across Europe for more than 20 years now. His work was rewarded by a World Press Photo award in 1997 and the publication of two previous books, Rrom, in 2002, and Roma Realities, in 2009. This time, the photographer followed about 100 people over five years, immersing himself deeply into their lives.
Leresche used a simple method. To grasp the Roma’s lives, he shared it, traveled, ate and slept over long periods of time with those who accepted him. This was, for him, a key condition to carrying out photographic work capable of avoiding two classic pitfalls: the stereotyped reactions of Roma people when a stranger arrives, with gestures that are as spectacular as superficial, consisting in “showing your muscles and taking your knives out;” and the prejudices that are in each and every one of us, and lead many photographers to search for what they know, or think they know, to the detriment of what they could discover. Sharing the lives of the Roma was the opportunity to let reality appear in all its complexity.
Leresche insists he never gave out money. But he did help out in other ways, by giving people useful information or by driving them around between Switzerland and Romania. "And I spent here many nights sleeping under the stars with them, just as I often lived in their homes over there,” he says. Looking back, he realizes that accepting the hospitality of his companions was decisive to gain their respect.
A paradoxical difficulty did appear. Well integrated with the Roma, in a society where they gladly mass together in circles, Leresche often found himself “too close.”
“To show the context in which they live, it’s important to take a step back,” he explains. “It’s better both for the photographer and the audience. Yet it’s not always been easy for me to put distance in between. As soon as I withdrew myself, the group tended to join me.”
In the current context of hostility towards the Roma, Leresche’s photographs are more than just an artistic contribution. They also have a political impact, which is something the photographer gladly accepts. He even says it’s been one of his main motivations.
“You can now say nonsense about these people because no one knows them and no one can deny the lies that have spread about them,” he explains. “By documenting their lives, my work brings a bit of reality to the debate.”
A reality made up of struggles, according to Leresche. “With the collapse of communism, the Roma lost their jobs and housing security,” the photographer says. “After that, many of them accumulated debts they had to reimburse at usurious rates."
Leresche says they pass through Switzerland to collect a bit of savings, at a rate of a few dozen Swiss francs per day. "But police frequently issue them fines for minor offenses such as sleeping in the open. It’s a vicious circle," he says. "These people are like us. They’re just looking to be comfortable and ensure a good future for their children.”