Yves Leresche, Capturing The Dazzling Mystery Of The Roma

The Swiss photographer gets inside an often impenetrable community and emerges with a portrait that both shines and confounds.

At Yves Leresche's exhibition in Lausanne
At Yves Leresche's exhibition in Lausanne
Etienne Dubuis

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.”

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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