Saturday, 3 January 2015

Gypsies and Roma – Koudelka and Eskildsen

What to say about these two bodies of work? Koudelka’s Gypsies is a seminal work in the development of modern photography – Eskildsen’s much less well known (at least to me) – so how do they compare and contrast?
Let’s start with the easy bit…Koudelka’s shots are generally gritty black and white’s and reflect what I perceive as the aesthetic of their time – instinctively composed street photography in the Cartier-Bresson mould. My other reaction is that they mostly lack any sense of joy. Even shots of weddings – see here for example can seem filled with melancholy. Life for Koudelka’s gypsies was undoubtedly tough and the photos show that in spades.
By contrast Eskildsen’s Roma are in colour or light key sepia/monochrome – people laugh and smile, look thoughtful, fed-up, worried, relaxed – a much broader range of emotion is on show. Life for them is tough on the basis of the surroundings, but they don’t seem as weighed down by it. Another visual difference is that there is much more in Eskildsen’s work which is not portraiture – there seems to be a higher percentage of contextual shots - which adds to the depth of the narrative.
Some of this difference will undoubtedly be a result of camera technology changes, and no doubt some reflects changes in the perception of Roma in some countries, but equally some must surely be deliberate aesthetic choice informed by the photographers intentions and approach.
Intentions and approaches
It is hard to divine these for Koudelka. He claims not to have had any “You know, people ask all the time why I photographed gypsies. I’ve never known. I’m not particularly interested to know.” (Hubber and Stefan, 2014) – on the other hand he also says 'You know, people say, "Oh, Josef, he is the eternal outsider," but on the contrary I try always to be an insider, both as a photographer and as a man. I am part of everything that is around me.' I am tempted to stick with his comment elsewhere (O’Hagan, 2008) that he basically photographs “only something that has to do with me” – which I take to mean stuff that interests him.
By contrast Eskildsen seems to have a clear intention to bridge the gap in understanding between the wider community and the Roma as set out in the sample text provided in the course notes and here. (Slabon, 2008)
This is reflected in what can be discerned of their approaches. Eskildsen’s is clearly very consensual, and appears to involve discussions with the communities about what the photographer is trying to achieve.  Although Koudelka’s approach is also consensual – many of his shots are clearly taken with the cooperation of his subjects – they feel to me to be less engaged with the people involved. I can’t help but feel a certain sense of “other” when looking at Koudelka’s shots.
This is a bit of a brief analysis to come to any real conclusions but I think the thing that strikes me most is that the two bodies of work show the difference that several decades can make in approach and outcome. From use of the word Roma (as opposed to Gypsies) to the use of colour photography and detailed engagement with the subjects Eskildsen’s work feels altogether more modern – and consequently for me at least – more satisfying.

Update: June 2015 - received a copy of Koudleka's Gypsies for my birthday. Seeing the prints in the flesh seems to make a real difference - why is that? Fetishism? They have huge presence...the blacks give them a weight that does not receive justice online. And I was wrong about the joy..that's here too! It's not longer clear to me that I prefer Eskildsen's's easier to read but perhaps that's not necessarily a good thing.

Hubber, L. & Stephan, A., 2014. We are all the same. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 03 Jan 2015].
N/A, Unknown. Josef Koudelka. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 03 Jan 2014].
O'Hagan, S., 2008. Photography, The Observer. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 03 Jan 2015].
Słaboń, K., 2008. Interview with Cia Rinne on the Roma project. [Online]
Available at:
[Accessed 03 Jan 2014].

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